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Can Having Obese Friends Make You Fat Too?

By New Century Spine Centers

New research suggests obesity may spread through social networks like a virus, and your friends can even live hundreds of miles away! I can’t help it – it’s in my genes. That’s been the surrender slogan for many overweight and obese individuals for years. And who could blame them? Even many doctors and researchers believed your ability to lose weight – or pack on pounds – was a function of your genetic make-up.

If you were dealt a bad genetic hand, your fate was to be overweight. Now, new information shows that might not be the case all the time. The first is a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine which found that the obesity epidemic could spread like a virus through social networks. When a person becomes obese or overweight, his friends and siblings are likely to gain weight as well.

The researchers evaluated a network of 12,067 people who underwent repeated measurements over a period of 32 years. They found that when a person becomes obese, the chances that a friend will become obese increase by 57 percent. Siblings of obese people have a 40 percent increased risk of obesity, and their spouse’s risk increased by 37 percent.

On average, having an obese friend made a person gain 17 pounds, which put many people over the body mass index (BMI) measure for obesity. Female friendships did not seem to be impacted by obesity. But the chances that a man might gain weight from having a fat pal doubled for so-called mutual friends — friends who both listed each other as buddies.

Dr. Nicholas Christakis, the study’s lead author stated that there is an important implication here for a broadening perspective on treatment for obesity. Attitudes are changing about what constitutes an acceptable body size in both men and women. “We don’t think that this is the only cause of obesity. This is adding one additional factor or explanation.”

One big question raised by the study was why didn’t having obese friends affect the women’s weight like it did the men’s weight. There is a strong social bias for women towards being thin,” said Dr. Robert Kushner, President of the American Board of Nutrition Physician Specialists. “Social norms may trump social networks here. Guys don’t have the same social pressure as women do. Men may be more influenced by their friends than women.

Other diet experts agree that the inner workings of male friendships may have a lot to do with weight gain. “Current social stigma against obesity is greater among women, and women jointly discuss weight and support each other in dieting and exercising,” said Jeffery Sobal, a Professor of Nutritional Science at Cornell University. “Men may engage in joint activities that increase weight, such as consuming more calories or spending time in sedentary activities.”

And here’s something interesting reported by researcher James Fowler of Harvard University and Nicholas Christakis of the University of California in San Diego: They say it is plausible that “areas of the brain that correspond to actions such as eating food may be stimulated if these actions are observed by others.”

They say that obesity and being overweight is socially contagious. he researchers found that to be true even if your loved ones live hundreds of miles away. Social ties seem to play a surprisingly strong role, even more than genes are known to do. “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,” said Dr Fowler.

Despite their findings, the researchers said people should not sever their relationships. “There is a ton of research that suggests that having more friends makes you healthier,” Fowler said. “So the last thing that you want to do is get rid of any of your friends.” Clearly, this study shows the importance of behavior in weight gain overshadowing genetic make-up. For more information about weight gain and weight loss, visit New Century Spine Centers in San Diego. They can be contacted at 619-630-9153.

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Article Citation
MLA Style Citation:
Centers, New C. S. "Can Having Obese Friends Make You Fat Too?." Can Having Obese Friends Make You Fat Too?. 22 Aug. 2010. 26 Jun 2015 <>.

APA Style Citation:
Centers, N (2010, August 22). Can Having Obese Friends Make You Fat Too?. Retrieved June 26, 2015, from

Chicago Style Citation:
Centers, New C. S. "Can Having Obese Friends Make You Fat Too?"

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