Study: Friendship is Fattening

Discussion
Jul 26, 2007

By George Anderson

A new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine contends that obesity is “socially contagious.” Simply put, people who have friends that are obese are more likely to be overweight themselves.

James Fowler of the University of California, San Diego, was one of the study’s authors. “We were stunned to find that friends who are hundreds of miles away have just as much impact on a person’s weight status as friends who are right next door,” he told The Associated Press.

According to the research, which was funded by the National Institute on Aging, a person’s chances of becoming obese went up 57 percent if he/she had overweight friends. The likelihood weight would increase in relation to the closeness of a relationship.

The study found that, on average, when an obese person gains 17 pounds, a corresponding friend will put on five extra pounds. Weight increases were more pronounced in cases of same-sex friendships. A person’s risk of obesity increased by 71 percent if a close, same-sex friend gained weight.

Dr. Nicholas Christakis, a Harvard sociologist and lead author of the report, said the study’s findings suggest group treatment may be preferable to an individual approach.

“Because people are interconnected, their health is interconnected,” he said.

Discussion Questions: What is your reaction to the findings of this research? What do the findings suggest for retailers looking to help improve the health of overweight workers and consumers?

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20 Comments on "Study: Friendship is Fattening"


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Steve Weiss
Guest
Steve Weiss
14 years 9 months ago

It is a rarely reported scientific fact that the weight of the world’s population is actually a constant and that someone’s weight gain is actually another’s loss…a zero sum situation. I see a lot of upside in a line of thank you cards that thin cohorts can send to fat ones.

Frederick Chang
Guest
Frederick Chang
14 years 9 months ago

I think the study is interesting because it can potentially change how nutrition and medical professionals counsel patients to achieve a healthier weight. Perhaps it will spawn counseling services that put people on friend-group-based diet programs and make use of this trend. I think everyone is better motivated when friends help to reinforce healthy diets and habits.

As for what the findings suggest for retailers — I can think of an interesting program where supermarkets allow shoppers to form “friend-groups” and view each other’s food purchases. This could be combined with a “recommendations” process where the retailer advertised “better-for-you-and-your-friends” products. Of course, I’m not sure I would trust the nutritional advice of a retailer whose stock price is based on selling more (or more expensive) food.

Rochelle Newman-Carrasco
Guest
Rochelle Newman-Carrasco
14 years 9 months ago

Another study that will contribute to discrimination in hiring practices, not to mention the growing anorexic tendencies of our young girls (and boys too). Yes, birds of feather flock together. Yes, your parents and peers have an influence over your eating habits. Is there really anything that new here or is it just a slow news day? Paris, Lindsay and Brittany weren’t competing for media time on that particular day?

Perhaps we should start targeting consumers by gender, age, socio-economics and weight range. Perhaps someone should open “The Big Size Agency” for marketing to the obese and their obese or soon to be obese friends. Perhaps fat is not only the number on the scale but a state of mind as well. It’s great fodder for the Stewarts, Lettermans and Lenos of the world. I’m beginning to think that news is being written by and for them.

Odonna Mathews
Guest
Odonna Mathews
14 years 9 months ago

Who would have thought role models and friendships might play as much of a difference in being overweight or obese as what one eats? For retailers and manufacturers, the study emphasizes the importance of multiple strategies to reach consumers with health messages and solutions – both inside and outside the store.

And it emphasizes the importance of the workplace as well. Coffee and donuts or juice, fruit and whole wheat bagels?

There is an increasing opportunity to make a difference in health and the forward thinking retailers will make it a priority.

Al Rider
Guest
Al Rider
14 years 9 months ago

I’m glad this story is included today because I think it has huge implications for all our work, if we will give it the consideration it deserves, as suggested by Ian.

The good news is our social network works both ways. It can be an asset or a liability.

Let’s carry this study’s findings about the influence of others upon us into the area of the “health” or effectiveness of a retailer’s hiring and leadership practices.

