Friday, October 14

EUI: Eating Under the Influence

I know what you’re thinking and no, I’m not talking about gorging on nachos and cheesy fries after consuming alcohol. I’m talking about eating under the influence of friends.

A recent study by researchers Nicholas Christakis, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of sociology at Harvard University and James Fowler, Ph.D., an associate professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, alleges that obesity is contagious. That’s right. These scientists are suggesting that you can catch it from your friends, just like you catch the flu.

Sound preposterous? Here’s their theory.

After analyzing data from 12,067 subjects over a 32-year time frame, the scientists found that friends, and friends of friends, had similar levels of obesity.

They proposed three theories for why this might happen:

  • One is homophily—the tendency to choose friends like oneself. (The whole “birds of a feather flock together” idea.)
  • The second explanation is, when people share the same environment they’re affected similarly.
  • The third explanation is that obesity is contagious. Their rationale is that a person’s idea of an acceptable weight or portion size changes when he sees how big his friends are or how much they eat. Thus people alter their own behavior to match their friends.

Specifically, Christakis and Fowler said, “We find that a person’s chances of becoming obese increase by 57% if they have a friend who becomes obese, 40% if they have a sibling who becomes obese, and 37% if a spouse becomes obese.”

Additionally, they noted that, “Mutual friends more than triple the risk to each other. If one of the two [mutual friends] becomes obese, the chance for the other to follow suit goes up 171%.”

Taking their theory to an extreme, they’re suggesting that a small group of individuals started the whole obesity epidemic.

Well, you can imagine the firestorm of criticism that has come their way since the study’s publication. Behavioral scientists argued that their methodology was “flawed” and that you can’t draw those kind of conclusions based on mere observations of how people behave. And then the statisticians got involved, stating that it is mathematically impossible to separate the three explanations, they are too intertwined.

I’m no scholar, so I’ll let those smarter than me debate the study’s accuracy.

I don’t subscribe to their “obesity is contagious” theory. I believe we have more control over our personal behavior and I don’t think you can blame the obesity epidemic on the obese. There are a myriad of factors in our society that contribute to the problem. That seems like a lot of unnecessary finger pointing to me. But the study did make me think about the influence of friends and specifically when I tend to overindulge.

For me, certain environments, not people, are the issue. My trigger environment is a party. Being around friends and family having a good time, eating and drinking is a tempting situation for me. I want to join the fun, have one more glass of wine or indulge in some sinful sugary concoction if everyone else is doing it.

When I think about the question, “If your friends were all jumping off a cliff would you do it too?”

My answer is, “If there was a party at the bottom, you betcha!”

So how do you stop temptation from taking over? From letting these situations sabotage your weight goals?

I fall back on a couple of basic In8 principals:

1) Self-awareness. You have to know what environments and situations are difficult for you and have a plan to address them.

2) Eat every three to four hours. If I have a healthy snack I’m much less likely to overindulge, regardless of what’s in front of me or what environment I’m in.

3) Stay hydrated. Experts suggest that oftentimes we mistake hunger for thirst. If you stay hydrated you’re likely to eat less.

4) Write it down. Whenever I feel like I’m going off track I restart my food journal. There’s nothing like writing down exactly what you’re consuming to highlight your bad choices and get you back into healthier habits.

In the end we’re in control of our life. We choose every day what to focus on, what makes our priority list. And hanging out with friends is always high on the list for me. I just need to snack and drink some water before I go!

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