Our peers have a huge influence on what weight we are, says a major study. So ensure you’ve got a supportive network to help you achieve your health goals
With obesity on the rise, it’s no surprise that one of the most prestigious medical schools conducted a study to help fight this worldwide problem.
Nicholas A Christakis of Harvard Medical School tracked 12,000 people over 32 years, with results published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
The results found that social networks play a surprisingly powerful role in determining an individual’s chances of gaining weight, transmitting an increased risk of becoming obese from wives to husbands, between siblings and from one friend to another.
Researchers found that as one spouse became obese, the other spouse was 37pc more likely to become obese within two to four years. The risk escalated more rapidly among friends, especially if they considered themselves mutual friends, by 57 to 171pc, regardless of how far they lived apart.
Christakis stated that the researchers are not saying that obesity is a virus, nor that factors such as a poor diet and a lack of exercise are unimportant. Rather, the findings suggest that once a person becomes obese, it may make it more socially acceptable for people close to him or her to gain weight, and that new social norms can proliferate quickly.
Christakis states: “What spreads is an idea. As people around you gain weight, your attitudes about what constitutes an acceptable body size changes, and you might follow suit and emulate that body size.
“It may cross some kind of threshold, and you can see an epidemic take off. Once it starts, it’s hard to stop it. It can spread like wildfire.”
The implications of this study are that people may be treated for obesity in groups in the future. It also showed that people who were close to someone who had lost weight tended to become thinner themselves.
People are more likely to copy the actions of people they resemble. The likelihood of friends of the same sex becoming obese if one became overweight increased by 71pc. Friends and siblings of the opposite sex had no increased risk.
So what should you do? You certainly shouldn’t sever the relationships with friends who have gained weight or stigmatise obese people. Friendships have many positive health effects.
There will be times when people will tempt you into a situation that will set you up for failure. However, it isn’t done with any malicious intent. They are unaware they are sabotaging your efforts because they haven’t been told about what you are trying to achieve.
You may need to tell people why a healthy lifestyle is so important to you. Take comfort in doing what’s right for you.
I remind my clients of this regularly with the story of crabs. When a fisherman catches crabs, he puts them all in a bucket with no lid.
This is because as one crab tries to make a break for it, another crab will grab him by the legs and pull him back in. You need to kick your legs free and be the best you can be.