Infectious Obesity?

September 03, 2007

Infectious Obesity? 

 Competency # 1- “Your size is a terrible thing to waist”                     Reference: . NEJM July 26, 2007

 Obesity is contagious? That can’t be true, can it? Sorry for the bad news, but yes, obesity can be passed from one person to another. Not in the same way as a cold virus, but pretty close.  Three people sent me this article to share around so it's obviously hitting a nerve.  It’s all over the news too. The New England Journal of Medicine has just published a study showing that your personal risk of becoming obese increases by an average of 57% if you have a relationship with someone who becomes obese. 

These results were obtained through a sub-study of the Framingham Heart Study. Over 12,000 people were included in the group of subjects who had regular check-ins over 32 years starting in 1948.  Measurements for BMI, a very reliable value when observing large populations, were obtained at each assessment. The end result showed that those who had a close relationship with someone who became obese over this time period were at great risk of gaining weight as well. It didn’t matter if the relationship was with a sibling, friend, or spouse.  The risk was still eminent. 

Between “mutual” friends, the risk of becoming obese jumped 171% if one of the friends became obese. The more friends you have who are overweight, the higher your risk of "catching the bug".  Let’s spell that out, ONE HUNDRED SEVENTY-ONE PERCENT with multiple mutual friends! This is the power of moral support, peer pressure, and social pressure, environment. We live in a world where we want to accept everything, be politically correct, and be non-offensive to other people.  Food, our venue for social interaction becomes our downfall. 

 The article suggests that when a friend becomes obese, the other friend adopts the same eating behaviors that brought about the obesity. How can that happen?  Often instead of confronting a new unhealthy habit in a friend, it is tolerated to the point of being adopted.  "Oh come on, have one", we say. Gradually, the actions are continued by both friends leading to mutual acceptance of overeating. This process is called social imitation. Much like peer pressure to fit in when we were young, you subconsciously want to do what others do. But like the old saying says, if everyone jumped off a bridge, would you jump too? Does this mean you need to avoid anyone that is obese and cut all ties to those that are? NO, NO, NO! 

The key to avoiding weight gain in yourself is to recognize what is going on. If you notice that someone close to you is gaining weight, pay attention to what habits are changing. If you are out to dinner and they reach for the dessert menu, make an “I” statement.  “I just can’t do that.  That’s my 100 calorie win”. Your waist size is a very touchy subject, but it is also very dangerous to sweep it under the rug. Friends are supposed to look out for each other.  Can you think of tactful and non-abrasive ways to change bad habits in the people close to you?   Think of your modeling good behavior as a loving demonstration for those you care for. 

 WWW. What Will Work for me? Well, I certainly don’t want to gain any weight! I’m going to ask for help from my wife (our house’s “Nutritional Gatekeeper” – AKA - grocery shopper).   I am requesting that she no longer buy ice cream.   “Buy peaches and apricots, honey.”   If ice cream is in the house, I will eat it.   On bridge night, where I eat compulsively, I’m serving fruit when it’s at my house.  Changing your environment to get one 100 calorie win a day results in 10 lbs of weight loss a year.   I wash my hands before dinner to avoid infectious diseases.  Can you wash your social behaviors of socially infectious germs too?

The column is written by Dr. John E. Whitcomb, MD, Brookfield Longevity, Brookfield, WI (262-784-5300)