Sayonara, Fat Friends

Having fat friends will make you fatter. But of course you wouldn’t want to dump your friends just for being fat — that would be shallow. Instead, you should pick friends who are thin because that’s good for you and your fat friends:

You don’t want to lose a friend who becomes obese, Dr. Christakis said. Friends are good for your overall health, he explains. So why not make friends with a thin person, he suggests, and let the thin person’s behavior influence you and your obese friend?

I’m with this guy:

“I think there’s a great risk here in blaming obese people even more for things that are caused by a terrible environment,” Dr. Brownell said.

But it’s so much more fun to blame fatness on an actual person who often can’t do a whole lot to alter their genes and their living situation than to take steps to actually increase overall health and access to healthy foods and habits.

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33 comments for “Sayonara, Fat Friends

  1. Mnemosyne
    July 25, 2007 at 10:38 pm

    Given that some studies have shown that eating disorders like anorexia are socially influenced, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out that binge eating, which is a much more prevalent eating disorder, would do the same thing, which could lead to exactly this kind of result.

    Of course, that would require people to think of binge eating as an actual problem that needs to be addressed and not just personal weakness, so it’ll never be presented that way.

  2. July 25, 2007 at 10:47 pm

    Well, there’s that, but I suspect that binge eating is not the primary cause of obesity. Instead, I’d suggest a few things: First, that obesity does have ties to class issues, and to what types of foods and exercise you’re able to reasonably access. People also tend to form friendships along class lines, and people tend to seek out friends who share something in common. So it would make sense that people who have a genetic propensity towards obesity — say, whose parents are obese — will be more accepting of obese friends. After all, overweight people are routinely socially shunned, so it may make sense that someone who is not yet obese but is likely to become obese will be more comfortable befriending an already-obese person than a thin person carrying around a lot of fat-phobia. Then there’s the fact that people tend to befriend people who are their same age — a person will probably weigh more at 30 than they did at 20, and more at 50 then they did at 30. Perhaps you can attribute that to their friends all gaining weight, too — or you can attribute it to the natural slowing of metabolism. And finally, people tend to befriend people at work. If you work at a place where you sit behind a desk all day and the office culture is to order fried chicken and pizza for lunch, you’re going to gain weight along with your friends. If you work at a place where the culture is hyper-sensitive about physical appearance, or where you get paid well enough to afford a healthy lunch, or where you have enough time to leave your desk and go for a walk, you and your friends/co-workers may not gain as much weight.

    I’m sure there are a million other factors, but those are the ones that come most immediately to mind.

  3. July 25, 2007 at 10:52 pm

    Or you know, you could pick friends for things that actually matter, like shared hobbies, interests, and ideologies, instead of waist size.

  4. July 25, 2007 at 11:09 pm

    Jill, a heads up: Kelly Brownell (who you quoted in the second blockquote) is male.

    Also, plenty of fat people do already eat healthy and exercise. But that’s not necessarily enough to reverse fatness.

  5. kate
    July 25, 2007 at 11:09 pm

    I’m always thrilled to know that the 50-60 lbs. I gained after being misdiagnosed as having bipolor disorder and proscribed lithium is really my fault.

    Never mind that the weight gain was just when I turned thirty and losing such a huge sum of weight has been a challenge, but I know I’m an ungrateful, lazy pig.

    Ok, I’ve got that down, now I have to deal with the fact that I’ve probably single-handedly fattened up a good portion of people I’ve befriended. Not that I’d see it, but then I was under the mistaken impression that 17 pounds in weight gain didn’t qualify one as ‘obese’.

    Are those at 5 pounds over now considered ‘seriously overweight’?

  6. July 25, 2007 at 11:45 pm

    “Jill, a heads up: Kelly Brownell (who you quoted in the second blockquote) is male.”

    Thanks, fixed!

  7. Tanooki Joe
    July 26, 2007 at 1:26 am

    You know, following this argument to its logical conclusion, they’re basically arguing fat people should have no friends.

  8. LadyGrey
    July 26, 2007 at 7:59 am

    I was just thinking about how insulting the obesity “epidemic” language is. Epidemic usually refers to a contagious disease, and the word implies that fear of contagion and fear of the people who carry it. How convenient for the metaphor that we’re now being told you can catch fatness from a friend.

