There are a number of factors commonly known to contribute to obesity – poor diet and lack of exercise are perhaps the most obvious.
But what if simply being around obese people was enough to influence your behaviour to the point that it would send your BMI rocketing?
A new study has suggested this could be the case.
Conducted at the University of South California, the study looked at whether obesity can be considered “socially contagious”. That means that the ideas and behaviour patterns associated with the condition are spread through imitation and conformity.
To this end, it looked at 3140 families assigned to military communities in a variety of counties in the US.
And the findings?
For every 1% increase in a county’s obesity rate, the risk of a teenager becoming overweight went up between 4% and 6% as a result of this ripple effect. The risk of an adult becoming overweight went up by 5%.
Those sent to counties with higher obesity rates were indeed more likely to be overweight than those in areas with lower obesity rates.
Not only that, but the longer they remained there, the more overweight they became.
“We were somewhat surprised,” Dr Ashlesha Datar explained.
“Traditionally we think the built environment is what matters, or that people choose environments for a healthy lifestyle. But the findings show there’s still a strong relationship to the community”.
So, worrying news?
Yes, but the idea of a social contagion can also work both ways. That is, it can encourage healthy behaviour too if you are surrounded by healthier behaviour.
Family influences are particularly important. For example, a child is more likely to be overweight if one of both of their parents are. Therefore, the best way to treat an overweight child in the long run, could be to help their parents overcome any weight issues.
These are important discoveries that have strong relevance in Australia. Here, 27.5% of the adult population is obese and 35.3% is overweight – that’s a staggering 62.8% of the adult population.
Those that live in regional areas are more likely to be obese than if they live in the city – 68.8% as compared with 60.1%.
The same trend is seen in kids too, with 56% overweight or obese in regional areas, against 25% in major cities.
Do you agree with the findings of this study?