Sunday, August 19, 2007

obesity is contagious

there was a recent article asserting that obesity is contagious:

ugh. great. how lovely.

this may explain my chunky episodes during the course of the year.

i don't consider myself fat, but i don't consider myself skinny either--rough numbers indicate i'm kind of in the middle (read: average) for males: height 5 feet 10 inches, weight 150-155 lbs, waist 29-30 inches. my numbers tend to keep me in the lean side of the ordinary person (particularly the ordinary American, which my european relatives regularly use in conjunction with the word "fat"--as in "fat Americans," as in "so how is life with all the fat Americans?").

i credit a somewhat active lifestyle (at least, relative to the average "fat American"). between swimming, biking, running, walking, working, breathing, sleeping, eating, stretching, and now several different styles of kung fu, versus controlling my food cravings (of which there are so many), i manage to find a largely happy medium that holds the line against the poundage of useless blubbery jiggle.

however, there do seem to be periods, where for some strange unknown reason, the poundage just explodes. i mean it literally--every once in awhile, despite my activity level and conscious monitoring of caloric intake, i find my body weight rising as much as 10 pounds within the course of 1-2 weeks.

it's bizarre. i've scratched my head over this quite often. it always seems to happen around the months of November through February. and it always seems to come in 1-2 week bursts, after which i have to push myself into frenetic overdrive to

i know what you're thinking: November through February marks the major holidays involving high food intake in the American calendar. specifically, it contains Thanksgiving (major food gorging), Christmas (more major food gorging), New Year's (even more major food gorging), Asian New Year (on the lunar calendar, and hey, in Los Angeles, everyone observes Asian holidays, with all the celebratory euphoria of Western ones--and that includes major food gorging), and Valentine's Day (not so much a food day...but then, have you ever seen people in or out of love eating? yeah, exactly. food gorging premier!). if there was ever a cause for my fat episodes, it would be this.

but the thing is, i make extra effort during these times to control the food intake. i even count the daily ration of calories in relation to energy expenditure, and also measure out the proportions of carbohydrates, protein, and fat. my numbers could be wrong, but i'm using several nutritional guidebooks (Joe Friel's Going Long, Monique Ryan's Sport Nutrition for Endurance Athletes, and Gale Bernhardt's Training Plans for Multi-sport Athletes), and they can't be that far off, can they?

i also thought that maybe it was just winter, and that my body was simply expressing a human genetic predisposition of an evolutionary species trait to cycle body functions in relation to the season. that is, that my body was simply sensing winter and turning into a fat mode to produce an insulating layer for warmth and energy reserves for operation, similar to the way horses grow winter hair and gain winter weight, or the way bears go into hibernation with extra mass.

but this doesn't explain the spurts of weight gain. because if it really is an evolutionary trait intended to counter winter, you would expect the weight gain to come on and stay on for the season. but instead i get 1-2 week spikes up and then long gradual declines back down.

this article gives another alternative. although, i haven't quite figured out how. i don't have that many obese friends. i do have 2 or 3 that would be considered obese. and i do see them only infrequently (as in about once a month or so).

but this wouldn't explain my blubber problem being a seasonal thing from November through February. i see my friends fairly regularly, even if only occasionally, throughout the year. yet the summertime is when i actually have trouble keeping the weight on.

i guess i shouldn't make such a big deal out of this (get it, big? ha ha). i mean, for most people, 10 lbs isn't really a lot. and the average "fat American" would probably be content with my dimensions (even in one of my fat episodes).

but dude, you don't have to carry the 10 pounds around. i do. and on me, 10 pounds is a lot. i can feel it, and worse, i can see it. the mirror...does...not...lie...and what it shows just ain't that pretty.

more than that, you try carrying an extra 10 pounds around with you when you go swimming, biking, or running. or doing anything during the course of a normal day. never mind training or racing. pretty soon, you'll be cursing those 10 extra pounds with every breath and every thought of every day. and you'll be hunting down locations in Google for the nearest liposuction center. or even considering self-surgery. anything like me.

still, for all that, i refuse to stop associating with my obese friends--and knowing the ironic image-obsessed nature of our society (ironic, because we worship beauty even as our society suffers from a massive case of blubber bulge), that would be something all too likely to occur given propagation of this article. even if obesity is contagious, i still don't think it should be any excuse to break off acquaintances. especially ones you enjoy. i mean, i may do anything to get the weight off, but not at the expense of losing friends or family.

i should note that i think it's odd that this article notes that obesity is contagious, but so also is thinness. in which case, then why are there more fat people than thin ones? why is it easier to gain poundage then it is to lose the blubbage? and why aren't my obese friends losing weight hanging around me? fat seems a whole lot more contagious than thin.

go figure. it's always the bad stuff that's contagious, kind of like a disease...which would pretty much make obesity a disease. if so, then it's tantamount to the bubonic plague--i mean, in this country, it certainly appears to be just as contagious and just as virulent.

oh well. i guess this makes triathlon the equivalent of the antidote (or maybe the immunization?). whatever. it's the medicine. certainly Ironman is. i don't know anybody who gained weight training for Ironman. seriously, if you can't lose weight training for Ironman, there's something seriously wrong with you.

and given what i see on the street, i'm going to keep on taking the medicine. especially come time for those pesky fat episodes.

if the link to the article doesn't work, the full text is below:

Study: Obesity is Socially Contagious
Jeanna Bryner
LiveScience Staff Writer

People who notice their friend packing on pounds might want to steer clear if they value their sleek physiques.