A retailer’s leader is often an accurate gauge to determine the overall health of the company. Typically, strong leaders hire strong (like) employees and will help (inspire) current employees to grow and achieve more.

Sounds obvious and simple, I know. But if this study has any truth to it, then what is the reason we continue to spend untold millions on our hiring practices and training employees?

An organization simply cannot grow beyond the capacity of its leadership. So our leadership selection needs to be fit and trim.

Don Kirkley
Guest
Don Kirkley
14 years 9 months ago

It is true that people tend to associate with other people who are like them in some way. It is also true that the individual person is responsible for the kind of foods they eat and the quantity of food they eat.

Mary Baum
Guest
Mary Baum
14 years 9 months ago
One way the study makes sense to me is from the standpoint of our attitudes toward food. Because that’s often the main event when we get together with friends: “Let’s have lunch!” “Wanna grab a coffee?” “Don’t forget the potluck on Saturday!” So across the population, I can imagine it’s hard to stay friends with people whose eating habits seriously conflict with our own–especially when that difference sounds a lot like character assassination. “Do you really need that ice cream?” “Oh, no! I gained three pounds last week!” (said to 200-pounder) “Well, you could start a walking program.” (said to same 200-pounder, a competitive tennis player.) Or the converse: “Oh, come on. One brownie isn’t going to kill you.” “We’re at the most expensive restaurant in town, and all you’re ordering is a salad?” “It’s Mom’s specialty. She’ll be so hurt if you don’t at least try some.” Seems to me, it’s a lot like parenting. How long have you stayed friends with someone whose approach was fundamentally different from yours? Now that we’re all… Read more »
Nikki Baird
Guest
Nikki Baird
14 years 9 months ago

Is it cause, or effect? I hate these kinds of studies because they present the results as if friends are the causal factor. But all they really show is that there is a correlation–not that having fat friends makes you fat. You’re just more likely to also be fat if you have fat friends. But does the correlation exist because you have a lot in common with your friends–including diet? Including your general level of health-consciousness?

That said, the idea that your friends are going to have impact on your ability to lose weight is certainly plausible–if not a little obvious. Just like for an alcoholic–do you think you’re going to be successful staying sober if your friends are party animals? Do you think you’re going to stick to your diet if your friends are sitting across from you snarfing french fries? No. Duh.

Al McClain
Guest
Al McClain
14 years 9 months ago

A key point here is that most people like to be part of a community, or multiple communities. So, it should be easier for folks to lose weight as part of a program with their friends than to do it by themselves. Curves and Weight Watchers are a couple of examples of businesses taking a group approach. So maybe what is needed are more programs that can be modified for a group of friends. There are book clubs, movie clubs, bridge clubs, etc. so maybe we need more retailer-sponsored weight loss clubs? The missing link might be getting friends to join together rather than individually.

Rida Grijalba
Guest
Rida Grijalba
14 years 9 months ago

There is some pressure in this area, sometimes. Based on my experience, I have all kinds of friends and best friends of, of course, different looks, figures…no one is alike. However, when we get together, the chubby one would always make comment how thin I am, other would say I look great keeping my weight the same since the day we first met. But I do not make comments about how they look or how chubby they are. But I also do not let the comments make me eat what they eat. I guess it is a matter of discipline.

Mel Kleiman
Guest
14 years 9 months ago

I don’t see anything earth shattering in the study. We have known for years that like attracts like and people associate with people like themselves–same values, etc.

When we talk about hiring people, the best source of good people are those that you have working for you. Or when interviewing, we ask people if they have close friends who use illegal drugs.

Chuck Barbee
Guest
14 years 9 months ago

I think Pink Floyd had it right: “All that you eat…And everyone you meet.”

Kae Barter
Guest
Kae Barter
14 years 9 months ago

This results of the study do not explore fully the effects of friendship on weight. More recent studies here in North America prove that to combat obesity, you need friends. There is no stronger force for good overcoming the bulge that friends all trying together. If one of several friends loses 17 pounds, all the rest will lose something. Accountability and camaraderie are not explored in the study–that is unfortunate.

