You may have read the headlines awhile back in your local newspaper. Obesity is contagious.
Based on data emerging from several large scale clinical studies, researchers announced that those of us who socialize with, or live with those who are obese have the tendency to "catch" it, making obesity into a sort of fatty measles.
This news made all the major papers and media outlets and of course led to the obvious and unfortunate conclusion that obese people were to be avoided just as we might give those with strep throat a wide berth. As with many pieces of research that are trumpeted with great fanfare, this one is now being called into question. Unfortunately, the media spotlight rarely catches up with the reviews and criticisms that occur after an announcement is made.
A recent article in the New York Times pointed out the shortcomings of this research. Basically, it's extremely difficult to separate contagion from other phenomena. Perhaps overweight people tend to cluster together because they choose friends who have similar lifestyles or because watching the behaviors of close friends and family tends to normalize those behaviors in their minds, making them more acceptable.
The jury is out.
However, I think that this controversy gives me the perfect opening to discuss one of my favorite related phenomena: the fact that those who develop new, healthy, lifestyles seem to have a strong influence on those around them. In fact, a large percentage of my successful patients report that someone in their life, a spouse, friend, or child, will have lost significant weight and changed behaviors as a result of watching their progress.
I call this the Tag-a-Long Phenomenon and I believe it demonstrates the same principles documented by the researchers on obesity contagion: but in reverse.
A friend of mine developed an autoimmune disease and was overweight. As a result of knowing and observing me, she adopted a grain-free diet and became a 90% Primarian. She lost all of her excess weight and had a marked decrease in the symptoms of her disorder (which had reached the point where she was about to begin steroid treatment). About a year later, her overweight son adopted the same diet and normalized his weight. Sometime after that, her husband, who had been highly skeptical of dietary change, began to eat the same way.
Our practice treated a man who had been told he needed gastric bypass to control a new case of diabetes. After losing all of his weight and becoming a Primarian eater, his wife came to us for similar treatment. We then treated their children. Friends who knew the family turned out to have been influenced by their results. Some came to us and some adopted similar eating principles on their own. This single man's food conversion has now effected upwards of a dozen people.
We work with the president of a major company. After losing significantly and becoming a runner and primarily Primarian eater, our patient noticed that members of his management team began to show similar inclinations. One became a marathoner and others lost and maintained weight. The change in their lives has led to an interest in new programs and healthy initiatives throughout the company.
What is contagion? In my view, its definition is clinically unimportant when it comes to behaviors. Whether we call it contagion, influence, or modeling, it is obvious is that human beings closely observe one another and learn from what they see. If eating too much is the norm in your circle, it will be harder to avoid it. However, if you make the effort to be someone who changes and has a true shift in belief and behavior, there will be many people around you who will watch and perhaps mimic your efforts.
Because behaviors get into the cultural atmosphere and have the ability to spread "virally", it is important to create an environment that values health more and relies on medicines less. We all have a bit of the lemming in us. But given the chance, it's as easy to follow the one who's ascending to the mountaintop as it is to pursue the one who's headed off the cliff.