  9. July 26, 2007 at 9:23 am

    The whole study comes out of that metaphor, in fact. The researcher thought, well maybe we can see if it really IS an epidemic! I have to say it’s not that surprising that he got his expected results, and not just because of bias.

    I mean, come on, some of this is unsurprisingly common social sense, gussied up in science-dressing to look like there’s some sort of subconscious or biological factor at work. Would we really be that surprised if it were put like this:

    “When an individual gains weight and becomes obese, some of their friends are likely to put more distance in their relationship, and some acquaintances who are potential friends are less likely to become friends with them. The people who do this are those who are more likely to be thin and stay thin — for a variety of reasons possibly including anxiety about their own weight, fear of fat in general, and higher value placed on being thin.”

  10. B.D.
    July 26, 2007 at 9:24 am

    So, my extra 30 pounds or so are killing my family and friends? That makes me feel so much better. Pass the chocolates someone.

    Seriously, this sounds like another “study” that confuses cause and effect. These are very popular currently. We’ve seen them all: water causes cancer; water doesn’t cause cancer – these types of studies. It could be that overweight people and their friends just tend to eat at the same places and hang out and participate in the same activities. The activities and foods consumed are the problem; not the congregation of people. It’s not the people that are influencing your behaviour, but rather your behaviours attract a certain type of person. Listen, I have plenty of very fit and thin friends and I participate in activities with them a lot, but I’m still 30 pounds over the target.

  11. Blunderbuss
    July 26, 2007 at 9:44 am

    Oh, yes! My behaviour would be so beneficial to obese people! Like how I never really exercise, don’t eat enough fruit, eat chocolate daily, love meat, and don’t eat enough square meals on weekends. I’m thin, so obviously I must have good eating habits! Metabolism? What’s that?

    For pete’s sake, thin does not equal healthy, you magnificant morons.

  12. the15th
    July 26, 2007 at 9:57 am

    I can’t believe how much media attention this study has received. On the news this morning, they actually suggested that instead of dumping your fat friends, you should spend your time with them steering the conversation toward exercise and food diaries!

  13. Hawise
    July 26, 2007 at 10:14 am

    Blunderbuss, Amen.

    I am considered overweight and have been even when I was my most athletic. My husband, son and sister couldn’t gain weight if it was tacked on their bodies. I eat considerably better than any of those three and yet I am the one with the problem. The real problem is that we teach people to worry about other people’s bodies and then let corporations tell us how to get back our neighbours into shape. Sheesh, like we can’t find better hobbies than obsessing about other people’s diets.

  14. Hawise
    July 26, 2007 at 10:16 am

    how to get back our neighbours into shape should be how to get our neighbours back into shape. I need more sugary breakfast treats, mass produced for my benefit.

  15. Katlyn
    July 26, 2007 at 11:09 am

    I know overweight people who are healthier eaters than thinner people. Do we really still think that fat people eat constantly and that thin people are perfectly healthy? I have a friend who is veeeerrryy thin and tall and she tries to gain weight. All she eats is junk: pizza, chips, rice krispies, soda, etc. Even though she is thin, can’t her behavior effect someone else? Possible someone who doesn’t have a fast metabolism like her?

  16. Katlyn
    July 26, 2007 at 11:14 am

    Also, I would like to add that I am a fat vegan. :) Vegans don’t necessarily always eat healthy, it’s still very possible to eat junk food and be a vegan. However, my eating habits have become much healthier since I became one, but I’ve been fat all my life. I was definitely one of the chubbier kids in kindergarten. So, I’m still fat now. I could definitely work hard to lose the weight, but simply eating healthier foods now isn’t going to make me miraculously drop 50 lbs. However, I can say that my eating habits are slightly healthier than most of my friends. Not really just because I’m a vegan. You can be healthy with any type of diet, but I know too many thinner people who never eat vegetables or consider working out.

  17. hp
    July 26, 2007 at 11:18 am

    All she eats is junk: pizza, chips, rice krispies, soda, etc. Even though she is thin, can’t her behavior effect someone else?

    Ouch. Does she really want to gain weight? Here’s my advice as a person with a fast metabolism and a time when I did need to gain weight. She needs to eat a relatively healthy 2,300-2,500 calorie diet a day.

