Huffpost Healthy Living

How Your Social Circle Affects Your Weight

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By Violet Owens for YouBeauty.com

Can America “eat pretty?” Our barrier series identifies and breaks down the obstacles that are keeping you from eating for your best beauty and health.

Barrier: States With High Obesity Rates
Here’s the good news: It’s not like you’re alone. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity (DNPAO) have been working overtime in recent years. Why? According to their most recent data, about one-third of all American adults (that’s 33.8 percent!) are obese.

The problem seems to be spiraling out of control. Consider these numbers: The number of so-called “fat states” with an obesity prevalence of 30 percent or more has increased to 12 states in 2010. (Um, 36 states had a prevalence of 25 percent or more.) That’s compared to 2009, when only nine states had obesity rates of 30 percent or more. And back in 2000, no state had an obesity prevalence of 30 percent or more.

Translation: America’s obesity epidemic is steadily getting worse. Much worse.

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What’s the Deal?
We hate to name names, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t call out some of the states that you’re least likely to run into at the gym: Texas, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee, Alabama and South Carolina.

Despite the fact that arguably -- thanks to bestselling authors like Michael Pollan and Alice Waters, not to mention tabloid covers that scream “How Kim Got Her Bikini Body!” -- our awareness of fitness and health foods has never been greater, how can we explain that as a nation, our collective pants sizes are increasing so rapidly?

The answer? Take a look around. A 32-year longitudinal Harvard study published in the The New England Journal of Medicine found that in some ways, obesity is like a communicable disease, spreading from person to person, especially friends and family.

The domino-effect data is harsh but makes sense: You live, laugh and love together? Surely you eat and exercise (or not) together too. And your best friend? She could be your worst enemy: While an obese friend can increase your chances of becoming obese by 57 percent, when a bestie becomes obese, your risk shoots up to 171 percent. Crazy!

But it doesn’t stop there. That random Facebook acquaintance really could be in danger of tipping the scales too: The researchers found the spread of obesity even extended to three degrees of separation. Scary right?

Is Anyone Doing Anything About it?
Like we said, the C.D.C. has been scrambling to keep up, and their programs vary from state to state. Because Texas is such a large state (sorry, we couldn’t resist), the situation is dire. Therefore, the Texas Department of State Health Services' (DSHS) Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity Prevention Program (NPAOP) convened to create a wellness campaign called “Texas! Bringing Healthy Back,” which isn’t as snappy as “Don’t Mess With Texas,” but we’ll take it. An example of the ammunition includes a Farm to Work program that delivers farm fresh fruits and vegetables to employees where they work.

In South Carolina, the emphasis is on physical activity, where bicycle safety laws have been amended and walking trails added.

In the 25 states currently receiving funding to fight obesity, each of the unique programs all ultimately ascribe to six principle goals set forth by the C.D.C.: increase physical activity, increase consumption of fruits and vegetables, decrease consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, reduce consumption of high-energy-dense foods, increase breastfeeding initiation and duration and decrease television viewing. And surely by now you’ve heard of First Lady Michelle Obama’s nationwide initiative, Let’s Move!, which focuses on preventing obesity in children.

How to Help Yourself
As Ghandi said, you must be the change you want to see in the world. Just say no. It’s easy to eat dessert when there are six spoons and everyone’s gorging and exclaiming how delicious it all is. But by being firm and refusing to put anything made with say, high fructose corn syrup in your mouth, you’re not just safeguarding your own waistline: “Ultimately, people have to feel confident about saying no,” says Elissa Epel, Ph.D. and associate professor in the UCSF Department of Psychiatry. “But it also means they are a role model to others, and may eventually influencing others to make the same healthy choices next time.” Or at least you can train them not to wave cookies in your face.

Reverse the trend: If obesity is catching, why couldn’t the opposite be true? Try to influence the masses, or well, just that lady in the cubicle next to you. The Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that when people actually do bother to exercise, "Sports and exercise time is often scheduled around other activities, such as work." By now we all know that having a gym buddy ups your chances of sticking to a workout. Why not recruit coworkers or even start a work sports team?

Hit the books: While there is no significant relationship between obesity and schoolin’ among men, there is an interesting trend among women: Those with college degrees are less likely to be obese compared with less educated women. Similarly, ladies with higher incomes are less likely to be obese than low-income women. You might theorize that they can afford to skip those “dollar meals,” whereas someone with less means might feel more pressured to cut back on food spending. But when it comes to nutrition, educating yourself is key.

Consider 86-ing meat: We know, we know! Being a vegetarian sounds like being relegated to the no-fun zone when it comes to eating. But, according to the European Prospective Investigation, vegans were found to have the lowest BMI’s (or body mass index), followed by vegetarian fish eaters, then meat eaters. The study eventually concluded that vegan and vegetarian diets may not only protect against obesity, but also Type 2 diabetes. Even President Clinton stepped away from his beloved hamburgers when he recently went vegan on the advice of his doctor, Dr. Dean Ornish. The result? He lost 20 pounds and feels he is aggressively combating his cardiovascular disease.

Let technology be your guide: New apps help you track your fitness and food intake. iMapMyFitness tracks your outdoor workouts via GPS, and nutrition programs like LoseIt and the Fast Food Calorie Counter make it easy to keep score. Not sure what this crazy smartphone thing is everyone is talking about? Buy an old-fashioned pedometer and aim to walk 10,000 steps per day, the amount of activity suggested by experts for weight management.

Get real about workouts: Don’t go canceling your personal trainer appointments on our accounts. But realistically, we often miss workouts because of the time crunch, and during a busy day, the thought of fitting in an hour or so at the gym or spin class seems downright impossible. Less intimidating? A recent Taiwanese study suggests just 15 minutes of moderate exercise a day can lead to a longer life. For the record, the benefits increase if you get 30 per day.

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