Social eating

Harry Health Guide
  • This is the seventh in a series on losing weight from our expert, Harry Lodge, co-author of Younger Next Year. You can check out his first post here.


    A recent study gathered widespread attention for suggesting that obesity is contagious, and that you catch it from your family and friends. This is not a particular surprise, and if you look both around our country, and around the world, it's clear that there are social norms that have extremely powerful influences on our behavior and lifestyles.


    The most interesting example in recent years has been the New York City experiment with cigarette smoking. 10 years ago, the mantra was that cigarettes were more addictive than heroin, and that quitting was virtually impossible because of the deep biological hold the nicotine had on our systems.

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    Fast forward a decade, and you can no longer smoke anywhere indoors in New York City. You have to huddle under awnings with your fellow pariahs. Smoking is no longer part of the normal social flow, and cigarette smoking drops a measurable chunk.


    Even more impressive, raise the price of cigarettes to XXX dollars a pack, and suddenly the rate of smoking in the city plummets. Patients of mine who had been inveterate pack-a-day smokers simply stopped smoking because the price point had created a whole new psychology, and in light of this new psychology the addiction fell away.


    The message is that addictive or compulsive behaviors, including eating, are hugely impacted by cultural considerations and by peer groups. Another example of this is that the military was profoundly concerned during the Vietnam war because enormous numbers of troops were using heroin while serving in Vietnam. The prediction was for a flood of junkies showing up on the streets of America as these troops came home and were discharged. The reality, however, was that only about 3% of the troops who had used heroin in Vietnam continued the use when they returned home. Here is a drug that, like nicotine, is powerfully addictive, but for 97% of the people who used it, it was the social context, not the chemical addiction counted.


    Obesity in America is a lot like that. Massive calorie consumption has become the social norm, and the weight follows. If you listen in restaurants, you'll overhear people commenting time and again on how good the restaurant is because they serve large portions. We have gotten used to this, and although obesity is still an incredibly painful state for the individual, somehow in America, the river of calories, and sedentary lifestyle that cause it have become the norm.


    That's not the case in most parts of Europe, or Japan for instance, although the social norm is slowly shifting their as well. There was a wonderful little book called French Women Don't Get Fat that came out at the same time as our book, Younger Next Year. The author was a French woman who had lived in America for many years, and who found that her weight would fluctuate by 15 pounds whenever she crossed the Atlantic. Upwards in America, and back downwards in France. This wasn't because of anything she did consciously, but simply because she fell into a whole different style of eating, and a whole different cultural context.


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    The strong message of the study, and all the anecdotal evidence from around the world, is that it is our approach to eating that is so catastrophic. Changing our behavioral and cultural patterns is the way out of this, not dieting.


    Last Week: Weight Gain is Starvation


    Next Week: Friends and Family

Published On: December 17, 2007