Weight and Friendship

Gretchen Becker Health Guide
  • Great! Just what fat people need: Another reason to put them down.

     

    A story reported in the New England Journal of Medicine and quickly moving through the popular press and the blogosphere found that people are apt to be the same weight as their close friends.

     

    One's first thought is, "Well, of course. If your friends' idea of a really fun time is to run up a mountain for several hours and then to celebrate with a leaf of spinach and an Evian water, you're going to have to do similar things if you want to spend time with them. On the other hand, if your friends' idea of fun is to lean back in an overstuffed recliner swilling beer and eating nachos while watching TV, then you're going to have to join them in that type of activity if you want to spend time together."

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    However, the researchers found that weights tended to be similar even when the friends lived hundreds of miles away. So much for the "similar activities" theory.

     

    Another theory is that when your friends are a certain weight, you figure it's OK to be that weight too. That makes a lot of sense. Most people want to be like everyone else.

     

    I once read about a woman on intensive hormone therapy so she could carry a child for her daughter. Because of the hormones, her hair started losing its gray, her skin improved, her wrinkles started disappearing, and she basically began to look young again.

     

    You'd think she'd be thrilled. Instead she felt lonely, because her friends all looked old and she didn't. When the baby was born and she stopped taking the hormones and started looking old again like her friends, she was happier.

     

    Think of how you feel if you're going back to a high school reunion and you've begun to show signs of middle-aged spread. You figure all your male friends will have rock-hard abs and the women will all be tall and willowy. You envision a reunion photo with 87 glamorous people in tip-top shape and one (you) looking dowdy and flabby. So you so plan to go on a fad diet to lose 20 pounds in the next several weeks.

     

    Then you hear from a friend: "Have you heard about Hermione? I understand she's gained 100 pounds since graduation." And another: "I understand Franklin has a spare tire so big they're thinking of using him for a Michelin ad." And "I saw a photo of Home Coming Queen Alice yesterday. She has jowls that would make a bulldog jealous."

     

    Hmm. Maybe there's no need to go on a diet after all. Why suffer when you'll fit in just as you are.

     

    This interpretation was supported by at least one person who commented on a New York Times story on the research: "I have been friends with obese people and I did gain weight while I was friends with them because I felt like it wasn't a big deal. However, in the past 2 years I have become close friends with an individual who is big on health and weight loss and I have lost 25 pounds in the past 6 months."

     

    Hence this research is interesting. For instance, it suggests that if you want to lose weight, if you can convince your best same-sex friend (there was no correlation between weights of opposite-sex friends or between weights of spouses and relatives) to lose weight with you, your chances of success would increase. If you could convince your entire social set to do the same, the chances of success would be even greater.

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    The problem is the way the popular press is interpreting it, with headlines suggesting that obesity is "contagious." Gina Kolata wrote in the New York Times, "Obesity can spread from person to person, much like a virus." Someone reading that article quickly might think that it is a virus, and they would shun their overweight friends as a result.

     

    Many of the blogs actually use the word contagious. One says if you want to lose weight, "don't hang around with fat people." Another headline reads, "Dump your fat friends."

     

    Although a close reading of the articles clarifies the situation (for instance, the association was statistically significant only between close male friends), many people don't read articles closely. They simply look at the headlines and read a few paragraphs and then move on. They remember the inaccurate headlines.

     

    So will people start avoiding fat people even more than they have before? Will employers refuse to hire overweight people on the grounds that everyone in the office will become overweight and get diabetes and that will increase medical insurance rates?

     

    I certainly hope that the answers to these questions will all be no.

     

    We need to spread the knowledge that yes, behavioral changes can help people lose weight. This is especially true of the formerly slim people who are 10 or 20 pounds overweight because of increased age and lifestyle changes.

     

    But those who have been overweight all their lives, who may now be 100 or even 200 pounds over a healthy weight, most likely have a medical condition. They need medical treatment, not lectures about lifestyles and self-control.

     

    One mark of civilization is the willingness to invest resources in caring for those who need extra help. Shunning people who have inherited a medical problem will not help our image as a nation.

Published On: July 29, 2007