Researchers are painting an even bleaker picture for the obesity rate in America. More than 1 in 3 Americans are already obese, according to recent research. A study published this week by Harvard researchers states that the obesity rate will rise to 42 percent over the next four decades.
The study found that obesity is infectious like a disease. It spreads differently, but has the same dynamics, researchers said. For instance, if a person hangs out with four obese friends, their chances of becoming obese themselves doubles. It seems that people change what they consider to be a normal and acceptable weight based on the weight of the people around them.
In this way, people almost “catch” obesity from their friends like a germ. This is a rather concerning phenomenon based on the fact there are more and more obese friends to be had in America. The researchers noted that unless social norms or social acceptance of obesity changes, it may be very difficult to reverse the current trend. They pointed to the social stigmatizing of smoking as helping to contribute to its decline.
The study, published in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS Computational Biology, utilized data from a prestigious ongoing body of work called the Framingham study. The comprehensive study has measured the heart health, and general health habits, of almost the entire town of Framingham, Mass., for about 50 years.
During this time, more than 5,000 adults have taken part in the study, and obesity has increased from 14% during the 1970s to 30% in 2000. As with the general American population, the obesity rate continues to increase in Framingham. A mathematical model was devised using Framingham data, leading the researchers to provide their dismal obesity forecast.
The study uncovered more disappointing news: hanging out with thin friends does not decrease your chances of becoming obese. One Harvard researcher said this phenomenon goes along with the whole “infection” or “contagion” theory: you can’t catch healthiness; you can only catch the obese germ.
In addition to the 34% of Americans who are obese (a body mass index of 30 or more), another 34% are overweight (a body mass index of 25 or more), according to 2010 U.S. government data.
Being obese or overweight has been proven to increase a person’s chance of developing heart disease, diabetes, some cancers, arthritis and other conditions. Obesity takes a tremendous toll on the healthcare system, costing billions.
The moral of the story from this latest Harvard study? In this author’s point of view, it’s not fair to say we should hang out with skinny people (that doesn’t work anyway). It’s that we should be aware of the influences that our friends can have upon us. In the very least, we will then be consciously aware of the decisions we are making and how they can affect us. Speaking with our friends openly, researchers said, can also bring about positive change.
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