Fat Is Contagious!

I don’t even have it in me to do a full-on rant about a new claim that obesity can be transmitted through social networks, which was apparently published in the New England Journal of Medicine today. Earlier, someone sent me a copy of the entire article — which does not seem to be available on the NEJM website, but presumably will be at some point — and these were my gut impressions:

1) Geographical distance did not decrease the risk of “social” obesity here. That point is made over and over. Which means they are claiming that by TALKING TO EACH OTHER — not living with each other or eating together or exercising together — people are making each other fat.

For this to be plausible, you need to accept a few things:

A) Geographically distant friends and relations spend enough time talking about their weight to produce this effect.

Does that seem even remotely realistic to you? When I call my far-away friends, fat or thin, I ask about their lives and families, not their bodies.

B) There is an identifiable set of behaviors that reliably leads to obesity, which can be discussed and encouraged over the phone or by written correspondence.

Presumably, they think that’s eating too much and not exercising enough. Problem is, as we’ve discussed before, it’s just as hard (i.e., near impossible) to make naturally thin people permanently fat as it is to make naturally fat people permanently thin. So even if people could talk their friends into chronically eating too much and exercising too little — which, come on, people — the results would almost certainly not last any longer than the results of the typical “successful” diet. Unless that person was already predisposed to being fat and started out below her natural set point — maybe because of, um, dieting. Hmmm….

C) People are more likely to take one geographically distant friend’s word for it that engaging in [undefined set of behaviors that ostensibly lead to obesity] will be more personally rewarding to them than conforming to the OVERWHELMING insistence from the larger culture and, most likely, their local environments (in which their bodies are actually seen and judged) that fat is bad and dieting is good.

Can anyone seriously believe all three of those things?

2) Obesity, according to this study, is more socially transmissible from one man to another than one woman to another.

Does this jibe with other research that suggests women are much more invested in social networks, more communicative with their friends about personal issues and, not for nuthin’, more susceptible to mirroring their friends’ eating behaviors when they do eat together?

3) If they’re going to include siblings in their results, they REALLY better have completely ruled out any genetic component to fat, which they clearly haven’t.

The fact that they would include people with genetic overlap in a study that purports to be all about social factors strikes me as utterly absurd — I think it’s more than fair to ask why they included that group at all. Because their results were statistically insignificant without it, perhaps?

4) As I understand it, spouses did not “affect” each other as strongly as even geographically distant friends.

This goes back to point 1. Are we really meant to believe that people in one of the most intimate possible relationships, who communicate daily, eat together, and share umpteen “lifestyle” factors, are less likely to “transmit” obesity to one another than friends who live on opposite coasts? What is it that makes you fat, then? If we believe it’s diet and exercise, how is it conceivable that people who live together do not affect each other’s diet and exercise habits as strongly as pals who rarely see each other? And regardless of what they’re claiming the direct cause of obesity is here, do we really believe that people are more susceptible to the opinions of distant friends than their own spouses?

5) All of this is based on data from the Framingham Heart Study. (That link is to several excellent articles by Sandy Szwarc that reference this study.)

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.

So basically, they took a study that showed obesity’s no big deal and turned it into a study that shows obesity is CONTAGIOUS!!!


6) They repeat yet again that obesity is increasing like crazy, it’s out of control, blah dee blah. They don’t cite the statistics, which are far less alarming than the myth that we’re all blowing up like balloons. (One oft-neglected point: we’re also getting taller.) The discussion of “Claim 1″in this paper (PDF) breaks down why they’re freaking out over nothing (emphasis mine):

The claim that we are seeing an “epidemic” of overweight and obesity implies an exponential pattern of growth typical of epidemics. The available data do not support this claim. Instead, what we have seen, in the US, is a relatively modest rightward skewing of average weight on the distribution curve, with people of lower weights gaining little or no weight, and the majority of people gaining ~3-5 kg more than they did a generation ago. The average American’s weight gain can be explained by 10 extra calories a day, or the equivalent of a Big Mac once every two months. Exercise equivalents would be a few minutes of walking every day. This is hardly the orgy of fast food binging and inactivity widely thought to be to blame for the supposed fat explosion.

While there has been significant weight gain among the heaviest individuals, the vast majority of people in the “overweight” and “obese” categories are now at weight levels that are only slightly higher than those they or their predecessors were maintaining a generation ago. In other words we are seeing subtle shifts, rather than an alarming epidemic. Biologist Jeffrey Friedman offers this analogy: “Imagine that the average IQ was 100, and that five percent of the population had an IQ of 140 and were considered to be geniuses. Now let’s say education improves and the average IQ increases to 107 and 10% of the population has an IQ of >140. You could present the data in two ways. You could say that the average IQ is up 7 points or you could say that because of improved education the number of geniuses has doubled.

So the whole premise that justified this review of another study’s data — that we, as a country, are SO MUCH FATTER than we used to be — is basically horseshit. There’s that.

Finally, it sounds like what they’re really afraid of is people telling their friends it’s okay not to diet. If that’s what’s actually happening here? I hope it becomes a goddamned epidemic.

104 thoughts on “Fat Is Contagious!”

  1. I hope it becomes a goddamned epidemic.

    Except that it’d be a “crisis” because people would stop buying pills to assist in crapping their pants. Lower sales = less money = OMG CRISIS.

  2. Hear, hear on that last paragraph.

    Honestly, that was the point I took away from the whole ridiculous study. If people are becoming fatter because they realize that there’s NOTHING WRONG WITH BEING FAT, is that such a bad thing?

  3. As a statistician, this makes me want to cry. (Hell, as a rational person it makes me want to commit violent acts against researchers who can’t be bothered to present valid research.)

  4. **salaam** I knew this thing smelled like horseshit the minute I took a whiff — I saw it on the Fat Studies list, where you first posted your brilliant dissection — but I didn’t want to get close enough to it to overwhelm me with the stench. I’m glad you could stand to get into it deeply enough to pick it apart.

    Even with my cursory glance at it, though, I thought, “Yeah, that just proves that fat people tend to have fat friends because thin people have a tendency to reject them.” (Obviously there are many exceptions there, of course, but I’m talking patterns rather than absolutes.) I mean, geesh, a 7-year-old could have told them that.

    Quadrangle for Kate!

  5. Two things really bothered me about this article. Okay, well, a LOT more than two, actually. But the two that really stick out are:

    1) “Having fat friends will make you fat.” Which was later amended with “well, that’s not what we MEANT to say”, but we all know how people love to selectively cut and paste that which suits their purposes. Having a published article in the NY Times even kinda-sorta suggest that maybe you shouldn’t be friends with fat people… It’s just not kosher on any level,

    2) So they didn’t really mean you shouldn’t be friends with fat people, but maybe you should try to have more skinny friends, so that you can be influenced by them. But they’ve already said that genetics are a factor at work here, so are we talking about genetic osmosis or something? Regardless of HOW they propose this might happen, us fat folks are now supposed to covet the friendships of the skinny folks. I see that going really well. *facepalm*

    Having a NY Times article with the headline screeching that obesity is contagious makes me want to wear a sign around my neck that reads:

    Now you’re fat.

