(Subtext: so if any of your mates are a wee bit plump you better drop them quick smart or you’ll be rooned, rooned! Yay, let’s make fat people even more socially isolated and scorned!)
So say all the headlines and radio shows this morning, based on a study in America that has found a correlation between gaining weight and having friends who also gain weight. The talkback shows especially are full of all the talking heads of the Diet Industry sagely shaking their heads and wagging their fingers at the ‘obesity epidemic’.
Most of the discussion I’ve heard has focussed on “individuals”, but you know what? The study found that the “friend” correlation only holds up for men.
The researchers found that when a person becomes obese, the chances that a friend will become obese increases by 57 percent. Siblings of obese people have a 40 percent increased risk of obesity, and their spouses’ risk increased by 37 percent.
On average, having an obese friend made a person gain 17 pounds, which put many people over the body mass index (BMI) measure for obesity.
Female friendships did not seem to be impacted by obesity. But the chances that a man might gain weight from having a fat pal doubled for so-called mutual friends — friends who both listed each other as buddies.
I found that the correlation (of course the news reports are calling it a cause, but that’s a whole other rant) being confined to male friendships was only mentioned in one report. Most other reports don’t report that it doesn’t hold for women. [link] [link]
Yet another case of “male” being the default for “human”? Or a case of not wanting to mention that the correlation didn’t hold for women just in case it meant hordes of women thinking that they shouldn’t dump their fat friends right away just to be on the safe side?
There’s a whole lot of other issues to be taken with conclusions being drawn from the study as well.
Christakis and Fowler studied the records of 12,067 people taking part in the Framingham health study, which included most of the residents of the mostly white, middle-class town of Framingham, Massachusetts.
The Framingham longitudinal study started in 1948, and grew to incorporate longitudinal tracking of spouses and offspring over the generations. The friends studied are all people given as ‘alternate contacts’ from original study participants, so they too are overwhelmingly folks with strong historic ties to Framingham, Massachusetts. Thus there must be a multitude of genetic and environmental factors that the bulk of the study population have in common which do not appear to be taken into account by this study, at least not from what is being reported.
As Kate Harding points out, what other researchers have found from examining the data in the Framingham health study does take into account the genetic and environmental commonalities between the study population:
It’s well worth mentioning that that study demonstrated, among other things, that there’s no clear link between longevity and BMI, that among non-smokers, obesity was correlated with greater longevity, and that the largest single determinant of longevity was”¦ drumroll”¦ genes.
Kate also rips this study apart on a number of other levels. Go read.
1. The ‘obesity epidemic’ is largely a moral panic and many of the fat=unhealthy factoids are myths. See Kate Harding’s blog and various other Health At Every Size (HAES) blogs on her blogroll for more information.