Fat is contagious! Run for your lives!

Fat is now considered "contagious."

Why do I ever doubt the creativity of obesity researchers? They really have it going on.

Apparently, a new study showed that if you have fat friends, you're going to get fat, too.

The chances of a person "developing obesity"* increased 57% if a friend was obese, 40% if a sibling was, and 37% if a spouse was.

This is now more likely to determine your weight than genetics, the researchers say.

"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.

Researchers think it's more than just people with similar eating and exercise habits hanging out together. Instead, it may be that having relatives and friends who become obese changes one's idea of what is an acceptable weight.

So let me get this straight here: many of my friends I've met through this blog. Most of them, I've never seen pictures of. Therefore, I'm more likely to weigh what they do because they determine what an acceptable body weight is.

Here's a novel idea for you: what if we through out all preconceptions of an "acceptable weight"? What if an acceptable weight was whatever your own DNA told you to be at? What if we stopped asking stupid questions that could only yield stupid answers?

However, the researchers did caution severing friendships with obese people. Even the globe-trotting man with almost untreatable TB was not advised to ditch his wife. She was there in her little mask with him during interviews. No one said, "Get divorced." Or "Don't see each other." Wearing a mask is advisable, certainly. So what? Now you're supposed to wire your mouth shut around friends who have "unacceptable" weights?

I'm sorry, but if my friend found my weight unacceptable, I'd ditch them long before they could ditch me.

But wait: there's more.

"If you're just a little bit heavy and everyone around you is quite heavier, you will feel good when you look in a mirror," said Dr. David Katz, director of Yale University's Prevention Research Center.

Yep. Judge your self-worth based on your weight. Damn, don't I know where that leads. So their "new" proposal is to focus on getting whole groups of people to lose weight.

And damn, don't I know where that leads, too.

There is a little part that makes sense. It reminds me of pro-anorexia. Of the group fasts, of the posting of "thinspiration", of the cognitive reinforcement of the need to lose weight. And from that standpoint, it makes at least a tad of sense. It's really cognitive behavioral therapy, given in a effed up way.

The irony is that the "ideal" figure out there is so thin or so muscular that it's completely unattainable. Look at a magazine, feel fat. Look at a friend, feel thin. So what the hell are you supposed to do?

Stop looking at others for figuring out how you're supposed to look. That's the underlying assumption of this study. That you look to others to decide how and what you're supposed to be. Imagine telling an African-American with primarily white friends that they need to lighten their skin because they look "too dark" around them. Or a tall basketball player to lop a couple of inches off their legs because they look too tall against other people.

We would never say it 1) because it's rude and degrading and 2) because it's not true! Prejudice against fat people has the same name as prejudice against any other group of people: bigotry.

And now I've just proven that stupidity is far more contagious than obesity ever will be. Quad erat demonstratum.

*An asinine term if ever there was one. It's not a disease. You don't "develop" blonde hair or blue eyes or a hairy chest. In fact, it's not even a decent term.

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Jeanne said...

I am utterly speechless. I think scientists (and worse, the institutions who fund these assinine studies) have reached a new low.
I'm absolutely appalled.

And am reminded of another group of people who used "scientific" studies to justify bigotry... They were called Nazis.

carrie said...


Couldn't have said it better myself. You smacked that nail on the head.

Evidently smart thinking is contagious too...

ms. em said...

brilliant, jeanne!

amen to what you said!

disordered girl said...

There has been an onslaught of stupid research headlines relating to weight this week, and this one really bugged me too. The other thing getting to me is the ones that say things like "drinking diet soda can still make you obese" or "bad diets while pregnant leads to obese children" like one thing is a direct cause for the other, when really it has to do with the general diet/lifestyle choices as a whole. So stupid!

Sarah said...

Just saw that the PI will be online at 1:00 eastern time to take questions and comments.


carrie said...


That's the fun thing about research: you tend to find what you're looking for. Too much of anything is unhealthy, whether it's pizza or celery sticks.


I submitted a question. Anonymously, but I'll be curious to see if they answer it. I'll post if they address it.

Kirsten said...

A note to add on to Jeanne's observation:

also, the Nazis' scientific bigotry developed from the twisting of science and cultural attitudes in the late 19th/early 20th century to justify Social Darwinism and nationalism. Hatred and disgust of others judged "inferior" had been building for decades. And yes, I do see parallels as well with how our society treats those who are judged against an impossible physical ideal.

Of the many frustrating articles on the subject, this one bothers me in particular because it seems to encourage both peer pressure to be thin and ostracization of those who don't fall in line. As if loneliness and criticism ever made anyone feel better.

carrie said...

I looked at the Q&A session with the PI at the Washington Post (my question was not addressed, alas) and many of his comments made him seem more intelligent than his recent study did.

However, one bit did bother me:

Takoma Park, Md.:
What about individuals who are the only thin people in a fat family or group of fat friends? Some individuals seem to be immune to social contagion of obesity. What's your hunch -- do they use different metrics to evaluate their own weight, or is it some other effect(s) not related to the current study?

James Fowler: Our results apply equally to the spread of thinness -- if your friends become thin, it increases the chance you will be thin, too. That's why it is so important to get your friends and family involved in your own healthy eating and exercise behaviors.

Pardones moi? I've never heard 'thinness' described as a disease before, either, though if you're describing obesity as one, it's at least in line. But do vegetarians who are around hard-core carnivores become more likely to eat meat? Or is vegetarianism contagious, too?

I think the author is right on one point: we do influence each other. Whether in positive ways or not. But to say that a high body weight is 'contagious' is bullshit. Height isn't. Eye color isn't. Skin color isn't. So why people think body weight is just pisses me off!

::steps off soapbox::

ms. em said...

"Of the many frustrating articles on the subject, this one bothers me in particular because it seems to encourage both peer pressure to be thin and ostracization of those who don't fall in line." - Kisten

Agreed. When I turned on the 10 o'clock news, they ran a story about this. It was nothing short of horrific.

I'm so, so tired of these "researchers out to make the headlines" who have decided that one correlation makes a fact.

Carrie, I'll see you in whatever space they confine the people in recovery from anorexia to. Since, of course, we must be contagious.


ms. em said...

^sorry, kirsten!

carrie said...

Kirsten and Em,

This study is more about prejudice and stigma than good science.

Before the ED, I had friends of all different weights and it never changed mine.

And the analogies to the Nazis and ostracizing people are hauntingly familiar. Some of the other headlines about this story are downright disgusting:

"Your best friend can make you fat"
"Watch out, you make catch obesity"
"Friends, Family help spread obesity."

Right, like all fat people do is eat and then make you eat too.

And the opening line for one of the last article: "Friends don't let friends get fat." No, friends don't let friends hate themselves. Friends love you for who you are. If they tell you they're not going to "let" you get fat, they're NOT YOUR FRIEND.

RioIriri said...

I almost never use the O word because I consider it to be vulgar and offensive.

carrie said...


I agree. In some of my posts I do use the term only when reporting on so-called "research" so that terminology is the same.

It's a random category used to stigmatize people. And I really don't like it.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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