    Hmn. Maybe i oughta make that into a t-shirt. lol.

  6. Lindsay, and worse yet, that Times article was written by Gina Kolata.

    I comfort myself, however, with the knowledge that she didn’t write the headline, and since the first couple of paragraphs sound exactly like the WaPo article, I’m thinking that’s a copy editor quoting the press release. Once you get farther into to the article, it starts to make sense again, and you remember why you love Gina Kolata.

    You just have to completely disregard the opening, if you want that whole “sense” thing to happen.

  7. Great idea Lindsey. That might actually scare some people. :P
    Someone on the Dim Board equated this with the whole Fat germs” concept.


    I don’t why so many people in medicine and psychology seemed to not have grown out of personal vices (OMG a theory behind all of these FAT=DEATH articles that might be accurate [Besides the concern with $$$]), but it’s getting very old. If a skinny fuck 19-year old can understand this, I don’t understand why the rest of society can’t seem to grasp how inaccurate and overly simplified the concept of FAT!KILLZ! is.

  8. Kate, i haven’t actually been able to read Gina Kolata’s book yet – can’t afford it at the moment. I’ve heard weird mixed things about it, and it appears to very much be a “love it or hate it” kinda thing.

  9. Yeah, I wrote a letter to Pina Colada Gina Kolata about my disappointment in her. She does eventually show that she knows better than to take the study seriously, but making the last couple of grafs question the claim put forth in the HEADLINE AND LEDE is not good enough. She should have known better than to take the assignment. It still would have been written, but at least she wouldn’t have had her name on it. Contagious! I ask you! Contagious over phone and email!

    It’s probably not fair for me to feel that Kolata has a responsibility towards us, but… well, I do.

    Just for fun, some other reasons that my thin friend Cacie and I came up with off the tops of our heads for why fat people might have fat friends:

    – People tend to be close to their friends in age, and as metabolisms change with age, weight gain is common.

    – Friends often have children around the same time, and pregnancy is commonly accompanied by weight gain.

    – Friends often get inspired by their friends to quit smoking. Since this study took place over a 32-year period during which smoking became exposed as a severe health risk, it is possible that many of the study participants quit smoking during this period. Quitting smoking is often accompanied by weight gain.

    – People often progress in their careers as they get older, putting them in less active, more stressful, and/or more time-consuming jobs. Any of these factors alone or together can contribute to weight gain.

    – Thin people have an easier time socially in high school and college. Hence the fat kids and other misfits tend to band together. Relatedly, some social subcultures attract fat kids.

    – Some fat people are friends with other fat people for fat reasons. For instance, I know a lot of fat bloggers. My friend Claire started a fat women’s biking club. Fat women who diet make fat friends at Weight Watchers meetings.

    – Most people are maintaining themselves at a weight that is slightly under their natural setpoint, because of societal pressures. If a fat friend encourages them to stop restricting, they may return to setpoint.

    – Conversely and more likely, people go on diets together. If two people go on a diet at the same time, they will both start gaining back within the next five years. If one is more fat and one is less fat, this could read as the fat friend’s proximity “causing” the thinner friend to lose weight.

    And that’s not even getting to the fact that they fucking threw siblings in there, probably for exactly the reason you mentioned!

  10. Lindsay, I loved her book, as I think I’ve made clear here. She’s no fat lib crusader, but that’s part of why I loved it — it’s all about highlighting the facts that go ignored, not warm fuzzies for fatties. It’s just a side effect that the FACTS are likely to make fat people cut themselves some slack.

    Fillyjonk, great points. To you and Meowser, the authors did say they controlled for the effects of both smoking cessation and (somehow), the tendency of fat people to select other fat people as friends. The rest of your points are terrific, though, FJ.

  11. To you and Meowser, the authors did say they controlled for the effects of both smoking cessation and (somehow), the tendency of fat people to select other fat people as friends.

    As I mentioned on temp-Shakesville, I’d love to hear how they controlled for the effect of social networks in a study purporting to examine the effects of social networks. (I suppose I could just go find the study, but I’d rather be sarky!)

  12. Yeah, Fillyjonk, I’m curious about that too. How do you “control” for the fact that thin people have spurned your friendship because of your body habitus?

  13. You know, I bet I could do a study that proves that people who come out of the closet at any point in time are more likely to have friends that have come out of the closet; ergo, being gay/bi/trans is socially transmitted.

    Instead of, you know, people tending to have friends with which they share a common world view or met in a social network bound together by a common world view. Because that would make too much sense.

    I say what I always say when it comes to claims like these, whether it’s the New England Journal of Medicine or Oprah.

    Show me the data, baby.
    Show me the sample group you used.
    Show me the sponsor of the study.
    Show me any counter-data.
    And I’ll come to my own conclusions.

  14. Nearly all of my friends don’t live in my state anymore. We’re nearly all fat. This has nothing to do with us “encouraging each other” to get or stay fat. We were all fat when we met. We sought out other people like ourselves, people who had shared experiences, similar backgrounds and lifestyles. We all had similar career ambitions, etc., etc., that lead us all to lead remarkably similar lifestyles, regardless of where in the country we live. And those lifestyles, and our “fatness” before we met is why we’re fat now. Not because we’re friends. And because I count a large number of family members in my circle of “friends”, genetics plays a huge role, too. This whole idea is just silly.

  15. Part of why this hurts my brain so very much occurred to me a few minutes ago. Society says that fat is bad; thin people don’t want to become fat, but fat people should want to become thin. If there’s some kind of social osmosis that makes fat people thinner (and thin people fatter), then fat people will want to hang out with thin people to lose weight, but the thin people won’t want to hang out with the fat people for fear they might gain weight. But if people just mingle regardless of size, then we’ll all come out to this nice even average weight, right? Wrong! Because supposedly we’re all getting fatter anyway.

    It makes no sense.

  16. This was a headline article on the Sydney Morning Herald’s webpage, and after I read it – my gast getting ever increasingly flabbered – I came straight over here to see what all you sensible people thought. Thank you, Kate, for putting into coherent sentences exactly what my mind couldn’t.

    I also thought you all might like to see the final couple of paragraphs of the article:

    ‘But Professor Ian Caterson, of the University of Sydney, said the findings could be used to encourage people to seek social networks where being overweight was unacceptable.

    “We’ve already seen this with smoking and if we get to the point where obesity is socially unacceptable and people find alternative friends who encourage them to maintain a healthy weight, this kind of study could become a new way of combating the problem.”‘

    Sigh. As if fat people aren’t ostracised enough.

  17. Meowser, while i might make a shirt to help enable the snark of fat contagions, i might have to draw the line at fat macros.

    I wonder if “fat is contagious” might appear on another round of Fat Hate Bingo. I might have to buy one of those if it is.

