We all know that being overweight or obese can have serious consequences to our health including diabetes, heart disease, and bone and joint issues. Estimates now show that a third of our population is now seriously overweight. Public officials have warned that the results of physical inactivity and poor diet are catching up to tobacco as a significant medical threat. Obesity doesn’t just impact the person affected. Just like smoking, it has a far reaching impact.
Friends and family may also play a role in obesity. Best buddies and family share life’s ups and downs. They may also share a tendency to gain excessive weight. A new study reports that a person is more likely to become obese if a close friend or family member has put on some pounds, even if the friend or relation lives many miles away. This research provides the first detailed picture of how social ties may contribute to obesity.
As described in the July 26, 2007, issue of The New England Journal of Medicine, researchers found that friendships can have a crucial influence on a person’s weight. The likelihood of becoming obese increased by nearly 57% if a close friend had become obese. In same-sex friendships, a close friend becoming obese increased a person’s chance of becoming obese by 71%. The effect was strongest among mutual friends, with the risk of obesity rising by 171% if close mutual friends became obese!
Among pairs of siblings, one becoming obese increased the other’s likelihood of obesity by 40%. In married couples, one spouse becoming obese increased the likelihood of obesity in the other by 37%. There was no effect among neighbors unless they were also friends.
The study didn’t find that people who were overweight simply flocked together. Rather, people who became obese seemed to raise the likelihood that those close to them would also become obese. Exactly how social ties influence obesity is still unknown. One possibility is that norms may shift within a social network when one person gains weight, so that close friends and family find it more acceptable to put on extra pounds. Or they started to share the same eating habits and lack of exercise.
Family dynamics and home environment is now thought to have an even larger effect on weight than genetics in many studies. Even if you inherit genes that put you at a higher risk for obesity, creating a home environment that models good nutrition and fitness practices will help you to overcome the genetic predisposition for obesity. Creating a family environment that focuses on healthy foods and eating patterns as well as increasing family activities and decreasing sedentary habits is a great place to begin.
Start in the Kitchen: Consider doing a healthy kitchen makeover. Start by assessing if fruits and vegetables are easily accessible in your home. Keep fruits and vegetables washed, cut and ready to eat in your fridge. The more convenient low-calorie and nutrient-dense foods there are at home, the more likely your family will be to eat them. And, if you want your children to eat more fruits and vegetables, be sure that the adults eat them too. They look to you as their role model.
Assess your pantry, fridge and cupboards for any high-fat and high-sugar foods: These foods are low in nutritional value and high in calories. Replace them with nutrient-dense snack foods such as fruits, vegetables, raw nuts and seeds, beans and lentils, whole-grain crackers and cookies, baked snack foods, and reduced-fat dips and spreads.
Plan meals: The quality of family diets directly correlates to the frequency of families sitting down to dinner together. Research consistently shows lower body mass indexes (BMI) in children and adolescents that eat meals together at home. Plus, preparing the food becomes a quality family event that seeks to encourage a unified approach to healthy eating.
Evaluate your screen time: We talked about your family’s eating habits, but what about your family’s activity habits? Are there ways your family could increase physical activity and reduce sedentary activities? The idea of “screen time” is a relatively new one. It refers to the total amount of time spent at work and at play in front of some sort of screen.
For work, if you use a computer to do your job, it is hard to set a limit on “screen time.” This is why you may want to consider setting some recreational “screen time” limits for yourself and your family. Experts recommend limiting “screen time” to 10-15 hours per week. This breaks down to about two hours per day. This includes video or computer games, watching television shows or movies and even texting and emailing.
Trading in “screen time” for time spent outside on a family nature walk, a backyard game of bocce ball or riding the local bike trail reinforces the importance of being active. Parents are role models for children’s eating and activity habits. Just like when they see you eating fruits and vegetables, if your children see you being active and enjoying it, they will be more likely to do the same. I did this when I needed desperately to exercise after a long day at work to ease my chronic pain. As a toddler my daughter sat next to the treadmill and told me about her day as I walked. When older, we both stretched and walked regularly. This became a stared ritual and a unique way to decompress and connect. To this day she still sees exercising as a normal part of her daily needs.
Don’t be afraid of change: Making changes can be difficult. It is human nature to resist change and to shy away from the unknown. Others may be resistant or unsupportive. If you have been trying to make changes to your own behaviors, you may have been surprised, or hurt, to find a noticeable lack of support from friends or other family members. This may be due to fears they’ll be asked to make changes too, or that you will not love them once you have achieved your goals.
In some cases that fear can even lead them to sabotage the person trying to change. I once had a patient weighing 240 pounds tell me her best friend was adamant she would look manly if she lost her curves! Often you can alleviate concerns by reassuring them that while you want their health to improve as well, and hope they’ll make changes too, you understand how important it is for them to come to that decision in their own time.
Enlist friends and family members in your efforts to make changes: This might be a request to no longer bring high-fat, high-sugar and high-calorie treats home from the grocery store or to work. Eat at the dinner table, not while watching the TV. Take a walk together on a break at work or after dinner. Communicating your wishes and desires clearly helps reduce some of the anxieties involved in making the necessary changes.
The bond between friends and family is a powerful one when it comes to weight and health. Increasing nutrition through healthy meals, planning activities for fun and movement, and supporting one another in your efforts is a group effort. Take action today and decide on the first change you’re all willing to make for better health and a thinner you.