Weight Problems? Maybe It’s Because of Your Friends

By Anita Marlay, RD

Do your friends bring you treats to show they are thinking of you? Do you often meet your friends for happy hour? Has a friend ever convinced you to skip going to the gym and do something else together instead? If so, your friends may be contributing to your weight problem.

Learn to Maneuver Your Friends’ Invites and Treats

Most of us choose our friends carefully, preferring to associate with like-minded people. But you may have more in common with your friends than you realize. Take a look at them: Do they look like you? Are they of a similar weight? Is being overweight a contagion you can pick up from them? It may very well be, according to researchers from Harvard Medical School and the University of California.

After analyzing data from more than 12,000 individuals for 32 years, the scientists concluded that when one person becomes obese, the chance that his or her friend will become obese as well increases by 57 percent. Their sibling’s risk increases by 40 percent and their spouse’s risk by 37 percent.

Obviously, weight gain isn’t contagious the same way a cold is. Rather, it is considered to be “socially” contagious. People within a social network often engage in similar activities, and those can impact their health as well. Each person in the network serves as a standard to which others compare themselves. If your friend has an extra 20 pounds, it makes your extra 10 pounds seem not so bad. If your friends all like to go out and drink too much or overeat on weekends, it seems like normal behavior. We tend to form an idea of what is appropriate body size by observing our friends’ bodies, which can lead to unhealthful changes in our eating and exercise habits.

Don’t ditch your overweight friends just yet, though. One person (you!), doing what you can to become healthy and fit, can be a powerful influence on your friends. You can be the spark that ignites change in your social network. The study in question showed that healthy behaviors are just as contagious as the unhealthy ones. Don’t you owe it to your friends to do what you can to improve their health as well as yours?

Following are some ways you can influence your friends and family members and help them adapt a healthier lifestyle.

Getting together with friends doesn’t have to mean going out to eat. Instead, suggest an activity you can all enjoy, like going for a hike or bowling, or meeting for an exercise class. If you want to share a meal, invite your friends to your home and cook something healthy. Or challenge everyone to make a healthy dish and bring it to a potluck.

If you are trying to lose weight, share your weight loss goals with families and friends so they won’t automatically offer you food in stressful times. Suggest alternates to food, like maybe just a big hug or flowers, instead of candy or cake.

Do you feel pressure at work to go out for lunch every day? Or, maybe you have a food pusher in your office who likes to bring high-calories treats or keep a candy jar stocked? Suggest keeping treats in the break room or somewhere where everyone isn’t walking by them several times a day. Or just move them yourself. If a firm “no thank you” to a lunch invite or a treat doesn’t work, you may find an excuse by citing a special diet, health concern, or a need to watch your budget. Bringing a healthy lunch and snacks will give you the incentive to avoid high-calorie lunches and treats.

Remember, you always can employ the “take and toss” method. For example, if someone is pushing birthday cake, take a piece, take a bite, rave about how delicious it is, then toss it when no one’s looking. Or, take it back to your desk to “enjoy later” and bury it in your trashcan, instead.

Anita Marlay, RD, LD is a Registered Dietitian and cardiac rehab dietitian at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Missouri, where she helps patients make lifestyle changes for heart health. She writes a weekly nutrition column for the Lake Sun Leader and is a frequent contributor to other magazines in her area. As a Kids Eat Right member, Anita also provides nutrition education to parents and children through the local Trim Kids program. She can be reached at amarlay@lakeregional.com.

The articles written by guest contributors are the sole responsibility of the individual writers in terms of factual accuracy and opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher of this blog.

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