    Today was the wrong day for me to have read this article. I’m entirely too punchy and tired to not make an ass of myself in the process of snarking it to death. :P

  18. “We’ve already seen this with smoking and if we get to the point where obesity is socially unacceptable and people find alternative friends who encourage them to maintain a healthy weight, this kind of study could become a new way of combating the problem.”‘

    OMFG. Has this man never set foot in a high school?

  19. OMFG. Has this man never set foot in a high school?

    I think he had to have been hatched from an egg.

    A very slim and slender egg, mind you.

  20. “We’ve already seen this with smoking and if we get to the point where obesity is socially unacceptable and people find alternative friends who encourage them to maintain a healthy weight, this kind of study could become a new way of combating the problem.”‘

    Sure, because having friends who shame and belittle you about being fat has done such a brilliant job of getting people thin for the last 100 years. Sigh. When are they going to get that fat is NOT analogous to smoking? It may be a bitch to quit smoking, but if you don’t ever put a cigarette in your mouth and light it, you’re automatically not a smoker. OTOH, you can get “officially fat” and more doing exactly what your doctor tells you to do, not to mention all those fatphobic friends who are supposed to be sooooo healthy for you.

  21. Do you not believe that for some individuals excess fat can put a burden on their physical body? I know it has an effect on the mind oftentimes (I have never been skinny – only “robust and healthy, I like to think sexy and delicious – ) nonetheless, I have known very heavy people who have had SERIOUS maladies and a few who have died, from too much weight. I know doctor’s are “just practicing”, but there is some validity to concerns about it all. You think?

  22. Marsha, do you not recognize that peer pressure and social stigmas are causing more and more children to go on diets and develop eating disorders while they’re still in single digits?

  23. Marsha, did you not see the link right at the top of the page? (Rio, got your button handy? I can’t remember where you left it before! I LOVE it, btw!)

    And this:
    if we get to the point where obesity is socially unacceptable…


    If. We. Get. To. The. Point.

    Yeah, let me know when that happens. For now, I’ll be over here enjoying all the parades thrown in honor of fat people on every corner.

  24. I have known very heavy people who have had SERIOUS maladies and a few who have died, from too much weight.

    How do you know that their weight caused their maladies and not the other way around?

    The correlation of ill-health with obesity is
    (a) not as high as it’s made out to be
    (b) correlation is not causation.

  25. Marsha,
    I mean this in a nice way, but…

    I have known very light people who had serious maladies and a few have died. This does NOT mean that they died of being underweight. It usually meant that they had other factors (such as the maladies in question, or age, or athletic exertion) that contributed to both their weight and their decease. Or the three factors were coincidence.

    And even if people were dying solely due to their weights on either extreme of weight, that would not make weight medically mutable as the obesity “epidemic” leaders assert. There is over fifty years of medical evidence that neither overweight nor overweight can be permanently changed in healthy people and maintained. And that there is no eating behavior exists that explains the apparently normal variation in human weight.

    Multiple anecdotes do not equal evidence.

  26. Oh, and Fillyjonk, Meowser, etc., if it wasn’t clear, there was a HUGE eyeroll after “They controlled for it.” I’m just telling you what they said, so no one can accuse me of not having read the article.

  27. I found you through Hoyden About Town, and I just wanted to say that I adore you and your blog. Glad you’re writing.

  28. This is why we need a fat acceptance activist organisation that gets right on stuff like this. The Sydney Morning Herald (and any other paper with a stupidity-filled report) should be receiving a flurry of letters to the editor by now signed “Judy Smith, Member, Fat Acceptance Organisation” and “Bob Jones, Secretary, Fat Acceptance Organsiation”.

  29. La di Da, to be fair, NAAFA was on this before it was published in any of the major papers.

    And there are other things in the works. :)

    L, thanks!

  30. Marsha – as a licensed mental health professional, I’d really like to know how weighing more effects your mind. I think I may have missed that in my psychopathology class.

    As for the article…I have a wide variety of friends in a wide variety of sizes throughout the country, and at no time am I aware that any of them have changed their behaviors in a way which made them fatter because of our friendship. I’m not even sure how I would go about effecting such change.

    Just to cheer everyone up, Katie Couric has been teasing this story all through her newscast. I’m guessing it’s going to air close to the end.

  31. Spins, I caught the CBS piece about it (as I was enjoying a delightful smothered shrimp dish–I saluted Katie with a forkful) and pretty much swore at the TV for the next five minutes. It was a festival of stock footage of people’s headless bellies interspersed with yapping from one of the docs that did the study.

    The only thing bullshit stories like this do is increase my defiance. It only makes me more determined than ever to tell (and show) people that loving yourself, loving your bod, and embracing your awesomeness whatever package it comes in is just…dammit, more fun. More happy. More contentment. Freedom.

  32. “We’ve already seen this with smoking and if we get to the point where obesity is socially unacceptable and people find alternative friends who encourage them to maintain a healthy weight, this kind of study could become a new way of combating the problem.”‘

    I believe it’s already here, it’s called Weight Watchers, and they charge money for it.

    That is, you pay for those alternative friends.

    And yeah, as Kate said, “when we get to the point…”

  33. Lot of people here seem to be missing the point. The statistics show a strong correlation and unless the numbers are pulled out of thin air, this will be a fairly definitive study. The mechanism might be up for debate, but correlation seems pretty clear.

    The confounders that others have brought up (friends aging at the same rate gaining weight similarly) cannot explain this adequately. If some people are natually fat and some are naturally thin, then you wouldn’t find a strong correlation that would be statistically significant.

    Just because the study doesn’t say what you want to hear doesn’t mean it has to be wrong.

  34. I see a massive upswing in internet usage. After all, if nobody knows you’re a dog on the internet, they certainly can’t tell if you’re an overweight dog.

    Meanwhile, I do apologise for that idiot quoted in the SMH. Not all Australians are that stupid. Honestly.

    PS: Rosiecakes, can you remember the headline of the SMH story? I’m wanting to send the eminent Professor a short email along the lines of “what’s the oxygen content on your planet?” and I’d like to be able to at least cite the story correctly.

  35. spins – I’m not an expert but I know that in men being overweight increases estrogen levels, which would definitely affect neurochemistry. That’s scientifically accepted and not the subject of any debate. I’m sure there’s other similar stuff going on, but 90% of it is probably still a mystery to scientists. But weight DOES affect the mind regardless of what your psychopathology class taught.

  36. Could it be possible that the “obesity epidemic” began when Hilary Clinton proposed universal health care?

    Could it be that the government wants to turn the whole country against fat people, to resent them so we won’t want socialized medicine?

    How many times have you heard people say (meme roth for example) “I don’t want my money to go to pay for obesity related illnesses!”

    If its our fault we’re fat, and because we’re fat we’re sick, we’re messing with everyone else’s $$. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, you don’t want to mess with an American’s $$. They’ll break your teeth.

  37. Just because the study doesn’t say what you want to hear doesn’t mean it has to be wrong.

    And just because some people’s interpretation of the data reaches a particular conclusion doesn’t mean it has to be right.

    Also, I don’t know how many times I have to say this, but correlation is not causation.

