It seems that a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine has been making quite a stir within the media. The study suggests that if we have a friend who becomes obese, there is an increased chance that we will also becoming obese. They suggest that this factor may be more influential than our genes, or other family members.
I do feel rather concerned about the media’s perception of what the study reports, and I wonder if this will only add to increased stigma for those currently facing obesity?
The study involved a detailed analysis of 12,067 people who had been closely followed for 32 years, from 1971 until 2003.
Some of the findings from the study include:
- A person’s chances of becoming obese increased by 57% if they had a friend who became obese in a given interval.
- Among pairs of adult siblings, if one sibling became obese, the chance that the other would become obese increased by 40%.
- If one spouse became obese, the likelihood that the other spouse would become obese increased by 37%.
- Weight gain of neighbors had no effect.
- Same sex friends were more influential than opposite sex friends.
Dr. Nicholas Christakis, physician and professor at Harvard Medical School, and a principal investigator in the study, said that one explanation may be that friends affect each others perception of fatness, stating “You change your idea of what is an acceptable body type by looking at the people around you.”
In conclusion the study states, “The observation that people are embedded in social networks suggests that both bad and good behaviors might spread over a range of social ties. This highlights the necessity of approaching obesity, not only as a clinical problem, but also as a public health problem.”
This is a brilliant study, and makes for very interesting reading. I do however, feel that the media should be much more careful with their headlines and coverage though!
An alternative point of view
Rebecca Puhl at Rudd Sound Bites has written a very interesting discussion on this topic, and she spreads a different light on the findings. She draws attention to the fact that the study only considers BMI, and not actual eating behaviours, therefore she states “It could be that people were simply confronting changes in their metabolism at the same time as their friends because of increasing age, or that other specific health behaviours spread through social networks that contributed to weight gain.” A very valid point!
Dr Puhl continues, “I’m afraid the message the public will hear from this study is one that perpetuates bias and stigma, and reinforces blame on obese persons, instead of focusing on factors in our environment that drive rising obesity rates.”
In my opinion, her statements are absolutely correct. The idea that some individuals may slight their overweight friends seems ridiculous to me, but many media headlines would suggest that this is the “answer” to the weight problem of the nation.
I think it is important to remember that the issue of obesity is much wider than one factor. These can include, eating behaviours, physical activity levels, illness, environment, psychology, and social factors. In most cases, we cannot separate the issue stating that this is the reason for XYX. It is more likely to be the result of a complex combination of some, or all, of these factors. The media has a reputation of simplifying such issues, and I feel that it wasn’t the intention of the researchers, for this to be the case.
Good friendships can have a very positive role as we try to achieve healthier lifestyles, and there are many studies to show the positive effects of friendship on overall health.
We ought to celebrate our friendships, not slight them!