A new study finds that when the scale reads "obese" for one individual, the odds that their friends will become obese increase by more than 50 percent.

The study, published in the July 26 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, suggests that obesity is "socially contagious," as it can spread among individuals in close social circles. The likely explanation: A person's idea of what is an appropriate body size is affected by the size of his or her friends.

Conversely, the researchers found that thinness is also contagious.

"Social effects, I think, are much stronger than people before realized," said co-author James Fowler, a social-networks expert at the University of California-San Diego. "There's been an intensive effort to find genes that are responsible for obesity and physical processes that are responsible for obesity, and what our paper suggests is that you really should spend time looking at the social side of life as well."

An outside expert on social networks called the new research impressive, particularly in showing a causal link between obesity and friends. However, he cautioned that the evidence for the effect extending out to friends' friends, and so on, is weaker.

"The suggestion in their paper is that obesity sort of spreads through the network as if it were some kind of epidemic, some kind of contagious disease," said Duncan Watts, who studies social networks at Columbia University. While this is plausible, he noted, the current research doesn't provide direct evidence for this phenomena.

Social networks

Research has shown that peers influence each other's health behaviors. One past study showed that teens associating with friends who smoke and drink were more likely to take up the behaviors. However, no past research has looked at how the impact extends to friends' friends and beyond.

In the new study, Fowler and Nicholas Christakis of Harvard Medical School analyzed health data collected between 1971 and 2003 from more than 12,000 adults who participated in the Framingham Heart Study, an ongoing cardiovascular study. Participants provided contact information for close friends, many of whom were also study participants, resulting in a total of 38,611 social and family ties.

The researchers found that if a participant's friend became obese over the course of the study, the chances that the participant also became obese increased by 57 percent. Among mutual friends (both individuals indicate the other is a "friend"), the chances nearly tripled.

Among siblings, if one becomes obese the likelihood of their sister or brother becoming obese increases by 40 percent. Among spouses there is a 37 percent increased risk.

Gender also affected the degree of "obesity contagion." In same-sex friendships, individuals had a 71 percent increased risk of obesity if a friend became obese. If a guy's brother is obese, he's 44 percent more likely to also become obese. Among sisters, the risk was 67 percent.

Fat factors

Other studies have suggested that obesity might be physically contagious, possibly passing from one person to another by virus. But that idea has not been firmly supported. The new study doesn't address this possibility but instead looked at mindsets and attitudes as the controlling factors.

Fat-fueling factors were taken into consideration. For instance, the researchers made sure the effect wasn't a case of "birds of a feather flocking together." Body measurements were taken throughout the study period, showing when individuals became obese and whether they began the study with obese readings.

"It's not that obese or non-obese people simply find other similar people to hang out with," Christakis said. "Rather, there is a direct, causal relationship."

They also ruled out the idea that an outside factor, and not the friendship, caused the fatness. If an environmental factor were affecting both individuals in a friendship, then it shouldn't matter whether individuals are mutual friends or just one individual labels the other as a friend.

The study, however, found that it does matter which way the friend arrow points: If subjects named an obese person as a friend, they tended to be affected by that person's obesity.

But when the person on the receiving end did not label the first person as a friend, there was no "obesity contagion" effect in the other direction. The distinct variable here is who calls whom a "friend."

"The fact that it only has an effect when I think you're my friend is very strongly suggestive to me," Watts said. "That's about as good as you can do in terms of identifying a causal relationship."

Perhaps friends just spend a lot of time together and so would eat similar foods and engage in the same physical activities. But they found the results held no matter the geographic proximity of friends.

"So friends that are thousands of miles away have just as large an impact on you as friends who are right next door," Fowler told LiveScience.

The scientists suggest the findings can be explained if friends are influencing one another's norms for body weight.

"What appears to be happening is that a person becoming obese most likely causes a change of norms about what counts as an appropriate body size," Christakis said. "People come to think that it is OK to be bigger since those around them are bigger, and this sensibility spreads."

Bulging waistlines

In the past 25 years, obesity among U.S. adults has shot from 15 to 32 percent. The new study reveals friends could be feeding the fat epidemic, along with our large-serving, high-calorie, fast-food lifestyles.

"We show that one person's behavior ripples through the network to have an impact beyond those first-order friendships," Fowler said. "So we're talking about dozens of people that are affected by one person's health outcomes and health behaviors."

He added, "And that needs to be taken into account by policy analysts and also by politicians who are trying to decide what the best measures are for making society healthier."

1 comment:

Trihardist said...

My guess would be that you're fighting your body during the winter months. It tries to fatten you up so you won't freeze to death, and you keep taking the weight back off. A second theory is that the weather in L.A. isn't cold enough that you need a fatty layer of insalation, so your body puts on fat, thinking it's going to be cold at some point, then metabolizes it when it doesn't actually drop below fifty degrees, then forgets and puts the fat on again.

In other words, you're evolution in progress!