    Also, no, this isn’t likely to be a definitive study, because it’s based on a review of data from a study that’s virtually unrepeatable.

    Also, the study it’s based on, as I’ve said, actually demonstrated that obesity is much more benign than people think — even potentially helpful in old age. Given that, who cares if obesity IS “contagious”?

  38. ssteve – I’m not surprised that men with more fat stores have higher estrogen levels, but so do women. You will find a variation in hormone levels in men and women over a spectrum. Psychologically speaking, increase in estrogen levels can actually have protective effects against certain forms of schizophrenia and depression. So, yes, you are right. It does effect the brain.

    My objection to the comment above was in my interpretation of “I know it has an effect on the mind oftentimes…” My interpretation was that the commenter was saying that people who are fat are going to have more mental health problems due to their obesity. And while their is a correlation, it is not clear that depression or anxiety (which can be precursors of disordered eating) is caused by body fat and not societal, peer or family pressure to become more bodily acceptable.

  39. “The statistics show a strong correlation and unless the numbers are pulled out of thin air, this will be a fairly definitive study.” Ha! Wow. Somebody hasn’t taken a research methods class recently. I can come up with a strong correlation between a lot of things. Did you know there is a VERY STRONG correlation between the number of pirates in the world and global warming? So if we want to stop global warming, all we need to do is encourage piracy, right? Avast, ye maties!

    In the end, the statistics done in this study are fairly laughable, not just the interpretation. It was quite the data dredge. They went looking for whatever data and analyses would support their conclusion and only kept those. And the interpretations, as others have pointed out, are also laughable. First, they never considered that perhaps the real problem is that people who hang out with thin people become chronic dieters and won’t allow their bodies to reach and maintain their naturally higher weight. They also did not consider that we general choose friends, consciously or unconsciously, from similar SES, educational, ethnic, age, and other backgrounds, so our bodies will follow a similar trajectory over time.

  40. Plus, since the folks at Harvard want to change the definition of overweight to anything greater than a BMI of 21, then we’ll probably see the number of overweight people quadruple overnight!!

    OH NOES!

  41. Meg, the article’s title is Why Fat is a Friendship Issue. The reporter is Kate Benson.

  42. ‘Also, the study it’s based on, as I’ve said, actually demonstrated that obesity is much more benign than people think — even potentially helpful in old age. Given that, who cares if obesity IS “contagious”?’

    Another study has shown it’s not ‘even potentially’ helpful in old age, it JUST IS. Check out:

    which had this conclusion:
    Overweight status was associated with longevity and underweight with short life, due to lower and higher mortality, respectively, from CVD and cancer.

    In this study they’ve scooped overweight and obesity together, overweight being BMI 25 and higher.

    ‘Finally, it sounds like what they’re really afraid of is people telling their friends it’s okay not to diet. If that’s what’s actually happening here? I hope it becomes a goddamned epidemic.’

    OMG, what if these people actually found out some people are telling their friends IT’S NOT OKAY TO DIET – because, you know, that’s what’s REALLY (making them) unhealthy?

  43. I’m the person from NAAFA that Kate alluded to earlier as being on this before it hit the papers. I was contact by the Washington Post and ABC News before this was released in the NEJM. Paul Ernsberger, Chairman of the NAAFA Advisory Board interviewed with a reporter from LA, I sent the WP a statement but don’t know yet if they included it or any portion of it, ABC News didn’t follow through after their initial call and I did an interview on KGO in the SF Bay area about 6:15PM Pacific and Kelly Bliss will be interviewed Friday on FOX’s Morning Show in NYC. Just FYI, I sent out the following press release today to more than 700 media contacts in newspaper, radio, television and internet. It will be interesting to see IF we receive any more opportunities to voice our outrage.

    July 25, 2007

    The report released today by the New England Journal of Medicine is flawed. These so-called researchers took collected data from an existing study whose focus was not on weight and size, the same study just used to report that diet soda is just as bad for you as regular soda, did some data mining and presented selected results tailored to support their own prejudices. None of their statistics are standard. Shame on the New England Journal of Medicine for publishing this insidious report. This is one more attempt to create hysteria, hatred, fear and prejudice toward fat people.

    As an example of the misinformation, this report stated, “The fact that the increase in obesity during this period cannot be explained by genetics….” More and more legitimate research is finding the genetic link to size. Let’s look at an example. Studies by Dr. Albert Stunkard of the University of Pennsylvania showed that:

    • 70 percent of the variation in peoples’ weights may be accounted for by inheritance, meaning weight is more strongly inherited than nearly any other condition, including mental illness, breast cancer or heart disease.

    • There is a clear relation between the body-mass index of biologic parents and the weight class of adoptees, suggesting that genetic influences are important determinants of body fatness.

    • There is no relation between the body-mass index of adoptive parents and the weight class of adoptees, suggesting that childhood family environment has little or no effect on body size.”

    • Identical twins have nearly identical body mass indexes, whether they have been reared apart or together.

    Bob Schwartz, author of Diets Don’t Work found that by putting his thin clients on weight-loss diets, they gained weight. Maybe we should take a closer look at the influence of weight loss dieting. Quite possibly when thin friends go on diets with their fat friends to lend their support, they end up gaining weight. It has already been proven that pounds lost plus additional pounds are regained after one has stopped the severe restrictions of weight loss dieting in more than 95% of dieters.

    We already know that fat people are discriminated against on their jobs and by insurance and healthcare providers. We believe that this report indicates that thin people tend to exclude fat people from their social networks and now proves that there is social discrimination against people of size. We believe that this report encourages even further discrimination against fat people. It’s time to stop the discrimination now!

    Founded in 1969, NAAFA is a non-profit human rights organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for fat people. NAAFA works to eliminate discrimination based on body size and provide fat people with the tools for self-empowerment through public education, advocacy, and member support.

  44. A note on the increase in height: BMI factors this in. In fact, BMI decreases *exponentially* as height increases, assuming a common weight.

    So when studies show an increase in obesity based on BMI, it factors in height.

    In addition, problems with BMI as a metric of obesity for individuals do not affect it as an epidemiological metric for large groups.

    Finally, the change in the BMI formula often mentioned did not affect trend data: the CDC refactored the previous data. This is the same concept as how stock charts work after stock splits.

  45. Yes, BMI factors in a height increase, which is about the only thing I can say in its favor.

    I was talking about the weight numbers that are often thrown around without the height numbers. Saying the average American has gained X lbs. (I’ve read both 7-14 and about 25 as suggested numbers) since the 1960s without also saying the average American has gotten an inch to an inch and a half taller is irresponsible. Someone who’s 7 lbs. heavier and an inch taller than his father is not any “fatter.” Someone who’s 25 lbs. heavier and an inch and a half taller is still not just OMG 25 lbs. fatter!

    As the article I quoted and linked to said, except for a small minority of extremely fat people, Americans really aren’t that much fatter — and the average American’s increased weight relative to 40 or 50 years ago can be explained by virtually imperceptible changes in diet and exercise.

