CBS Doc: Be Careful Not to Catch Fat From Your Friends!

July 26th, 2007 11:52 AM

Our friends at the MRC's Business & Media Institute (BMI) have documented the media's obsession with the so-called obesity epidemic in this country.

Of course, unlike real epidemics which involve communicable diseases, obesity is not a condition you "catch" from casual, or even intimate, contact.

But as true as that is and ever shall be, it can't hurt advancing the storyline to suggest that, yes, in a manner of speaking, fatness is catchable.

Just feast your eyes on CBS medical correspondent Dr. John LaPook's July 25 blog post, "Is Obesity Contagious?" (portions in bold my emphasis):

Tonight’s story focuses on a report from the Framingham Heart Study that suggests that obesity – and thinness – can spread through social ties. And it’s not just that obese people tend to hang out together. If one of a pair of mutual friends BECOMES obese (defined as Body Mass Index, or BMI>= 30) then the risk of the other becoming obese increases by 171%! And social closeness is much more important than geographic closeness. There was no effect for next door neighbors who weren’t friends. But a friend 1,000 miles away influences you as much as a friend next door.

One of the most surprising findings was that the effect extends out three levels of friendship. Not only are you affected by your friend, but by your friend’s friend and your friend’s friend’s friend. If everybody is connected by six degrees of separation, think how many people might be influenced by three degrees of separation!

I spoke to James Fowler, Ph.D., an author of the study appearing in July 26th’s edition of the The New England Journal of Medicine. He is excited about the public health implications of this study. Think how many people might be helped by one person’s healthy lifestyle. The same effect that can cause an obese friend to increase a friend’s risk of obesity by 171% works the other way too. As Dr. Fowler told me, “When your obese friend loses weight and becomes either overweight or a normal weight, it reduces your risk of obesity by 63%.”

Harnessing the power of friendships may well be the new new thing in medicine.