Is being fat contagious?

by DavalosMcCormack on November 26, 2007

You may have seen the headlines, screaming at you from the health section of your local or national newspaper. “Is Fat Contagious”. It’s an eye-catching title, but what really lay behind the banner?

Well, it’s based on a study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, that looked at 12,000 people in one community whose height and weight were measured repeatedly over more than 30 years.

The researchers found that when one person gained weight, that others in their social group also tended to gain weight. Interestingly they also found that it was more likely to be friends of the expanding individual who matched them pound for pound, rather than family members.

The researchers speculate that as one person gets larger, their friends adjust their ideas about what they consider a “normal” or “appropriate” body size. As their ideas adjust so their weight follows. People around them see this and their ideas adjust and their weight increases. In effect this creates a self-fulfilling cycle where people think they are “normal” weight because they look the same as everyone around them, perhaps conveniently ignoring the fact that everyone around them is overweight.

So far so good! But while the ‘fat is contagious’ part of the story grabbed the headlines and most of the attention another, perhaps equally important part, got pushed down to the end of the piece. That part is that while fat may be contagious, the reverse is also true, namely that if one person starts to lose weight, then others around them do so as well. So it’s not just fatness that is contagious, thinness is contagious too.

The problem is because that aspect of the research was buried far down in most of the articles many people may have stopped reading before they got to it. As a result they end up with just the bad news part of the equation which essentially tells you that if your friends are fat you will probably end up being fat as well.

So what can be done about this? Well, the way the media reports the story is unlikely to change. Bad news makes headlines and grabs attention, good news does not. What can change is how you read these stories. Don’t just read the headline and first few paragraphs! Often the more you read the less certain that headline becomes and the more nuanced the story turns out to be. So read those stories right to the end. And if you think something about it doesn’t make complete sense, then try and find another version of it. There’s almost always more than one newspaper or online report on major studies about health and wellness.

Once you know the rest of the story you can re-frame it in your own mind. So instead of thinking that you have to avoid hanging out with friends with weight problems if you want to lose weight yourself, you can realize that if you start to exercise and lose weight then you can “infect” your friends and help them do the same.

The story remains the same. But the end results may be dramatically different.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: