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Can Friends Make You Fat?

Don't avoid overweight friends, just don't change your behavior when you are.
Will you be my friend?

Welcome to fatland. It's a sign that should greet every visitor that comes to America. Obesity has increased from 23% to 31% over the past 30 years and in 2007, fully 66% of adults are overweight. It's become a national health crisis that threatens to reduce our average lifespan.

What are Americans doing about it? Playing the blame game.

It's the food manufacturers fault because they don't tell us what we're eating. (Oh wait, they put a nutrition label on the side of every package.)

It's the fast-food companies because they make the food taste too good. (Oh yeah, they tried offering healthy choices, but not enough people were buying them.)

It's the soda companies because they're putting secret ingredients in soft drinks that make us want to keep eating more. (OK, so that was just a rant I saw on one of those conspiracy theory websites...but you get the idea.)

We want to point the finger at anyone but ourselves for our expanding waistlines. Now we have a new target to blame. It's all because of our friends and loved ones.

On July 26, 2007, the New England Journal of Medicine released a study titled, "The Spread of Obesity in a Large Social Network over 32 Years." The results of that study made headlines around the world. The researchers found that, "A person's chances of becoming obese increased by 57% if he or she had a friend who became obese in a given interval."

The news was bad for brothers and sisters too. They said, "Among pairs of adult siblings, if one sibling became obese, the chance that the other would become obese increased by 40%."

Even married couples are at risk. "If one spouse became obese, the likelihood that the other spouse would become obese increased by 37%."

I nearly fell out of my seat when I read that. I realized it really wasn't my fault if I gained weight; it was my fat friends, siblings and loved ones!

There was plenty of speculation on what caused the weight gain, but for the researchers, it all boiled down to tolerance and behaviors.

The tolerance part is simple. If you're around other obese people, over time, it can change how you view obesity and putting on weight isn't seen as such a negative thing.

The behavior part was equally straightforward. When you spend a lot of time near someone fat, they tend to influence your behavior. You don't exercise as much, you eat more junk food and in general adopt a more unhealthy lifestyle.

Does that mean if you want to avoid becoming fat, you shouldn't have any fat friends?

Not at all. The study investigators were quick to point out that friends are good for our overall health. What we needed to do was change our behavior when we're around overweight people.

Step one. If you're trying to lose weight, begin by telling your friends and family your intentions. Ask them to support your healthier decisions. The simple act of saying it out loud gets the ball rolling and lets everyone around you know what you want to do.

Step two. Before every meal, tell everyone you're dining with that you're on a diet. Ask them to help you by ordering healthy things themselves or not sharing any of the fattening food they order. If you find that the people you're around aren't being supportive, start eating with people who are.

Step three. After a couple weeks of healthier eating, get into some sort of exercise program. Go for a walk, take up a sport or join a gym. Whatever you decide, make it a regular thing that you do at least three days a week.

Just like obesity, fitness also seems to be contagious. When friends or loved ones lose weight and get in shape, it inspires the people around them to do the same. Become that healthy spark that improves your life and the lives of the ones you love.

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CAUTION: Check with your doctor before
beginning any diet or exercise program.