  46. Thanks for sharing the press release, Peggy. As I said on the fat studies list, I completely forgot to factor in the likelihood of dieting making people fatter — I think that’s a brilliant point.

  47. I almost prefer the scientists who speculate that fat is literally contagious. Here the suggestion is that we’re a “bad influence”. You know, those kids your mom warned you about. Fall in with us, and next thing you’ll know your thighs are touching, your belly hangs out over your waist, and you’ll maybe even have a (gasp!) double chin. We’re a bad influence, you see. Hook up with the fat crowd, and you’ll do everything to be one of us. Stop exercising, eat constantly. You know, the things fat people must surely do. I mean, we’re fat so its pretty obvious. We’re mixed-up. Bad seeds. You don’t want to run with the fat crowd or you’ll be waddling before long. We’re a bad influence, you see.

    Which must come as a shock to those of us under the impression that fat people don’t really have any influence at all and are under constant pressure from society and from other fat people to lose weight. I guess we’ve just got it all wrong. We’re a bad influence. A study says so.

  48. Wow. A couple of days ago, I heard a debate on the radio about if Mo’Nique was doing the public a disservice by actually having (gasp!) a show about women who didn’t apologize for being fat, but instead celebrated them for being gorgeous despite what society thought of them.
    I suppose now we’re ALL guilty — telling our friends we don’t diet, or that we indulge in the occasional Chic-Fil-A breakfast bagel, or have (the horror!) accepted ourselves as we are, spreading ‘untruths’ like Diets Don’t Work and Acceptance Is Healthy!
    What audacity! What gall! Who do we think we are: The New England Journal of Medicine?!

  49. So first taking away the right not to be discriminated against. Now they think taking away one’s right to choose their friends, or even have friends will make people thin. What’s next, CAMPS? That’s right, go ahead media. Go show us just how jelous you would make Hitler feel.

  50. Jill at Feministe gave an interesting potential explanation for these results: “So it would make sense that people who have a genetic propensity towards obesity — say, whose parents are obese — will be more accepting of obese friends. After all, overweight people are routinely socially shunned, so it may make sense that someone who is not yet obese but is likely to become obese will be more comfortable befriending an already-obese person than a thin person carrying around a lot of fat-phobia.”

  51. lauredhel, it’s hardly worth quoting. The gist is that it’s appalling that fat people get to be on TV, because it might send the message that fat is anything but unhealthy, disgusting, and morally offensive. Here’s the KKK part: “I’ve done shows with Ku Klux Klansmen, Mafiosi and Nazis (both domestic and Third Reich). Despite my being not overly cordial to them, always a nagging little voice in me wondered if there wasn’t something wrong with having them on at all. Was it somehow a tacit endorsement, just putting them on television?”

    But of course, he still put the Klan and the Nazis on TV. He just, you know, felt a little ODD about it. So now he outright condemns any image of fat people in the media. *whispers* They’re contagious, you know.

    My favorite part from the comments, before I stopped being able to read them: “About time somebody said something about the grotesquerie of fat people.” Seriously, why have I never HEARD before that fat is gross?

  52. Yeah, once upon a time, I loved Dick Cavett. Now? I’m kinda glad he’s completely irrelevant.

    It MYSTIFIES me how so many people seem to think that fat people think the rest of the world has no problem with them. “About time somebody said something…”??? ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?

    Hey, Dick, want to know why you haven’t heard much about the grotesquerie of fat? BECAUSE YOU’RE THIN. Because you’ve never been told by complete strangers to get off your ass, stop eating, stop going out in public, stop disgusting them. Fat people? ALREADY GOT THE FUCKING MEMO.

  53. Kate, amusingly, the comment I submitted (though it didn’t get through) was “Boy, I wish you were still relevant so I could ignore you.”

  54. FJ, that IS amusing. I probably accidentally deleted it last time I cleared the spam filter — sorry! (As to why it ended up there in the first place, don’t ask. Akismet works in mysterious ways.)

  55. Oh, no, I mean the one I submitted to the Times on Cavett’s article. I don’t know what their criteria are but I guess I was too much with snark.

  56. They had the authors of the study appear on a live chat in the Washington Post. The majority of the people writing in questions were all, “ooh, this is sooo true” and “should I avoid my fat friend” kind of questions. Only one person wrote and said that they were skeptical of the methodology and statistics and laid it out in plain English. Since the authors (like everyone on the Washington Post Live chats) can choose which questions to answer, I give them heads up for at least answering that particular question. They also made pleas that having friendships was far more important than possibly gaining weight and they were not endorsing dumping your fat friends.

    I still agree with Kate that this study is just wrong. Even the word contagious is misleading.

  57. I had a very interesting experience the other day listening to how this news blurb mutated over the course of 24 hours. I listen to my local progressive/AAR-affiliate station, and they have the hourly on-the-hour little-more-than-headline newsblurbs from CBS news, I think it is. ( Mainstream newsdreck, whichever network it is that provides it.) When the news was first released, it was pretty low-key and matter-of-fact (well, for this subject, anyway…) — something like “Study finds that obesity can spread through friends and family.” But as the next 24 hours wound its way through the radio network, each hour the headline became more and more alarmist, along with the newsblurb-headline readers voice, until it was “ZOMG!!! OBESITY IS CONTAGIOUS!!!!”

    Fascinating process.

  58. From what I can tell by reading the paper, what this study shows is that if a person in the study increases in weight from time t-1 to time t, then that person’s friends have an increased probability of increasing in weight over the same time period. So this has nothing to do with whether fat people tend to have fat friends.

    Now, that doesn’t mean that the author’s interpretation of their results is necessarily correct, and it certainly is possible that they failed to adequately account for various confounding factors.

    But to treat the article in the NEJM and the articles in the media reporting on the study as the same thing is quite irresponsible. The study does not show that having fat friends makes you fat. It shows that having friends who gain a lot of weight increases the probability of you gaining a lot of weight. Just because the media is reporting it as “having fat friends makes you fat” doesn’t mean that is what the study shows. In fact, there is no evidence whatsoever from this study (as far as I can tell anyway) that having fat friends makes you fat.

  59. Tim, this post is a response to the whole study, which someone e-mailed me before it was available at the NEJM website. The above criticisms all relate directly to what the published article said. I linked to the Post article because it was a recap for people to see what I was talking about, when the full study wasn’t available.

    But apart from that, criticizing the reporting on studies like this is a big part of what I do. You can’t just dismiss the media’s false representation of it as irrelevant because it’s not what the study says. Very few people will actually read the NEJM article. Many will read one of the hundreds of MSM articles saying, “Having fat friends makes you fat.” That’s dangerous, and the cumulative cultural effect of crappy journalism like that is tremendous.

    So I criticize both. But this post was, in fact, a direct response to the NEJM article.

  60. Kate,

    I guess I was responding more to some of your commenters than your initial post. And I couldn’t agree more that criticizing media reports on studies like these (in fact, on most scientific studies) is important.

