Do your friends bring you treats to show they are thinking of you? Do you often meet your friends for happy hour? Has a friend ever convinced you to skip going to the gym to do something together, instead? If so, your friends may be contributing to your weight problem.
We choose our friends carefully, preferring to associate with like-minded people. But, you may have more in common with your friends than you realize. Take a look at your friends. Do they look like you? Are they of a similar weight? Is being overweight a contagion you can pickup from your friends? It can be, according to researchers from Harvard Medical School and the University of California.
After analyzing data from more than 12,000 individuals for 32 years, they concluded that when one person becomes obese, the chance that his or her friend will become obese increases by 57 percent. Their sibling’s risk increases by 40 percent and their spouse’s risk by 37 percent.
Obviously, weight gain isn’t contagious the same way a cold is. Rather, it is considered to be “socially” contagious. People within a social network often engage in similar activities and those can impact health. Each person in the network serves as a standard to which others compare themselves. If your friend has an extra 20 pounds, it makes your extra 10 pounds seem not so bad. If your friends all like to go out and over drink or overeat on weekends, it seems like that is normal behavior. We tend to form an idea of appropriate body size by observing our friends’ bodies, which can lead to unhealthful changes in our eating and exercise habits.
Don’t ditch your overweight friends just yet, though. One person (you!), doing what you can to become healthy and fit, can be a powerful influence on your friends. You can be the spark that ignites change in your social network. The study showed that healthy behaviors are just as contagious as the unhealthy ones. Don’t you owe it to your friends to do what you can to improve their health, as well as yours? Following are some ways you can influence your friends and family and help them adapt a healthier lifestyle.
Getting together with friends doesn’t have mean going out to eat. Instead, suggest an activity you can all do, like going for a hike or bowling, or meet for an exercise class. If you want to eat, invite your friends to your home and cook something healthy. Or, challenge everyone to make a healthy dish to bring and have a potluck.
Some families are all about food. Does your mom make cookies for you when she knows you are feeling down? Does your husband bring you candy? If you are trying to lose weight, share your weight loss goals with families and friends so they won’t automatically offer you food in stressful times. Suggest alternates to food, like maybe just a big hug or flowers, instead of candy.
Page 2 of 2 - Do you feel pressure at work to go out for a big lunch every day? Or, maybe you have a food pusher in your office that likes to bring high calories treats or keep a candy jar stocked? Suggest keeping treats in the break room or somewhere everyone isn’t walking by them several times a day. Or, just move them yourself. If a firm “no, thank you” to a lunch invite or treat doesn’t work, you might cite a special diet, health concerns or a need to watch your budget. Bringing a healthy lunch and snacks will help give you the incentive to avoid high calorie lunches and treats.
Remember, you always can employ the “take and toss” method. For example, if someone is pushing birthday cake, take a piece, take a bite, rave about how delicious it is, then toss it when no one’s looking. Or, take it back to your desk to “enjoy later,” but bury it in your trash can, instead.
Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the cardiac rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Mo.