    She needs: whole grains, whole but “healthier” fats (dairy fats, in particular: whole milk, whole yogurt, use butter instead of oil spreads), fattier fish, etc. This allowed me to gain about 3 pounds a month–and once you’re where you want to be, it’s easy to cut out just enough to maintain (switch to the lower fat dairy for example) without feeling like you’re denying yourself anything.

  18. Meowser
    July 26, 2007 at 11:18 am

    The activities and foods consumed are the problem; not the congregation of people.

    Then ‘splain me how this silly-ass “study” states that a) friends living in distant cities were more associated with higher weight gain even than spouses, who presumably have far more similar habits, and b) that these findings apply far more strongly to male-male friendships than female-female friendships, when the latter are allegedly All About the Fewwwwd.

    Kate Harding, incidentally, has demolished this entire story with Benihana-esque knifery, linky below.

  19. July 26, 2007 at 11:28 am

    Glad to see you back up!

    Kate Harding had a good breakdown of this study (I think she got her hands on the actual study). Some points she raised over at Shakesville/Shakespeare’s Sister (they’re having another DOS) and at Shapely Prose include the fact that spouses didn’t have any effect, but friends who were on opposite coasts did. Relatives had no effect, either. You’d think that people who were close to you, lived with you, ate with you, would have a greater effect than people who lived thousands of miles away.

    So, unless they’re saying that friends give you permission to not diet, whereas spouses and relatives put pressure on you to stay thin, I’m not sure what they’re getting at. Because god knows women don’t talk enough about their weight.

  20. W. Kiernan
    July 26, 2007 at 12:19 pm

    It’s lunch time. Man, I’m going up to the Italian deli on 22nd Avenue again to get one of their special-of-the-day paninis. The one I got yesterday had salami, capacolla, cream cheese, caramelized onions and peppers, hot-pressed in a little foccaccia-bread roll. God, it was delicious. I wonder what the special is going to be today?

    Any of you skinny folks wanna come? No, they don’t have anything there that’s “low-carb.” No? OK, see you after lunch.

  21. Mnemosyne
    July 26, 2007 at 12:35 pm

    Well, there’s that, but I suspect that binge eating is not the primary cause of obesity.

    Um, I didn’t say it was the primary cause of obesity — I’m not sure how you got that from my post. What I said was that I can see that researchers would see some clustering like that because eating disorders cluster together, and it would be easy for them to give too much weight (no pun intended) to that factor.

  22. Sniper
    July 26, 2007 at 1:35 pm

    You know, following this argument to its logical conclusion, they’re basically arguing fat people should have no friends.

    Well yeah! If you’re fat, every moment not spent in exercise, vomiting, or self-flagellation is wasted. I probably put five pound on my lazy ass just typing this post.

  23. July 26, 2007 at 4:16 pm

    This makes me want to get all of my fat friends together and sic them on this guy. It’s incredibly obnoxious. The “thin people should make their fat friends be thin” thing is also obnoxious. It’s not that fucking easy. The only reason I’m of normal weight is because in the 50/50 genetic lotto, I managed to inherit Mom’s normal weight genes rather than Dad’s Italian-we-love-eating-rampant-diabetic ones. Come ON.

  24. Laura
    July 26, 2007 at 6:05 pm

    What the scientists suggested was that close friends used each other to determine what acceptable body types looked like. If a person has gained weight, and so has a close friend, they will be less likely to diet since neither feels pressured to conform to the other’s thinner body type. The article I read also noted that while we have a genetically predetermined weight range, most people weigh nearer the top end of that range rather than the lower end. Perhaps if friends can influence weight gain or loss, it may be beneficial to keep eachother near that lower end of the range. Less stress on the heart and all.

  25. Neko-Onna
    July 26, 2007 at 6:28 pm

    Question: Why is America getting fatter?

    Short Answer: Masters eat better than slaves.

    Long Answer: Back when 50% of the population (women) was forced to maintain artificially low body weight so that the other 50% (men) who controlled the purse strings didn’t chuck them aside for a newer, “prettier” model, I’ll bet the average weight was lower. Add to that fact that even as children, girls had their food intake restricted because it wasn’t ladylike to take a “man’s” portion, and I would bet that the average weight of children skewed lower, too.

