Let’s play word association. If I say “contagious disease,” chances are, given news headlines, you’ll say something like “Ebola,” “the common cold” or “the flu.” Probably not obesity.
As it turns out, obesity is socially contagious—an epidemic that, according to the landmark Framingham Heart Study and numerous others, spreads rapidly through social networks. Researchers found that having a friend who became obese over the 32-year study increased the likelihood the participant would also become obese by a whopping 57 percent. Although scientists don’t fully understand how obesity spreads, they think it has to do with the influence communities have on what its members perceive as acceptable —whether that’s eating cheeseburgers for breakfast, exercising less, or simply getting chubbier.
While an active social life is arguably part and parcel of a healthy, balanced lifestyle, here are five ways your popularity may be undermining your weight loss goals:
1 YOU GO OUT WITH A BIG GROUP
When we eat with other people we consume, on average, 44 percent more food than we do when dining alone. Research published in the journal Nutrition found that eating a meal with one other person was 33 percent larger than a meal savored alone. It gets scarier from there. Third-wheeling with two friends? You’re looking at a 47 percent bigger meal. Dining with 4, 6 or 8+ friends was associated with meal increases of 69, 70 and 96 percent, respectively. Though part of this has to do with the amount of time we spend at the table when dining with company, another study from the journal Appetite found people who spent longer eating because they were simultaneously reading didn’t eat significantly more, meaning time isn’t the only factor at play here.
2 YOU HAVE A CLOSE FRIEND WHO IS “NATURALLY THIN”
Everyone has that one friend who seems to defy all metabolic laws and maintain a thin figure while eating whatever they want. News to further annoy you: hanging out with them while they pig out may cause you to do the same. A study in the Journal of Consumer Research had college students watch a movie and snack with either a skinny or overweight companion. When the thin friend overate, college students were apt to follow suit, but they exercised more self-control when snacking with a heavier overeater.
3 YOU’RE MARRIED TO YOUR BESTIE
For better or … fatter? Research suggests a committed relationship has the potential to wreak havoc on your diet. A study in the American Journal of Public Health analyzed the impact spouses, friends and siblings played on dietary patterns over the course of 10 years; couples had the greatest influence on one another’s eating habits, particularly when it came to drinking booze and snacking. The good news is the “halo effect” applies to healthy habits too. A Harvard Public School of Health study found people on a weight-loss program who had the support of at least one partner lost 6.5 pounds more than those going at it alone. So sign your spouse or friend up to be your partner in getting fit.
4 RESTAURANT MEALS ARE ALWAYS “CHEATS”
If you want to eat healthy when dining out with a group of friends, keep healthy company … or order first! A University of Illinois study found that groups of people tend to order similarly, especially when forced to say their order out loud. The researchers attribute the results to the fact that people are happier making similar choices to their peers. If you’re determined to make healthy choices, stick to your decision and get your order in first.
5 YOU STAY CONNECTED ON FACEBOOK
We wish there was a dislike button. Spending hours on Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest when you could be up-and-about burning calories is a growing health concern, health experts say. A study of 350 students from the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland found that the more time they spent on Facebook, the less time they spent exercising or engaging in team sports. Particularly fattening is catching up with your social networks before bed—in bed even. A study in the Pediatric Obesity journal found students with access to one electronic device in their bedrooms were 1.47 times as likely to be overweight as those with no devices in the bedroom. That increased to 2.57 times for kids with three devices. Turn that catch up session into an in-person meet-up and, no, not at a restaurant. Get together for a team sport or a physical activity to spend time with friends without staring at a screen.