Paula Rosenblum
Guest
14 years 9 months ago

What an odd study!

I WISH it was true, but my own experience tells me sadly, that it is not.

I have thin friends. I have a very thin domestic partner. I have a thin sister (well…she used to be thin, but then she got into her 40s and things changed).

I am not thin.

Maybe my sister really gained weight because she and I got closer. Nope, I don’t think so.

What do the findings suggest for retailers? I don’t think it changes any of the rules…understand your local demographics, and tailor assortments accordingly, pay serious attention to the phenomenon of social networking, and if you can, provide a vehicle for your customers to become advocates and interact with each other, and infuse all your corporate business intelligence with customer information.

Mark Lilien
Guest
14 years 9 months ago

Slim folks who are physically fit sometimes reject people who are overweight and out of shape. So the friendship association with weight works 2 ways: the overweight folks are friends and some of those who aren’t overweight won’t consider the overweight as potential friends. The most startling statistic: that friendship has a greater weight association than siblings.

Ian Percy
Guest
14 years 9 months ago
There is more to the story than meets the eye though it requires us to get a little quantum. As you know everything is energy which is why everything is connected and inter-influential. Martin Luther King described it as an “inescapable network of mutuality.” He added that we are “tied in a single garment of destiny.” We focus our energy toward our immediate circumstances, family, friends, co-workers, etc. So in a real way those energies become entwined. This will freak you out but the US Army did a study in the 90s to see if our feelings would influence our cells (particularly our DNA) if those cells were removed and kept at a distance. When the subjects were caused to experience different emotions they recorded an electrical response in the removed cells at exactly the same time the emotions were felt. This was true even at a distance of 350 miles! (Advances, 1993) When we shake hands and otherwise touch we leave cells and DNA on each other. If you met someone wonderful you may… Read more »
Gene Hoffman
Guest
Gene Hoffman
14 years 9 months ago

The research seem plausible and group treatment appropriate.
Solutions: 1. As Joel said, “Only have thin friends” if that the image you prefer and 2) To improve the health of their work force, retailers could only hire thin folks, if possible.

Sociologically, greater love has no person than this, that they lay down their jelly donut, their sugar-laden Starbucks, their evening cocktails, peanuts and, perhaps, an iota of their sense of humor to seek out bone-thin friends as their diet exercise. (Sorry, Al Gore, I won’t be seeing much you in the future since you are warming up a bit too much globally.)

David Biernbaum
Guest
14 years 9 months ago

There are probably more ways to interpret this study than there are ways to use it. Not that grocery stores are responsible, but on a related matter, I see a trend in grocery stores where its increasingly difficult to find fat-free foods. When the low carb diets gained huge momentum the product assortment for fat-free and low-fat foods was greatly reduced to make room for the low-carb foods, which are pretty high in fat. Many consumers that desire a low-fat diet are disappointed that it’s nearly impossible these days to find low-fat (not reduced fat) ice cream and other products that were so easy to find in the stores just a few years ago. Also, many retail grocery chains tend to buy from the Nielsen or IRI top-skus list, and the healthy stuff doesn’t always make the list.

Joel Warady
Guest
Joel Warady
14 years 9 months ago

Sometimes these studies really prove to be silly. What does the study tell us?

1. Only have thin friends.

2. If you are overweight now, and then you lose weight, you will have to get new friends.

3. Shop in stores that only allow thin people, and you will become thin yourself. But if you aren’t thin now, will they let you in the store in the first place?

I think I’ll keep my friends, and stay a bit overweight.

Liz Crawford
Guest
14 years 9 months ago

Sure–human mindsets and behaviors are contagious. This is the foundation of community and society.

It’s interesting to think of using the science of memetics to model behavioral health across nations. Then–how can marketers influence those attitudes and behaviors? The “Crying Indian” TV advertisement was a big factor in changing American’s attitudes about the environment. Is there a compelling communication to help create a mind shift around eating and exercise?

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