    And if you think I’m being overdramatic, think of all of the “maladies” that were endemic to women- fainting and collapsing, “neuralgia” and “hysteria”, periods that were debilitating and cause for bed rest. What could make women so weak, so suceptible to nervousness, lightheadedness, incapacitation?

    They were living on the freaking edge of malnutrition, that’s what!
    Between the overly restrictive garments and the lack of food, the quest for body-shaping exacted a brutal cost. With the advancement of women as people, the advancing of the waistline was inevitable.

    The War Against Fat is a War Against Women.

  26. July 27, 2007 at 10:21 am

    >What the scientists suggested was that close friends used each other to determine what acceptable body types looked like.

    Unfortunately, the data they used for their model doesn’t actually define “close friends”. You really have to be straining to come up with the idea that a man gets an idea of acceptable body types from a “close [female]friend” that he hasn’t necessarily had contact with in years. Yeah, that’s likely.

  27. Tim Sackton
    July 27, 2007 at 10:29 am

    This study does not say that having fat friends will make you fat. While that may be what the NYTimes says, it is not the claim the article actually makes. Rather, the claim the article makes is that having friends that gain weight will increase the probability that you gain weight. As far as I can tell from reading the study, if you have fat friends who stay at a relatively constant weight (regardless of what that weight is), they have no effect on your weight.

  28. Tim Sackton
    July 27, 2007 at 11:32 am

    “Unfortunately, the data they used for their model doesn’t actually define “close friends”. You really have to be straining to come up with the idea that a man gets an idea of acceptable body types from a “close [female]friend” that he hasn’t necessarily had contact with in years. Yeah, that’s likely.”

    And, in fact, the study shows that doesn’t happen. The study is at least consistent with the idea that men get their ideas of acceptable body types from other men who mutually identify themselves as ‘close friends’ on a survey. Seems at least plausible, no?

  29. Amy B.
    July 27, 2007 at 1:21 pm

    I haven’t read the original study. However, just because there is a correlation between the (excess) weight of people who are friends does not imply a causation. Ever. You cannot conclude why these people are over BMI based on a correlation. This simple fact is a really basic part of learning how to do research. I really hate the media sometimes because they always get this wrong.

  30. rabbit
    July 27, 2007 at 1:37 pm

    This story coming home from work yesterday, but I didn’t come away with nearly such a bad impression of the story. More like a ‘well duh’ impression. Of course, I heard it on NPR, not in the NY Times…and I think this is one of those fabulous examples of how the way a story is covered is really important. For example, this is from the beginning of the NPR story:

    “Sharing a doughnut is obviously important,” says James Fowler, Ph.D., who studies social networks at the University of California, San Diego. “But what’s even more important are the ideas that we share with one another.”

    Our ideas about what’s a normal amount of food or exercise, and what counts as a normal body size, all seem to be influenced by the people to whom we’re connected. And researchers believe these “norms” ultimately shape our weight.

    and the closing of the story:

    Experts say this study shouldn’t be used to blame fat people for making other people fat.

    “There’s enough stigma already,” says Kelly Brownell, Ph.D., a researcher at Yale University.

    A lot of factors influence obesity. Genes have a strong influence, as does income. Brownell says he would like to see more focus on prevention.

    Since there’s a domino effect to weight gain and weight loss, researcher James Fowler says people can use this to their advantage.

    The take-home message here, says Fowler, is that if you’re interested in losing weight, “you really need to get your friends and family involved in the process.”

    I don’t think anyone disputes that the way people around you eat and exercise and view the importance of weight influences how you eat and exercise and view the importance of weight. Crazy, though, how the coverage angle can change everything. The NPR story seems to focus on the fact that your friends affect your eating and exercise habits, and that you tend to develop and shape those habits as a community. They even point out that a friend developing better eating and exercise habits tends to have a positive effect on their friends’ weights. The NY Times story, on the other hand, seems to mostly focus on how having fat people around is a bad influence. Stupid.

  31. rabbit
    July 27, 2007 at 1:37 pm

    I heard this story, should be the beginning of my comment above. Oops.

  32. Samuel Quill
    August 1, 2007 at 7:11 am

    Everyone should check out this post at Junkfood Scienceon this “study”.

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