FRIDAY, Jan. 14 (HealthDay News) -- Young adults who are
overweight or obese tend to befriend and date people who are also
overweight or obese, new research indicates.
The finding echoes previous research that found health
behaviors, and their results, "cluster" within social networks,
said study author Dr. Tricia M. Leahey, an assistant professor of
psychiatry and human behavior at Brown Medical School and Miriam
Hospital's Weight Control and Diabetes Research Center in
"We found that overweight people do have more social contacts who are overweight and are more likely to have an overweight romantic partner or best friend," Leahey said.
Overweight and obese youth in the same age group also tend to
have more overweight relatives, although not more overweight
classmates or colleagues. The study was published in the Jan. 11
issue of the journal
Previous research from Harvard Medical School has found that a
person's chance of becoming obese increases 57 percent if a friend
becomes obese, 40 percent if a sibling becomes obese, and 37
percent if a spouse becomes obese.
While Leahey found that overweight young adults tend to have
more overweight casual friends and social contacts then do normal
weight young adults, there was a bright spot in her research. The
results "suggest if [overweight young adults] have more social
contacts trying to lose weight, they have greater intentions to
lose weight" as well.
For the study, which included 151 participants of normal weight
and 137 overweight or obese men and women, Leahey's team asked the
volunteers to complete questionnaires about their weight, height,
the number of overweight social contacts and their perceived social
norms for obesity and obesity-related behaviors.
Interestingly, she and her colleagues found that both the normal
weight and overweight participants reported similarly low levels of
social acceptability for being overweight, eating unhealthy foods
and being inactive.
Why did those who had social contacts trying to lose weight say
they were trying themselves to lose? Leahey says social norms for
weight loss, such as encouragement from others and their approval
for weight loss, account for the association.
The question about why overweight young adults have more
overweight social contacts is less clear-cut. Researchers are not
sure whether overweight people seek out other overweight people, or
whether normal weight people who become friends with overweight
people put on weight.
"It could go both ways," Leahey said. "It could be overweight people tend to attract overweight [peers], or someone of normal weight gets into a relationship with someone overweight and they tend to gain weight," she said, as they adopt the other person's habits. In her opinion, "there is more evidence to suggest there is a social contagion, it's contagious -- [that is], "they get heavier once they develop a friendship or romance" with someone who is overweight.
The findings make sense to Michelle van Dellen, a visiting
assistant professor of psychology at the University of Georgia,
Athens, who has found in her own research a direct effect of
peoples' behavior on the eating habits of those around them. For
instance, van Dellen found that participants who watched someone
eat cookies instead of carrots did less well on self-control tests
taken later than the participants who observed people choosing the
carrots over the cookies.
The new research by Leahey, she said, suggests that it's not
only the behavior of social contacts that influence people's own
behavior, but also the goals of friends and partners. The contacts
of the participants, she said, were overweight but some also were
trying to lose weight. "That goal...appears to influence the
person's own behavior and their goals," she said.
Goals are known to affect behavior, added van Dellen, whose own
research suggests that self-control itself is contagious.
Leahy's take-home message for overweight young adults, in fact,
echoes this sentiment. "If you are an overweight or obese young
adult, you might want to try losing weight with your social
contacts who are also overweight or obese," she said. "This age
range seems to be more influenced [than older people] by the social
To learn more about social contagion theory, visit
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