Feds say fat comes from your friends

August 02, 2007|By TIM ROWLAND


Friends don't let friends get fat.

Or something like that. The latest federally funded research on obesity concludes that if your friends get fat, the chances are that you will get fat as well.

Federally funded. So you know the report is of high quality.

Still, this one is really hard to - I was going to say "stomach," but that would be trite.

The research says that obesity is "socially contagious," meaning that the people you associate with - friends and family - have a direct impact on your weight.

So add that one to the list of excuses. You know, "I have big bones," "It's all water retention," "My parents are people of ample carriage, so it's in my genes."


And now: "My best friend is Rosie O'Donnell, so I can't help it."

OK, bad example; Rosie doesn't have any friends. But if she did, I mean. I don't have any either, which means I am a "blank slate," so to speak, open to the influence of anyone with whom I might choose to associate.

So guys, if you're 5-foot-6 and weigh in at three bills, don't bother asking me if I want to play golf. No offense, obviously, but one has to guard against high-risk behavior.

At first blush, this report might seem rather obvious. If your family sits down to the same meal, there could be a weight correlation. Likewise, if your friends' idea of dining out is to go to the all-you-can-eat bacon-cheeseburger bar, a similar weight pattern could be expected.

True story: After finishing a ride on the Western Maryland Rail Trail on Sunday, Beth and I rewarded ourselves at a fine restaurant in Hancock called the Lockhouse.

We couldn't help but notice a notation on the chalkboard advising that diners who chose the all-you-can-eat seafood menu item were to adhere to a "two-hour limit."

I couldn't help but ask, and yes, it turns out that people would hunker down for an afternoon - four, five hours - of gorging, letting things settle a bit and regorging.

That's pretty impressive. You could drive from here to New York City in the time it takes these people to eat supper.

So if, on any given day, you and your friends spend one third of your waking hours eating lunch, I suppose there is nothing odd about obesity being socially contagious.

But, according to press accounts, researchers say it goes beyond that.

"'We were stunned to find that friends who are hundreds of miles away have just as much impact on a person's weight status as friends who are right next door,' said co-author James Fowler of the University of California, San Diego."

Girth by association is plausible among folks you hang with, but that holds true from 3,000 miles away? I'm dubious. How would you know what they weigh? It's not like your friend would drop you a jpeg with the notation, "Hey, look how fat I'm getting, ha ha!"

Bottom line, "The study found a person's chances of becoming obese went up 57 percent if a friend did, 40 percent if a sibling did and 37 percent if a spouse did. In the closest friendships, the risk almost tripled."

Personally, I think there is evidence to contradict this report, and I am thinking specifically of Jack Sprat. Of course, I haven't checked up on Mr. Sprat and his nursery-rhyme behemoth wife. For all I know, he porked up to 500 pounds, died of a coronary and is buried in a piano case.

That, or he left her. "Darling, I think we ought to start seeing skinnier people."

The other problem I have with this report is mathematical. If fat spreads like the ebola virus, what chance do any of us have, at least in theory.

It's a six degrees of separation thing. Even if you are not friends with anyone who is fat, you can't help being friends with someone who has a friend who has a friend who is fat.

So the friend of the fat person will get fat. Then that person's friend will get fat. Then your friend will get fat. Then you will get fat. It's inevitable. We're doomed.

Personally, I suggest the school board solution. If the kids who take the test don't meet the standard, lower the standard. Correspondingly, I recommend the government simply add 30 pounds to the weight necessary to be classified as "obese."

Problem solved. Now, two- thirds of Americans are overweight, according to the government. Add a few pounds to what is considered normal, and it can be reduced to one-third - all without severing a single friendship.

Now that's what I call effective public policy.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324 or via e-mail at You can listen to his podcast, The Rowland Rant, on

The Herald-Mail Articles