Your friends and family are making you fat.
That's the news from a new Harvard study which will come out tomorrow in the New England Journal of Medicine. From the Washington Post, in explaining how "social networks" seem to play a role in weight gain:
The researchers found that when one spouse became obese, the other was 37 percent more likely to do so in the next two to four years, compared to other couples. If a man became obese, his brother's risk rose by 40 percent.
The risk rose even more sharply among friends -- between 57 and 171 percent, depending on whether they considered each other mutual friends. Moreover, friends affected friends' risk even when they lived far apart, and the influence cascaded through three degrees of separation before petering out, the researchers found.
Everyone's heard the adage about how getting married makes you gain weight, but this business about the role friends play in one another's weight gain is more interesting -- but not all that surprising, when you really think about it.
I certainly understand it for women -- afterall, who hasn't called up their best gal pal after a bad day, only to hear her say, "It's OK -- have some ice cream! You'll feel better!", or conned a dieting friend into breaking her willpower to split a pizza -- but I'm curious about how all that pans out among guys. Is it eating in business situations, where everyone's gathered around a buffet trough at an office meeting? Sports food, like heaps of nachos and popcorn at the stadium?
I've noticed a few different food-related social themes in my own professional and social life.
First, there's food as bonding, like the nights my co-workers and I spent gorging on a table full of food late each night at my college newspaper. It was awful stuff -- giant hunks of cheese with buttery Ritz crackers, Little Debbie snacks like Zebra Cakes, chocolate chip cookies, and maybe the occasional pack of baby carrots thrown in for piety's sake. And we ate it way past the witching hour when our bodies might have known what to do with that amount of gluttony. We ate this crap not so much because we were hungry at midnight, but because it was just, well, what you did. It was a ritual.
Then there's food (and calorie-laden cocktails) as a getting-to-know-you device. Afterall, what's the thing you do when you're making new friends and want to "audition" them? Head out for a bite to eat or a few drinks. And I can't say I've ever seen anyone order a salad in those situations. I've even been on job interview lunches where stuffing my face seemed to be part of the test!
My personal favorite: Food as celebration. Because my husband often travels for work, we tend to treat the the time he gets to spend at home like an ongoing reason to celebrate. So we go to fancy brunches and unabashedly rich dinner spots, and we each get appetzers, entrees and dessert. Clearly, no good can come of this!
There's also the comfort calories, gobbled up when you're wallowing in some sort of self-piteous sea. You're planted in front of the TV with a girlfriend or two, watching "Sixteen Candles" for the 1,219th time, passing a bowl of popcorn or a three-quarters-empty pie plate back and forth, and it just feels so... right. Because you can always get back on the healthy-eating wagon tomorrow, right?
Wrong, according to the study, whose authors found evidence that obesity is "a kind of social contagion." I'm heading to Chicago tomorrow for a conference, and I know there will be ample opportunities for food-related bonding while I'm there. I can't promise I'll back completely away from all the tasty vittles, but I'll be watching closely to see this news in action!