    But while I agree with your criticism of the media response to this study, I think your criticism of the actual results of the study is a bit off the mark. The basic result of the study — that having friends who go from non-obese to obese increases the probability of you going from non-obese to obese, and that this increased likelihood is strongest for mutual male friends and doesn’t depend on geographical distance (remembering that the maximum distance class in this study is ~500 miles) — seems pretty robust to me. They do in fact control for genetic effects, by considering weight a previous time point as a variable in their model. While this may not control for genetic differences in how much weight people gain with age, it will control for substantial genetic contribution to stable weight.

    Objecting to the conclusions of a study, or the author’s interpretation of the data is quite a different thing from claiming a whole study is bunk. Now, maybe you weren’t trying to claim that the whole study is bunk, but it sure seemed that way from the tone of your post.

    Of course there are a number of alternative conclusions one could draw from this study, including the one you mention in your next post. It could even be that the authors are right, and that what is transmitted through social networks is ideas about norms of appearance. The authors see this as a bad thing, you see this is as a good thing, but whether it is good or bad has nothing really to do with whether it is what is actually happening.

  61. BTW, I was reading the comment thread in the other post on this story, and what you say there actually says what I was trying to get at better than I did: “As for the “numbers speak for themselves” argument, um, no they don’t. As a scientist I quoted in yesterday’s post pointed out, there are lots of ways to spin the same numbers. And in fact, most of the research debunking the myth of an obesity crisis is based on the very same data that promotes it. Numbers may not lie, exactly, but devoid of context — or deliberately wrapped in a disingenuous context — they can tell a lot of damaging half-truths.”

    Maybe I misread your initial post on this study, but my gut reaction was annoyance that you seemed to be claiming the principle results (as opposed to the interpretation and context) were completely wrong. I apologize if I’ve misread your point.

    It seems much worse to me to accuse scientists of bogus data or methods than of biased interpretation, and I think that when people object to studies like these it is almost always the biased interpretation, not the actual data, that they are objecting to.

    I think as a society we have both too much and too little respect for science. Scientists are only human, they have biases like everybody, and it seems like the media in particular doesn’t ever seem to realize this. This leads to conclusions getting promoted in the media that tend to overreach the available data. Objecting to the interpretation of scientific studies, rather than the underlying data and methodology, seems to be the clearest way to me of pointing this out to people. Objecting to the methodologies, especially when really the issue with the study is the context and interpretation, doesn’t seem helpful to me. Since very few people really understand, as you say, that numbers don’t speak for themselves, convincing people that the numbers are wrong may be the fastest way to debunk a study, but convincing people that numbers don’t speak for themselves seems far more useful to me.

  62. I am linking to this post and the one following. They are so well written that I could not improve on them, and I want those of my readers who are not already aware to have this information.

  63. Tim, the science here IS flawed, as is the author’s conclusions and the necessarily resulting media attention. The media’s reporting is precisely what the authors wanted and the underlying “science” is especially weak. I’d suggest Peggy Elam’s or Sandy Szwarc’s posts on the subject for an indepth analysis.

  64. Hi – finding this for the first time, I’d like to say: cool blog and some great comments.
    But from what I’ve heard so far, this whole thing appears to be another Robert Wood Johnson computer program projection aimed at establishing social control to ‘protect the public’ and sell drugs, in an identical pattern to the pharmaceutical monopoly attempt through the 2nd hand smoke issue.
    And from what I’ve heard previously, the big issue seems to be mainly that children are fatter, babies being born fatter, with each new batch of 2-year-olds progressively fatter than the batch of five years earlier.
    This is expected to become worse – not because babies are exercising less and eating more sugary snacks in the womb, but because of other, more profitable factors.
    If we look back to the 1950s, people ate rich desserts daily, as a matter of course, and exercise for the sake of itself wasn’t the obsession it has been over the past 30 years.
    The obesity issue actually started about 30 years ago, when production-enhancing drugs began to be commonly fed to factory farm animals.
    And as weight-gain/production-enhancing drugs and hormones – becoming more powerful in new advance -are not only fed to but implanted into animals sometimes becoming literally too obese to move easily, the consumers of these gain proportionally more weight without needing to eat even as much as they might otherwise.
    Certainly, this isn’t the only factor; the body will create fat in which to store toxins with which it cannot deal, and an additional 2000 artificial chemicals from the U.S. alone enter the environment – and our bodies – annually, on top of the approximately 100,000 globally present, a number of these specifically concentrating in fats.
    Sewage sludge, loaded with toxins ranging from heavy metals to excreted pharma drugs, is commonly used as fertilizer, with many toxins drawn into food plants and washed into drinking water containg hundreds of such chemicals and heavy metals.
    Industry sells toxic waste as fertilizer, saving the cost of toxic waste sites and making a few bucks by poisoning crop and pasturelands at levels nearly always low enough to enable survival but adding to the body burden of food animals and those who consume their products, as well as fruit, grains and vegetables ‘nourished’ thereby.
    We are what we eat – and most of what we eat is produced by large agribusiness/processors/manufacturers, all ensuring an increase in each quarterly share price/payout in any way they can.
    The resulting ill health and disease suffered is required to provide pharma profits, this being the best investment recommended as they are more lucrative than, apparently, virtually anything else.
    Once you look at the fact that many high-ranking government officials are (often not so ex) industry CEOs, that the heads of U.S. EPA, FDA and other once-protective organizations are now political selections drawn from industry, with multiple industries supporting universities around the globe with multi-million dollar partnerships, and with industry producing/funding/influencing nearly all ‘science’ and ‘medical information, the senselessness begins to make sense.
    Google ‘Union of Concerned Scientists’ and poke around a bit, as where the Bush Administration destroyed the EPA’s libraries and much of the evidence collected over the decades regarding damage done by chemical, asbestos, GM and other industry, the political appointments of industry interests by an administration rejecting science and reality because they believe they can.
    And keep fighting the nonsense and divisive tactics used to focus hatred and selfish spite within and against various segments of the population – it looks like a lot of you are doing a wonderful job.

  65. Kate, are you aware that the IJE published several articles in response to the Campos, et al., paper you link to in that very issue and in subsequent issues? Have you read them?

    Campos and company spend only a few paragraphs trying to assert that there is no real obesity epidemic before launching off into their main point that obesity (“which by the way is imaginary”) is not unhealthy. Most people reading the responses would agree that they pretty much demolished the lines of reasoning used in the Campos paper. But even if you don’t agree with that, to just throw out the Campos paper in isolation is pretty dishonest.

  66. Campos and company spend only a few paragraphs trying to assert that there is no real obesity epidemic

    That might be because Campos and company have published entire books explaining their assertion that there’s no obesity epidemic and didn’t feel the need to repeat themselves.

  67. Whilst I appreciate some of the above comments, I really am finding it hard to keep having to swallow the utter innocence of scientist, who seem to be more sinned against than Tess ( of the d’Urbavilles). When do they ever say mea culpa? So understanding of their own errors, but not other humans surely the media too is full of human beings.

