Did we really need the federal government to spend time and effort on a study that suggests obesity is “socially contagious?” Rather than spend more time trying to explain why people are overweight and obese, more efforts need to be made to get people to exercise and eat better. 

The results of the latest study published in last week’s New England Journal of Medicine – and funded by the National Institute on Aging – found that a person’s chance of being obese rose 57% if a friend did, 40% if a sibling did and 37% if a spouse did. 

Researchers determined that in the closest relationships the risk of becoming obese almost tripled. The researchers stated that the risk of “catching” obesity wasn’t minimized even when people lived far away from each other, and that social ties have more of an impact as a risk factor for obesity than does genetics. Does all of this really surprise anyone?  People who are friends and families have similar interests, is this unusual? 

Birds of a feather flock together whether we’re talking about friends who are sports fans, friends who play World of Warcraft, friends who smoke pot, friends who like to exercise or friends who like to eat a lot and are overweight. Actually, the word “likelihood” should be used rather than “risk” to describe how having a relationship with an obese or overweight person effects an individual.

The Associated Press story categorized these findings as “startling.” I find it startling that the feds devoted time, effort and money to a study that does nothing to materially help anybody. In this AP story a statistician from the University of Indiana called the study “clever” and said its implications were limited because the study excluded people from outside the group of 12,000 people who were all part of this Framingham Heart Study. 

This study followed residents of this suburb of Boston, analyzed their medical records and tracked the records of family and friends over a 32-year period. This critical statement from a statistician with regard to this study says more about the study than the conclusions reached by the researchers.

I find the term “socially contagious” to be absurd as the term “contagious” connotes that people on the receiving end are powerless and blameless.  Which is nonsense. I’ve heard the protestations from people who say that they are overweight because of their genetics.

The fact is that with the exception of specific – and extremely rare – genetic and metabolic disorders, obesity is a direct result of people’s habits, or lack thereof.  Genetic risk factors are not the same – or as severe – as genetic disorders. Mine is not a popular position to take, a politically correct position to take, but when you consider the massive impact of this serious public health problem, I don’t think we have time for niceties. 

Someone who has genetic risk factors needs to make an effort to be healthy, not make excuses for not doing so.  And we don’t need research of this nature.  It’s not doing anyone any good. The researchers and other obesity experts say that because people have obese or overweight friends and family, their idea of what is an acceptable weight changes.  This is preposterous.  

When people in close relationships are overweight, they go into group denial with regard to the reality of their situation.  With all of the public awareness campaigns and healthy menu choices out there, the vast majority of people don’t have an excuse not to try and make the better choices. There’s comfort in numbers.

To say that a group of heavy people doesn’t know any better, or somehow forgets that they are all heavy or obese is to make an excuse for them. For crying out loud, McDonald’s has a healthy menu! If a massive number of people were drowning, would you try to find out why or would you make the effort to teach people how to swim and be safe in water?  If a single person were drowning, would you try to teach them how to swim, or yank them out of the water and tell them not to go back into the water until they can swim?  Would you try to figure out why they were drowning or teach them how to swim?

The government mandated seatbelt use in cars in order to save people’s lives, they didn’t waste time figuring out why people weren’t using them.  As a result, more lives were saved sooner rather than later.  By the way, the person who chooses not to wear a seat belt is just as foolish as the person who refuses to get a little exercise and control what they eat.

The goal is not to turn everyone into exercise freaks, and into an Adonis or a Venus.  Foods don’t need to be banned, but people need to be educated and “incentivized.”  The effort needs to be made to in these areas. The bottom line is that despite the prevailing wisdom, this kind of study does nothing to address the problem of obesity and does nothing to help the problem to get better. 

Our private and public health officials need to do a better and more creative job in dealing with the problem, and a tougher approach towards people would be a huge step in the right direction.


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