Is Obesity Contagious?

Is Obesity Contagious?

When I sit down to eat with other people, I find it funny to watch their behavior. I'm not the food police, but because everyone knows I'm a strong advocate for real, whole, fresh food and make the link between food and health, they change what they eat or what they put on their plate simply because I'm at the table. I have no judgment and don’t monitor what my friends are eating, but it appears that my focus on health is “contagious.”

Recent research proves that this is, in fact, true. Our social connections have an enormous influence on our health. You are more likely to be healthy if your friends are healthy and more likely to be overweight if your friends are overweight. More striking is you are more likely to be overweight if your friend’s friend (who you may not even know) is overweight. You are also more likely to be happy if your friends or friend’s friends are overweight. Both good health and bad health are contagious. So is happiness or depression. Your mood affects people you don’t even know. You could make your son’s best friend's mother unhappy if you are in a bad mood!

In 2007, Harvard researchers published a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, “The Spread of Obesity in a Social Network over 32 Years,” that documented how our social connections play a larger role in our health than we ever imagined. They looked at the Framingham data and found 5,124 friends with 53,228 connections from 1971 to 2003. Their findings were striking.

Obesity appeared to break out in clusters. They were 57 percent more likely to be overweight if they had a friend who became obese. What was even more amazing was that the effect seemed to skip people. They were 20 percent more likely to become overweight if the friend of a friend became overweight and 10 percent more likely to become overweight if the friend of a friend of a friend became overweight. People within three degrees of separation from us shape our behavior, even if we have never met them.

What’s even more interesting is something they call directionality. If John thought that Steve was his best friend and John gained weight, Steve would gain weight too. But if John didn’t think Steve was his best friend (just a friend), John was less likely to gain weight if Steve gained weight. It seems, the more you feel connected to someone else, the more his or her behaviors affect you.

This study helped me understand that our approach to addressing the epidemic of obesity, diabetes and chronic disease may be backward, because we focus on the individual. We talk about personal responsibility and self-control. But how can that be the whole story if you are more likely to gain weight if the friend of a friend that you have never even met happens to gain weight? We have to rethink our approach to obesity and chronic disease.

How you act, what you eat, even if you gain or lose weight will influence the behavior of 1,000 people, most of whom you don’t even know. That should make you stop, think and change your way of seeing the world.

We are now at a catastrophic point in human history with over 1.7 billion people overweight (more than twice as many as those who go to bed hungry). We need to see that just like tuberculosis or AIDS, obesity, type 2 diabetes and chronic disease are also contagious diseases affected by the environment we live in, surrounded by toxic industrial food and the people we are connected to. Obesity is a social disease. And it needs a social cure.

If you do the math on the effect of social networks on health, keeping in mind the three degrees of influence and that each person’s behavior can affect 1,000 people, all it would take would be for 1 percent of the population to change (if they were in the right social networks) to create a tipping point that could reverse the obesity epidemic.

We need to rethink healthcare and put communities and social groups at the center of healthcare. Think of it as Facebook for health. We have thousands of people in our online communities changing their life together, reversing diabetes, losing weight, supporting each other and sharing ideas, recipes, suggestions and encouragement.

I recently met with Bernice King, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s daughter and leading African American pastors in Atlanta when I spoke about sugar addiction, obesity and my book, The Blood Sugar Solution 10-Day Detox Diet. Their communities have far greater rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes and are more aggressively targeted by the food industry.

I also met with the CEO of Zumba, and they plan to use their powerful social networks (the tight-knit communities that form in Zumba classes) to “spread” health through small group health programs (like a 10-day sugar detox) and education, using their 200,000 Zumba instructors as community health workers.

This is the way we will change our collective health, together. Think of it as the “Love Diet.” Combine real food with love and community and the result is health and happiness. Think of it as “friend power,” rather than will power.

As my friend Rick Warren says, “everybody needs a buddy.”

Wishing you health and happiness,
Mark Hyman, MD

Practicing Physician, Scholar, New York Times Best Selling Author

Comment by bethanyb
December 28, 2014
Very interesting! And very true as well! Great article :)
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