Obesity is Contagious

Social Health and Obesity

In my training to become a Holistic Health Coach, I am taught to look at all aspects of someone’s health, not just the food on their plate. Essentially, we look at their lifestyle. Find out more about that by viewing my last blog post.


As we look at this, the picture becomes clearer and clearer to us. Our social environment, as it turns out, affects us more than we know. I mean, after all, you’ve heard of the term “peer pressure” before, yeah?


As the Bible states:

peer pressure

As an educator, I’ve seen so many instances where I ask my students if there are any questions. Silence. Dead silence. No one raises their hand. This is because, as a whole, everyone is afraid of being judged by their peers. Then, after class, they come to ask me their question privately, if at all.  There are students who merely follow the answer of the smartest student in class, knowing that he or she is more likely to be right. This ‘herd mentality’ follows us even after school.


How many of you know someone, yourself included, who only goes to the gym when they have someone to go with? Moreover, the rise of viral trends nowadays shows this ‘bandwagon’ effect even more so.  Notable examples of this are the Kiki DanceIce Bucket Challenge, and the Wipe it Down Challenge. Just take a swipe through TikTok and you’ll see just how much we are influenced by those around us. And this is something that we must be aware of. Not only for the sake of our own health, but it’s important for the health of our children, too. 

Not all of this is bad, mind you. It’s just something that we should be cognizant of. Instead of having our life be controlled by those around us, we need to take back control.  For example, it’s perfectly acceptable and recommended at times to set up some sort of accountability system. In the scope of my health coaching, I am the accountability partner. Knowing you have someone to answer to can be really beneficial. It can make sticking to routines and building habits much easier. 

As a health coach, I am that accountability buddy for my clients. And as a Child of God, I am to be that role model for others. I try to bear good fruits and not be corrupted by others. My goal is to show others that they can accomplish anything through grit, determination, passion, persistence and patience.  

Social health is so important to understand because it affects us subliminally and attempts to undermine our efforts. What do I mean by this? Well, as it turns out, did you know that obesity is contagious? Don’t believe me? Well, keep reading as we dissect this massive study published in 2003 that took a look at over 12,000 individuals (which is quite the impressive sample size). You can access the full study here. For the sake of brevity, however, I’ll list the highlights below as well as the key takeaways.

Results of the Study

  • “Discernible clusters of obese persons…were present in the network at all time points, and the clusters extended to three degrees of separation.” Essentially, this is saying that there was shown to be an increase trend in obesity if an individual had someone in their social circle up to three degrees of separation (i.e. a sister who has a friend who has a friend).
  • “A person’s chances of becoming obese increased by 57% if he or she had a friend who became obese in a given interval.”
  • “Among a pair of adult siblings, if one sibling became obese, the chance that the other would become obese increased by 40%.”
  • “If one spouse became obese, the likelihood that the other spouse would become obese increased by 37%.”

Analysis of the Study

In brief, what this study looked at were adults from the 1970s to the 2000s—thirty years’ worth of data—in order to see how they changed. The study goes on to state that “having obese social contacts might change a person’s tolerance for being obese or might influence his or her adoption of specific behaviors (e.g., smoking, eating, and exercising). This idea is represented as “induction” or the peer influence that people exhibit on others. There are two other possible hypotheses for the clustering of obese individuals, including “homophily” which essentially means they want to associate with people who are like them. And it may also be due to “confounding” or “jointly experienc[ed] unobserved…events that cause their weight to vary at the same time.” Essentially, going out to a buffet together or grabbing drinks together, etc.

risk of obesity

Above, the graph shows a piece of statistical data grabbed from the report. As you can see, “Persons in closer, mutual friendships have more of an effect on each other than persons in other types of friendships.” In fact, mutual friendships (meaning each person regarded the other as a friend) the risk of obesity increased by 171%. Just as startling is the fact that same-sex friendships increased the probability of an individual for obesity by 71%.

What is also interesting to note is that neighbors had no perceived effect on the weight gain of an individual, meaning that it is the “social distance [that is] more important than geographic distance.” This is important to know because it rules out environmental factors and puts a greater emphasis on social factors.

Another reason why it is interesting to really understand this study is the date on which it was published: 2003. That is nearly twenty years ago. Upon researching further, I found out that the obesity rate had increased even more dramatically during this time. According to cdc.gov, obesity prevalence has increased from 30.5% to 42.4% from 2000 to 2018. And severe obesity has doubled, from 4.7% to 9.2%. And they also went on to say, “Medical costs for people who had obesity was $1,429 higher than medical costs for people with healthy weight.” Imagine saving that kind of money, and all the money you save on food just simply by eating less, eating out less, and making healthier and smarter choices.


And while this statistic is certainly significant, it still doesn’t account for the pandemic, as the data stopped in 2018. Upon even more research, I found a report published by “Stress in America.” They conducted a survey between February 19-24 of 2021 of over 3000 U.S. Adults, publishing their findings in April. 42% of these individuals claimed to have experienced “undesired weight gain”, the average of that weight gain being around 29 pounds (~15 kilos). Of course, there are other factors affecting this than merely our social circles (i.e. lack of access to gyms, stress, depression, quarantine), but still, this very well could be due to being only around our social circles as well (e.g. spouse, close relatives). As the study from 2003 pointed out, those closer to us influence our lives more and could very well increase the possibility of obesity.


When I read statistics like these, it makes my passion for helping people as a holistic health coach that much greater. To me, all of this is rather fascinating, yet wasn’t so surprising. We are definitely social beings. I, as a super-extrovert, am incredibly social, and I do realize that I put myself into bad situations. When I am around some of my friends, I find myself drinking more than usual. When I am with my gym bros, I train harder than last time. This isn’t new data, but it is often overlooked and undervalued.

If you want to start increasing your holistic health, it’s important to take a look at the people who you let into your life. Only allow those that are supporting you, encouraging you, and pushing you to be your best self. Don’t allow others’ unhealthy habits to become your own, otherwise you may just end up obese. 

On the flip side of this, though, it should all push us to be the best versions of ourselves. If obesity is contagious, then so is positivity. By making sure you are the best you can be every single day, you will influence the others around you. Smiles are contagious, and it might just turn someone’s day around. Love more and be kind. Spread it around. Love yourself to make the necessary changes in your lifestyle, whether that is eating healthier, eliminating the riffraff from your social sphere, or taking time out for your inner-wellbeing every morning. Doing so will create a ripple effect that will benefit you in the weeks, months, and years to come.

How are you going to start combating this trend? Let me know in the comments below! 

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