    I am sure there are shady dealings surrounding Agri business, let us balance this by remembering, whether we like it or not, some of the innovations mentioned are what have prevented us from going to bed hungry like a lot of the world still does. I am not an apologist for the food industry, some of whom would pad out some of the crap they sell with actual crap, if it was cost effective and they could get away with it.

    And why have we dumbed down to, we are what we eat, what happened to I think therefore I am?

  68. Having a background in sociology, I did my own critique. I have been posting it on non SA blogs and have had a far more positive response than a negative one. I also wrote Christakis, who e-mailed me back twice. I posted the responses in the FatSo! Gab Cafe. Sorry, the following is a bit long, but I would like to add my 2 cents. Am also giving permission for anyone to redistribute it.

    Don’t Punt Plump Pals Too Promptly

    I am no longer surprised by the sleeze, underhandedness and outright lies of the mainstream media anymore than I am by Brittany’s Spears latest publicity stunts. Yet, when I read headlines like “Fat Friends are Bad for Your Health,” I see they are taking yellow journalism to a whole new shade of pale! These amazing conclusions are based on a new study by James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis in July’s NEJM. The premise is that if we have fat friends, we won’t feel so fat ourselves, so we will have the nerve to think we might be o.k. the way we are. Really, it doesn’t sound so bad to me. Except that scientifically speaking, that assertion, based on THAT study alone, is about as weak as Dick Cheney’s old pacemaker.

    One of its first flaws is that it was based on data from a study designed for a completely different purpose. Yes, Framingham is a well respected research project. But it was designed to look at risk factors for heart disease, NOT the relationship between friendship and weight. Study volunteers were asked to provide contact information about friends and relatives so researchers would not lose track of them. Many of those “friends” listed were also study participants. From that contact information, Christakis makes one of the major assumptions of his own study, that the respondent put down a friend they admired. And if they admired them, perhaps they also emulated them. Lets think about this. When you are asked to give contact information for work or other such purposes, do you put down the person you admire most? Personally, I put down the person with the most stable resident history. Or the one I know won’t mind being bothered. Or, quite honestly, sometimes someone I like least whose info I happen to have on hand so my true friends won’t be ticked at me for giving out their address. We have no way of knowing how “close” these friends were, or if the participants admired them or not.

    Unclear relationship to the listed contacts are only the beginning of this study’s problems. If we are going to design a study that examines the influence of our friend’s weight on ourselves, how should we do it? Would it be reasonable to ask a person how many friends they have? How close they are? How often they interact with them? How many are thin? How many are fat? You bet it would!!!! But this study did none of that! All it did was look at people listed in the contact info who also participated in Framingham. So we have no clue how many other friends a person had or what size they are. Such incomplete research leads to inexplicable results. Friends hundreds of miles from the participant had an influence, but neighbors had no effect. Theoretically, it was possible for someone to have one far away fat friend they rarely see weigh more heavily in influence than several thin friends, neighbors and co-workers nearby(pun intended). Absurd!!!!!!!

    Astonishingly enough, that was not the most bizarre finding in this study. Jeanna Bryner of LiveScience explains “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.” Huh???? Basically it works like this. If Tom put down Harry as a friend on his contact sheet and Harry gained weight, Tom also had a higher risk of gaining weight. If they both put down each other, their risk was even higher. But if Harry put down Tom and Tom did not reciprocate, Tom had no increased risk of weight gain. In other words, if you admire a fat person you are in trouble. If a fat person admires you, you are safe from a cellulite attack. At least that is how Dick (oh I guess it is Nick – it just seems a Dick must be involved here somehow!) interprets it. In the first scenario Harry serves as Tom’s reference group so Tom doesn’t mind his tummy too terribly. But are we so SURE that the 3rd scenario (Tom doesn’t put Harry down as a contact) means he doesn’t admire him? That they are not friends? Maybe Tom knew Harry already put him down as a contact so he wanted to give a 3rd person as additional backup. Or a million other reasons. We just don’t know!!!!!

    Ignorance of the true nature of the relationship did not stop Christakis from using this rather strange finding as a way to dismiss one of the most important questions ALL studies that try and determine a cause and effect relationship need to ask. Could something else be causing them both???? Personally, I don’t think they did enough to take social class into account. (They did control for education, but it is not a complete indicator of social class.) There is an association between social class and obesity in the U.S. Poor people are statistically heavier. People also tend to befriend people in the same socioeconomic status. So maybe, social class affects both ones weight AND the friends you have. Christakis claims that if that were the case, there would be the same results in all 3 of the above scenarios. That the Toms didn’t gain weight when they didn’t list the Harrys back is enough for him there can’t be some intermediate or antecedent variable at work. (Fancy research talk for something that was affecting both their weights besides friendship) Who knows??? Maybe Tom was in a higher social class. In which case, statistically he would be at greater odds of staying thin. And at greater risk of being a big old snob which may why he didn’t put down poor Harry’s name on his contact sheet after Harry was nice enough to name him. Again, we just don’t know!!!!

    Yet, even this is not the most questionable aspect of this study. That honor goes high tech. It turns out that much of this study was based on computer modeling. You can try to read the study itself, but certain parts will leave your head spinning. This is not always an accident in reporting research. When lay people read it, they come away with the feeling it is so over their heads they should leave it up to the experts. When experts read it, many would never admit to being confused, so the just give it thumbs up or down depending on whether or not they agree with the results. The low down on computer models is that they are based on assumptions. Start with one set of assumptions, get one set of results. Start with different assumptions, and get entirely different results. One can get anything one wants with computer models. Which is not really proving anything at all!

    Not, of course, that the media needs proof, truth, or scientific standards to turn this into the admonition that even looking at your fat friend will raise your cholesterol. It is all about pleasing one of their major sponsors, Big Diet/Pharma. To save space, let’s just call it BARFMA. BARFMA has reason to worry of late. Used to be people’s number one worry was their weight! Since BARFMA has spent millions terrorizing us it should be proud! But the times, they are a changing! Weight obsession is a product of an affluent society. Our economy is sinking faster than Bush’s approval ratings. Our dollar is down against other currencies, and so are our home prices. Gas is UP, and so is food and everything else. Just wait till peak oil. We are drowning in debt, both personally and nationally. We face unprecedented environmental disaster, possibly even famine. Even the honey bees are deserting us. Silly Americans are realizing they might have other things to spend their shrinking cash on besides shrinking their waistlines. So the efforts of the dietary-pharmaceutical complex must get even more heavy handed. It is not enough just to scare people about their own health. They must live with the guilt their very presence on earth is a danger to their loved ones. They must be ostracized into action. Diet products are one way obscene amounts of cash get sucked up from the middle class to the corporate elite and that conveyor belt cannot stop! Especially since so many of us found out about that Haliburton thing.

    There are two types of people that should not only ignore this study, but be outraged by the headlines it generated, and the uncritical way it has been promoted in the media. Fat folk themselves who need to wake up and see they are nothing more than walking dollar signs to BARFMA; and, friends everywhere who believe relationships should never be contingent on a price tag! Or a measuring tape!

