Are Your Friends Dooming Your Diet?

Article posted in: Lifestyle
People eating and drinking

The old thinking was that you are what you eat. The latest scientific evidence suggests that you are who you eat with.

Having an overweight friend ups your risk of packing on pounds by an astounding 57 percent, according to a study by James Fowler, PhD, at the University of California at San Diego and Nicholas Christakis, MD, of Harvard. The two researchers have been looking at the effects of social contagion—how one behavior can spread from one person to the other—for more than a decade. They also found that the risk of obesity went up 20 percent if just the friend of a friend got fat.

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It’s something like peer pressure—the desire to emulate those around you, to mirror their behavior to be part of “the crowd.” The eating habits and food choices of your family and friends can affect your habits and choices. So can those emotional ties that bind, too.

Does any of this sound familiar?

  • At holiday dinners, your mom foists all your favorites on you and you feel like you can’t say no. You’d feel guilty if you made her feel bad.
  • You set a goal of exercising every day, but your spouse finds all kinds of ways to talk you out of it—from a plaintive plea to “stay here and keep me company” to a new movie you both want to see on Netflix to a jealous,”I don’t want other guys at the gym to be looking at you.”
  • One of your closest friends has put on a lot of weight, but you notice that she’s still the same great person and besides, she’s found the cutest outfits in larger sizes and looks pretty good.
  • Your regular lunch buddy supersizes everything or encourages you to have the hot fudge sundae and you figure, hey, why not? You don’t want to seem like you’re showing him up with your diet virtue.
  • Your BFF invites you out for coffee “and a little something” at the bakery where you both love the cronuts.

It’s not unusual for a spouse or even a friend to try to sabotage your best laid healthy living plans. They’re usually not doing it maliciously. It’s just that they don’t want your relationship to change. Change is scary. What if you start looking great? They may be afraid they won’t look so good to you anymore. And don’t put it past your loved ones to guilt you into abandoning your diet. If your mom prides herself on her cooking skills, she may see your refusal to take a second helping as criticism.

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Seeing a friend gain weight—even if you don’t want to get fat yourself—can alter how you view obesity, say social contagion experts. After all, your friend is still that same nice person he or she always was, so maybe putting on a few pounds isn’t such a bad thing.

Since we all want to feel like we “belong,” it’s tough to buck the insistence of a friend that you have one more Margarita, share the jumbo size nachos, or have a dessert you really don’t want.

So, what can you do?

You don’t have to say goodbye to the diet saboteurs you number among your nearest and dearest. Your best weapon: The knowledge that healthy habits are contagious, too. For example, studies have shown that military trainees try to get as fit as those in their peer group. In one study, hospital workers who saw that colleagues eat healthy and exercised did the same. In another, patients with Type 2 diabetes who went on a weight loss program all lost weight—and so did their spouses!

The best thing you can do for your friends and family is to be the good influence in their lives. In his book, Thinfluence, Harvard scientist Walter Willet tells the story of one woman who decided to start eating healthy and exercising regularly. Soon, her husband joined her, then he passed the “healthy” bug onto a work colleague.

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Willet recommends setting a goal, not just to lose weight and get healthy yourself, but to encourage healthier behaviors among those you’re closest to by setting a good example.

For instance, at home you can create a junk-food free environment and start every family meal with a healthy vegetable soup or big salad dressed with a flavored vinegar. You can institute post-dinner walks at home and lunchtime strolls with your coworkers. When holidays roll around, you can bring slimmed-down versions of your mom’s best dishes to the festivities, thanking her for the recipes that inspired you. Even better, you can ask her to help you cook them! She’ll love that.

Pretty soon, Willet says, you’ve created a community for yourself, one in which everyone is dedicated to being healthy, which will make accomplishing it easier for all of you.