Weight loss products, plans and programs are a multi-billion dollar business. The cover of every woman’s magazine at the supermarket check-out headlines at least one breakthrough finding for how to lose those extra pounds – along with a photo of some irresistible dessert and page number where we can find the recipe. Even reality TV capitalizes on this topic withThe Bigger Loser and Losing It With Jillian Michaels. Still, the Centers for Disease Control recently estimated that one third of adult and 17% of adolescents and school-age Americans are obese. These numbers are the peak of a dramatic 20-year rise that seems to be leveling off as their implications for healthrisks, medical costs, and self-esteem are more widely understood. One of the least-understood causes – and a potential path to prevention – for excessive weight gain is interpersonalrelationships.
Social connections, particularly with the people we feel strong emotional bonds, are directly associated with weight gain or loss. “The people you live with, work with, talk to, email, chatter with on Twitter and Facebook—your social network—can be good medicine, or bad,” writes Anthony Komaroff, M.D., Editor in Chief of Harvard Health Publications. He reports that “people taking part in the landmark Framingham Heart Study found that if one sibling became obese during the study, the chance that another sibling would become obese increased by 40%. You could write that off to genetics. The same thing happened if a spouse became obese. Again, no surprise, since spouses share meals and may have similar exercise habits. But if study participants had a friend who became obese, the chance the study participant would become obese rose by 57%.”
The impact of interpersonal relationships on weight was also found in a study of high school students conducted by Loyola University researchers. ”Students were more likely to gain weight if they had friends who were heavier than they were. Conversely, students were more likely to get trimmer — or gain weight at a slower pace — if their friends were leaner than they were.”Scientific American suggests that the power of this effect lies in what people in relationships do when together – exercise or spend time in nature, which are associated with healthier weight, or sedentary activities and a fast food diet which produce rapid weight gain – and what the group seems to agree upon as “normal” behavior. One researcher describes one of these peer-influence factors as the “Would you like to see the dessert menu? phenomenon.” She offer as an example “the moment when a waiter arrives to ask if anyone would like to see the dessert menu. In this situation, people often pause to glance around the table and see if anyone is going to ask for it; if no one else asks for the menu, an individual will often pass as well, whereas if one person does ask for the menu, others will be more likely to order dessert.”
Whether the underlying factors that drive the effects of social networks on weight gain or loss are the need to fit in with a social group, the subtle power of simply seeing others look fit, eat healthy foods and work out, or what we learn from time spent with other people, the company we keep plays a significant role in our health-related behavior. “Ideas and habits that influence health for better or for worse can spread through social networks in much the same way that germs spread through communities,” writes Dr. Kamaroff.
The good news is that investing in relationships with people who are interested in walks and bike rides, cooking healthy meals together, and are pro-active about their health in general is a no-cost, emotionally satisfying obesity-prevention program.