Obesity is "socially contagious"
If your friends and family get fat, chances are you will too, researchers report in a new study that suggests obesity is "socially contagious" and can spread easily from person to person.
The large, federally funded study found that to be true even if your loved ones lived far away. Social ties seemed to play a surprisingly strong role, even more than genes are known to do.
"We were stunned to find that friends who are hundreds of miles away have just as much impact on a person's weight status as friends who are right next door," said co-author James Fowler of the University of California, San Diego.
The study found a person's chances of becoming obese went up 57 percent if a friend did, 40 percent if a sibling did and 37 percent if a spouse did.
Researchers think it's more than just people with similar eating and exercise habitshanging outtogether. Instead, it may be that having relatives and friends who become obese changes one's idea of what is an acceptable weight.
Despite their findings, the researchers said people should not sever their relationships.
"There is a ton of research that suggest that having more friends makes you healthier," Fowler said. "So the last thing that you want to do is get rid of any of your friends."
The study was published in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine and funded by the National Institute on Aging.
Obesity is a global public health problem. About 1.5 billion adults worldwide are overweight, including more than 400 million who are obese. Two-thirds of Americans are either overweight or obese.
Much of the recent research focus has been on the intense hunt for obesity genes involved in appetite or calorie burning. Treatment has been mainly centered on helping individuals curb their weight through better diet and fitness.
The findings could open a new avenue for treating this worldwide epidemic. The researchers said it might be helpful to treat obese people in groups instead of just the individual.
"Because people are interconnected, their health is interconnected," said lead author Dr. Nicholas Christakis, a Harvard sociologist.