Do you hang with big eaters?

By J_Howard

Obesity has been epidemic in the United States for years. Recent statistics show obesity rates continue to rise even with fitness

promotions everywhere.

According to a study published in the PLoS Computational Biology journal on Nov. 4, obesity rates will hit 42 percent of all Americans by 2050. Moreover, our susceptibility to obesity is influenced by people around us. The study examined individuals who were measured every three to eight years, specifically looking at the data to find what leads to obesity. A social component was found. As David Rand, a Harvard University researcher for the study said, obesity is contagious.

“We looked at how the probability of becoming obese changed with the number of obese friends,” Rand said. “What we found was the number of obese friends you had at the current time, the more likely you were to become obese when you came in for your next [weight] measurement.”

Rand said research also found weight issues are contagious in only one direction—weight gain.

“Gaining weight was contagious, but losing weight wasn’t,” Rand said. “As far as recovering from obesity and switching back to being [at a healthy weight], a state of social contact had no effect.”

Susan McClanahan, co-director of Insight Psychological Centers, said she sees cases where social relationships have impacted patients at her offices.

“We don’t always eat because we are hungry,” McClanahan said. “If we are spending time with people who are eating for the sake of eating, it gives permission to do the same if everyone else is eating.”

According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, 62 percent of Illinois adults are considered overweight or obese. Tom Schafer, deputy director of health promotion for the department, said obesity trends seem to be worsening.

“One of the most disconcerting things to us as a state is if things don’t change, children born today will not have as long [of] a life expectancy as their parents,”

Schafer said. “And that will be the first time that has ever happened. It is a horrible thing to think about.”

Long term effects of obesity include diabetes, heart disease and joint problems. Obesity is commonly referred to as an epidemic, Schafer said.

“Last year, the H1N1 virus was an epidemic and it didn’t affect the number of people obesity is impacting,” Schafer said. The obesity epidemic also has economic repercussions. In 1998, approximately $79 billion was spent in the country for obesity-related illnesses. Ten years later, an estimated $147 billion was spent for the same problems, according to Schafer.

Rand doesn’t suggest breaking off friendships, though. He said it is important to encourage one another to maintain a healthy weight.

“There are so many valuable things you get from your friends,” Rand said. “It is a much more constructive approach to realize it is in your interest to help your friends lose weight.”

For those looking to help a friend or looking to beat obesity themselves, McClanahan said to seek assistance from a medical professional and have a support system.

“We see a lot of overweight children and adults with the best intentions,” McClanahan said. “But [we] can’t break the habits formed early on.”

Rand said he hopes the study will provide more information to health care providers and psychologists to better understand what is going on with their patients.

“It seems like we are being more and more influenced by the people around us,” Rand said. “The next important step from this [research] is psychologists will step in to see what is going on.”