Fat Friends

The HealthGal Health Guide
  • A recent study by Loyola University Health System researchers reveals that our circle of friends may influence our weight.  If your friends are hefty, then you may be more likely to gain weight.  If you choose trimmer friends, they may help you get motivated to lose weight or simply help you to avoid gaining excess weight.  Certainly a teen’s activity level may be determined by their social network, with athletes banding together, cheerleaders banding together and swimmers and other sports enthusiasts also spending time together, linked by their fitness passions.  These teens would obviously be engaged with fitness and physical activities thanks to training hours and actual sports events and competitions.  Therefore the passions they share help to support a stable, healthy weight.

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    Researchers were also curious to understand the actual mechanism behind this circle of friends’ phenomenon.  Is it an example of "birds of a feather flock together," or homophily, meaning people who look similar tend to socialize and band together, or is it because friends who spend time together really do influence each other in a variety of ways, including eating and exercise habits? The researchers focused specifically on information supplied by students from two high schools that were included in The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.  One, a rural school had mostly white students, while the other school had a diverse urban population. Certainly the researchers noted obvious obesity clusters, meaning teens who grouped together because of extreme (negative) weight conditions, but they also saw changes in student’s weights depending on social connections.  And weight gain or a detrimental weight (health) outcome was more notable from these friend interactions and groupings.  That means that the social circle impact seemed to represent or result in an excess weight situation more often, and less often in a positive benefit. Still, the results of the Longitudinal Study were dependent on self-reported information, meaning that participants filled out questionnaires based on recall, which experts say leads to limitations in the study and therefore questionnable extrapolations from the study observations.

    One message from the research is the importance of peer influence on habits and consequently on health.  On a professional note, I will often counsel clients and suggest to them that if they are determined to lose a significant amount of weight and keep the weight off, it requires habit changes and it may also require an assessment of how friends and family contribute to “the problem.”  If your family and friends are supportive, then even if they are overweight, friendships and family relationships can help the weight situation.  If however, family and friends sabotage or question or even criticize the weight loss and the habit changes, then it may be time to re-think those relationships and how they are positioned in your life.  There is enough temptation, stress and other challenging issues that face the person losing weight, without adding detrimental and undermining behaviors to the mix.  Call it selfish or self-serving, but if you are to succeed at weight loss, you do need a supportive community that is motivated to help you by engaging in similar behavioral habits.  Friends and family who tempt you or question your efforts and commitment, or constantly over-eat in front of you can send your weight soaring right back to the starting point.


Published On: July 21, 2012