  69. Hiya, Kate.
    Got the latest and greatest?
    This wasn’t a medical study in the strictest sense of the term. It was a computer simulation. Yes, no actual ongoing medical data was involved, just initial data from a 30 year old cardiology study, plunked into a series of programs (that weren’t written by the guys who did this “study”, and weren’t written for this purpose). This “study” was roughly the equivalent of setting up a house of Sims, making one of the roomates fat, and seeing what happened (assuming you could avoid the temptation to set the house on fire).

    After letting the sims crunch the numbers, they got… nothing.
    Yeah, that’s the punchline. The computer simulation consistently produced statistically aberrant data, which is geek-speak for “the computer has the trots”. So, they eliminated all the results that didn’t fit their original model, made up a few to fill in the gaps, and… POOF! Fat is contagious.

    I pray to all that is holy these guys get their degrees held in review over this.

    Lindsay covered all this ova here:

  70. “That might be because Campos and company have published entire books explaining their assertion that there’s no obesity epidemic and didn’t feel the need to repeat themselves.”

    Yes, Kate, but Campos’s book (there’s only one, “The Obesity/Diet Myth”) is not peer reviewed. The paper you cite was his attempt to counter this common objection against his book, that his ideas and interpretations were not critiqued by experts in the fields (nor even passed by the authors of the papers he cites in most cases).

    As the response papers in that issue of the journal and following issues demonstrated, when a few of his ideas and interpretations were floated onto the radar of experts, they were made short work of.

    In your case also, I would ask that you pick up the phone and pass your interpretation by the original authors of papers you dissect. These people are easy to find on university web sites and usually willing to talk to people asking about their research. If you’re shy, try e-mail, but from personal experience, you get a lot more done quickly by phone. If you’re poor, look into Skype.

  71. The popularity of this ‘fat contagion’ story says a lot about our social climate, and most of what it says makes me want to hang my head or vomit. But the very worst of it all is that people seem to absolutely NO critical eye when it comes to social/human subjects research. Is there no social sciences education in out country? Do Americans not learn anything about statistics, or, gasp!, basic logic?
    Like I say to my sociology students: Research methods are important! For real!
    Sherie Sanders says “If Tom put down Harry as a friend on his contact sheet and Harry gained weight, Tom also had a higher risk of gaining weight. If they both put down each other, their risk was even higher. But if Harry put down Tom and Tom did not reciprocate, Tom had no increased risk of weight gain. In other words, if you admire a fat person you are in trouble. If a fat person admires you, you are safe from a cellulite attack. At least that is how Dick (oh I guess it is Nick – it just seems a Dick must be involved here somehow!) interprets it. In the first scenario Harry serves as Tom’s reference group so Tom doesn’t mind his tummy too terribly. But are we so SURE that the 3rd scenario (Tom doesn’t put Harry down as a contact) means he doesn’t admire him? That they are not friends? Maybe Tom knew Harry already put him down as a contact so he wanted to give a 3rd person as additional backup. Or a million other reasons. We just don’t know!!!!!”

    Absolutely! We have no idea. How about this interpretation of the data: fat people are more likely to admit to having fat friends, while thin people snub, ignore, or block out the overweight people in their social networks? We could also, potentially, read the ‘results’ of this ‘study’ as showing the tremendous stigma inflicted on overweight people in the population in question.

    Imagine you’re playing one of those logic games from Gifted and Talented elementary school class and look at the scenario again, is it possible that we can interpret it as I’ve suggested?

    “If Tom put down Harry as a friend on his contact sheet and Harry gained weight, Tom also had a higher risk of gaining weight. If they both put down each other, their risk was even higher. But if Harry put down Tom and Tom did not reciprocate, Tom had no increased risk of weight gain. In other words, if you admire a fat person you are in trouble. If a fat person admires you, you are safe from a cellulite attack.”

    The most misleading part of these “studies” and their reporting is the idea of ‘risk.’ That is, they report correlation as ‘risk,’ which is then read as causation. Of course, the fact of the matter is that this kind of study cannot prove causation. It can only prove that the set of people who admitted being friends with people who gaimed weight contained more people who gained weight themselves in the study period.

    The fact that sickle-cell anemia is more common in people with curly hair (e.g., people of African descent) than in people with straight hair does not mean that curly hair causes sickle-cell amemia.

    Please everyone, say it again, CORRELATION IS NOT CAUSATION.
    I’m worried about stereotyping and defamation, sure, but I am more worried about a complete lack of any kind of ability to interpret data. Especially when it seems to have been tolerated by a respected peer-reviewed journal. For shame, American education system. For shame, NEJM.

  72. Wow so hanging out with skinny people is going to make me thin? My best friend is skinny and she eats more than I do and is a total couch potato.

    we have a way of referring to this kind of thing back home:

    Horseshit. :)

  73. I always found it strange EVERY where I looked/read there was always one thinner sister and one more heavier.

    I am the thinner sister and finally see 185 on the scale for the very first time since I was like 12 or 13.

    But we both have different daddies, is that factored in as well?

  74. Another Fattie, I think it’s a matter of the heritability of fatness being much like other characteristics. My sisters and I are all short, like my parents, but my brother is taller than average. I got blonde hair that lasted longer than anybody else’s (though it’s probably brown now). One of my sisters has green eyes, the rest of us have blue. I have my mom’s delicate bones, all three of my sibs have my dad’s medium bones. Etc., etc. Not everybody’s going to get exactly the same fatness genes — that doesn’t mean the genes aren’t there.

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  76. I read a different take on the data from the Framingham Heart Study that appears in the new WIRED magazine. After reading it, I was left with a much more positive impression than you were.

    The way I read the article, the researchers took an original approach when they organized the data into networks. Patterns were more clearly revealed by so doing, and some very interesting correlations appeared. As we all know, correlation is not the same as causation.

    In “The Tipping Point,” Malcolm Gladwell used a model from epidemiology as a metaphor to shed light on how fashions, fads, and ideas spread. “Contagion” was a useful metaphor to carry through his book. Because that idea was so understandable, many more writers now use the contagion metaphor. It certainly gets people riled up! I don’t think Malcolm Gladwell intended that we should look for a biological agent of transmission for social behaviors, or “contagion” in the literal sense. LIkewise, in the WIRED article, I did not take the idea of obesity being “catching” or spreading through a social circle in a literal sense, as you seem to have done.

    What is much more interesting to me is recent research in neuroscience regarding mirror neurons. Apparently, if I am in a good mood, my brain is making certain chemicals and the neurons begin to organize in a particular way. If you are within a certain physical radius of me (I think it’s about 2 meters), your brain will begin to make the same chemicals and your neurons will organize in the same way. We begin to “mirror” each other. This might be another factor involved in the universal observation that “Birds of a feather flock together.”

    The WIRED article was careful to portray the study as showing likelihood, or probability, which exists along a spectrum. When I understand that such patterns and tendencies exist, I can make more intelligent choices regarding my own behaviors and attitudes.

    My hopeful interpretation: We have almost unlimited ability to change in whatever way we want — either inspired by, or in spite of, the people who surround us.

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