Thursday, July 26, 2007

Contagious Fat

According to Allison Aubrey on Morning Edition, fat is contagious*. It's not in the standard sense of sneezing on someone and causing them to suddenly gain seven pounds (although wouldn't that put a whole new spin to the phrase, "i spit on you") but in the sense of ideas and social norms. Using information collected from a 30-year heart study in one town along with records of social networks among the participants, a study found that those who had friends who gained weight were more likely to gain weight themselves. Neighbors apparently didn't count.

I thought this was a bit overstated, but a few of the points really made me think:
  1. The amount that I eat is definitely influenced (not controlled, but influenced) by how much the other people I'm with are eating. If no one else is ordering dessert, I won't either, and conversely if everyone is ordering dessert, I'm much more likely to indulge. On Tuesdays when I go to C's house, I generally eat less than I would at home, simply because she and her husband do (my hips thank you, C!). I'm not any less full, but if I were cooking at home I'd probably serve myself more without thinking about it. So in that sense, my friends' fat (or lack thereof) is contagious.

  2. The vast majority of my friends and co-workers are quite fit and relatively conscious of eating healthy food. In fact, over the past couple of years, many of them have lost quite a bit of weight. This trend seemed to start as some people started taking advantage of a weight management program offered by work, but I noticed at the time that it also affected others (like me) who weren't on the program. I wonder how much of that was inspirational, how much was people not bringing unhealthy snacks to share, and how much was happenstance.

  3. I definitely feel social pressure that it is somewhat uncool to diet or exercise to lose weight. Acceptable reasons would include the nebulous "be healthier" and the more specific "train for a race" or "control blood sugar". I've even found myself using this logic with J, saying things like, "you should go running today because you want to be healthier" rather than, "you should go running today because I'd love it if you had washboard abs". Depending on the specific folks I'm with, this stricture can be more or less severe, but I do remember a friend telling me disdainfully that a mutual friend had taken up exercising "only to get thin!". I wonder what effect this pressure has on fat contagion.

And because this report was on as I drove to work, NPR has not only informed me, but I'm probably less likely to sneak into our group admin's office and steal a cookie today.

*Technically it's according to New England Journal of Medicine, but Ms. Aubrey is the one who brought it to my attention.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I had this debate with my co-workers yesterday at lunch after reading the article in USA Today.

After having an extremely unappetizing turkey sandwich, (and feeling extremely unsatisfied), I went back to the cafeteria and got some curly fries.

They concluded that I have nobody to blame except myself.

However, I completely agree with your entry. On days that I eat with F, I tend to eat healthier and have salads. With others, it's an uphill battle, debating whether a calzone is really that bad.

The bottom line is what I eat is absolutely correlated with who I'm with. I guess at the end of the day, the friends I choose to be around, reflect my own personality; a need to be healthy (scratch healthy, insert thin), with a requirement for “splurging in moderation”. This apparently translates to friends who are conscious omnivores and those who have a taste for the occasional spicy chinese.