Could your friends be making you overweight?
There have been a number of studies to indicate that obesity could be catching; at least in a social way. A Harvard lecturer back in 2007 suggested the theory of ‘social contagion’ outweighing the influence of our own willpower. Not only obesity but happiness, smoking and even the amount of sex you get could all be influenced by the people you socialise with. His theories are based on the Framingham study which found that if only member of the group became obese, their friends were 57% more likely to become obese too. Interestingly, even if this friend’s weight remained the same, a friend of that friend was 20% more likely to gain weight.
This influence was further investigated in the era of social media and it was found that online ‘friendships’ were not as significant as face to face encounters. The need to fit in and be part of a group means that you don’t want to be the one who declares their eating preferences to be different from others in that group. This could go right back to our need to co-operate with others when hunting food. If you worked with a group, you would be more likely to catch your prey; especially if you had a range of skills and knowledge to share.
So what does this mean to those of you who are trying to lose weight or have a healthier lifestyle? It’s not as if your friends are actively trying to sabotage your efforts; many women, especially, don’t want to share this information. They don’t want to be seen as the ‘killjoy’ or the ‘spoilsport’ and so keep quiet about choosing to watch what they eat or drink. The problem is that psychological research has shown that group support can increase your weight loss success by twice as much.
The group doesn’t even have to make you feel bullied into eating or drinking more than you intended. Just the fact that your friends are having dessert will make you more likely to order dessert too. The more friends there are in the group, the more food you will consume. Eating with 4 friends mean you will eat 69% more and meals with 8 or more people mean an increase of 96%. If you have a friend who is ‘naturally slim’ and can ‘eat anything without gaining an ounce’, you will naturally follow their lead in eating too much or choosing less healthy options.
One answer to this problem is to order your food first. A study by researchers at the University of Illinois found that people tend to place similar orders if they were asked to say their choices out loud. If you take the lead and order your healthy option first, the rest of the group is more likely to follow you in choosing healthier options.
According to a further study by Arizona State University, this effect can have a positive spin. They discovered that peer pressure, sharing ideas about food and exercise and mirroring your friends’ habits can all impact on your weight. They believed that the most influential effect on your weight would be peer pressure but this turned out not to be true. If you want to lose weight you need to surround yourself with people who have a healthy lifestyle. Their greatest impact was due to you choosing to mimic their actions; for example, not having dessert if no-one else was.
That’s not to say that you need to trade in your larger friends for slimmer ones but instead of time spent socialising involving food or drink, why not suggest a gym group or dance class? Set up a walking group or invite friends around to your house for a meal so you have more control over what you serve. If you create the good example, your friends will soon follow suit.
More recent analysis conducted by Matthew Andersson, Ph.D., Baylor University, tracked 9,335 people to discover whether changes in social networks had an impact on BMI. He found that the most significant changes in weight occurred when people had hundreds or even thousands of social interactions over a whole year. This is a significant finding since many people with a very high BMI often choose to shut themselves away and become more isolated. So, if you are determined to lose weight; get out and socialise more, not less.
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