Would you end a friendship because you were afraid of getting fat? That may sound like a silly question, but research shows there are at least three ways to catch obesity from your friends. Now, we aren’t suggesting you cut ties with all your heavy-set friends, but it is important to know what puts you at risk. And when it comes to gaining weight, hanging out with obese friends very definitely puts you at risk.
The “Fat” Virus: Ad-36
For me, not much is scarier than knowing there’s a virus that makes you fat. Forget the years of exercise and eating right: are researchers really telling me all that work will be wiped out if someone sneezes on me in an airport? Well, yes. And no. Surprisingly, there are six different viruses that have been shown to cause weight gain in animals. Adenovirus Ad-36 is the only virus associated with human obesity, however. In a study of rhesus monkeys and male marmosets, both groups of animals that had been exposed to the virus exhibited increased adiposity – that is, fat.
The good news is that not everyone who carries the virus will become obese. Research indicates that there is a genetic component involved as well. In fact, the adenovirus most often manifests as a respiratory or eye infection, but in some individuals, a particular gene inside the virus causes stem cells (cells that can develop into any type of in the human body) to turn into fat cells.
The human body recovers from most viruses on its own, including Ad-36. Scientists still aren’t sure why Ad-36 leaves you fatter after recovery. In studies, animals remained obese for six months after testing positive for Ad-36 antibodies. Considering the epidemic proportions of obesity in the United States, we can expect this virus to become a relatively long-term problem for people who become infected.
The University of Louisiana’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center is studying Ad-36 with the hope of developing a vaccine that could prevent the spread and occurrence of the virus. Unfortunately, however, medical science doesn’t have any easy answers for us yet. There are no cures, and research is still in the preliminary stages. On the other hand, most researchers working on the problem agree that it is not the only cause of obesity in the United States or even one of the leading causes. In a study conducted in Bombay, only ten out of 52 obese adults tested positive for Ad-36 antibodies. Lifestyle and genetics are still much more significant concerns.
Sharing Meals: Choose Your Dinner Partner Wisely
Did your mother ever warn you to watch your figure after marriage? Many new wives find that eating like a man can lead to a well, more manly figure, which is not exactly what most of us had in mind when we said: “for better or for worse.” When it comes to meals, what is good for a 6 foot, 2-inch man is not necessarily so good for his 5 foot, 4-inch wife.
While dating, many of the women I know have been willing to occasionally trade in their favorites for his – which usually means trading in the salad and lean meat option for an occasional t-bone and fries. But once the couple marries, and evening meals are more shared than not, this willingness to give in can become a problem that shows up on the hips.
Similar problems can arise with our friends. In fact, according to a new study by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, our chances of becoming obese increase by 57% if a friend becomes obese, as compared to only 37% of your spouse puts on weight.
Not only do we often eat the same food at meals with friends, but friends also serve as a social barometer of what is or is not appropriate. If your friend is ordering extra cheese and a double order of fries, you might indulge with them without scrutinizing this behavior as carefully as you might otherwise. A Cornell study even shows that obese wives are happier in their marriages than average-weight wives, which might suggest that the psychological comfort of marriage (or having friends who accept you for who you are), goes a long way.
Comfort food is a particular problem. Eating a pint of ice cream in your sweatpants at home might be a clear tip-off that you need to change your behavior, but meeting a girlfriend for a chat at a cute little downtown pastry shop isn’t likely to toss up any red flags. It just feels like a good way to connect with your gal pals. Unfortunately, in terms of fat and calories, both activities will leave you a little heavier.
Many weight loss programs advise you to avoid situations in which your companions are overeating. Others, such as Weight Watchers, stress the importance of support groups. One thing is certain you need to work extra hard to be sure that your dinner partner’s plate doesn’t affect yours unless you’re eating with Jenny Craig herself.
Get Out and Move
Remember back in college when a girls’ night meant dancing in a crowded bar until two o’clock in the morning? Remember when you didn’t just watch football on Sundays, but you went outside at half-time for a game of pick-up? Just as an earlier active lifestyle kept us in the best shape of our lives, the inactive lifestyles of our friends can affect us as we get older. If spending time with a friend means always choosing a movie over a bike ride, this will have a long-term impact on our bodies.
It’s not just a question of how good you look. Sedentary lifestyles carry very serious medical and emotional risks. According to a Harvard study, “The direct costs of lack of physical activity, defined conservatively as the absence of leisure-time physical activity, are approximately 24 billion dollars [per year].”
Fortunately, this is one area in which our friends can be just as much of a help as they are a risk factor. Making a pact to meet two or three times a week to take a walk is a great way to keep in touch with friends and get some exercise at the same time. The gentle social pressure of knowing you have a commitment to someone can be a great way to motivate yourself. And a good conversation with a buddy can turn a long walk into something that’s more of a pleasure than a chore.
The most important point of the Christakis / Fowler study is that like it or not, we gain and lose weight as a team. Our friends’ choices and habits – and even their viruses – are likely to affect us. Yet the choices are ours. We just need to be conscious enough to make the very best choices. And once we’ve done that, we’ll be prepared to give the people we care about a pretty spectacular gift: a friend who is not just true blue, but a positive influence for good health and a slim figure. Who knew that friendship could provide such benefits?