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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Who’s your fat friend?

Your chances of becoming obese double if those around you are overweight

Why do some people end up being friends with one another, while others fail to strike any kind of rapport? Conventional wisdom has it that it is commonality of interests that is the deciding factor. Thus, journalists are predisposed to become friends with other journos with whom they can discuss the state of the nation and the latest Press Club gossip. Lawyers tend to stick together and not just in court either. Young mothers gravitate towards each other seeking some kind of support structure. And singletons tend to favour the company of other single people with whom they can moan about dating disasters and the paucity of eligible members of the opposite sex.

So far, so predictable. But new research indicates that how you look is also a function of who you are friends with. A recent study published by the New England Journal of Medicine, for instance, links obesity to friendship. According to this, you are 57 per cent more likely to become obese if a friend of yours has become obese during the same time period. And no, it’s not just a case of fatties sticking together – people’s weight actually changes as a consequence of who they hang around with.

Certainly, empirical evidence would seem to bear that out. Take a good look around you. The odds are that you will find that thin people are friends with other thin people, while those who are overweight tend to have overweight buddies. Thus, super-skinny Paris Hilton famously hung out with stick insect Nicole Ritchie while her short-lived friendship with Britney Spears led to that troubled singer booking herself in a bit of liposuction. Jennifer Aniston and Courtney Cox continue their on-screen friendship (as Rachel and Monica in Friends) in real life as well, showing off matching bikini-perfect bodies on joint beach holidays.

That’s not to say that thin people always shun the company of the overweight. On the contrary, groups of thin people often harbour a token fat person among them, whose sole purpose seems to be to provide a dumpy contrast to the divine gorgeousness of his or her perfectly proportioned friends. Even in the movies and on television, this trend is well represented with the lead actor being shadowed by an overweight sidekick who makes the main act look even better in comparison.

At some point in our lives, we’ve all fallen prey to this syndrome as well. We’re all guilty of choosing to take a fatter -- and hence, we hope, less attractive to the opposite sex -- friend to a party or a nightclub in the hope that he or she will not prove to be much competition. We’ve all surreptitiously stationed ourselves next to the fattest person in the group when it’s time to take a picture in the hope that we will look sylph like in comparison.

But the token fattie aside, thin people seem to hang out with those similarly proportioned. And those who are overweight tend to be surrounded by others of their ilk. Certainly, if all your friends are, well, shall we say, generously built, the incentive to remain thin decreases exponentially. Similarly, if everyone around you is thin, then you are more likely to want to drop off those extra pounds.

At a certain level, this makes some sense. After all, if your friends are stuffing their faces with junk food and gorging on ice-cream and cakes, it is far more difficult to stick to a diet of salad and steamed fish. On the other hand, if everyone around you is into healthy eating and portion control, you feel much more guilty about queuing up for seconds at the all-you-can-eat buffet.

While this study has been vigorously debunked by those who insist that obesity cannot be likened to a contagion, there is no denying that the behavioural patterns prevalent in your immediate environment have a huge impact on your choices as well. So, just as alcoholics are advised to avoid `triggers’ like hanging out with old drinking buddies because that could push them back into a spiral of addiction, you could well say that fat people would gain from staying away from other fat people and their propensity to overeat and under-exercise.

So, does that mean we should dump all our overweight friends and start hanging out with thin people in the hope that their skinniness will rub off on us? No, it’s not that simple. At the end of the day, if you want to get thin, you have to eat less and get off your fat butt and exercise more.

The only difference thin friends make is that their slender waistlines are a constant visual reminder of how we want to look, and hence, a daily incentive to whittle down our own lard-laden selves. And sometimes hearing people snigger, “Who’s your fat friend?” is all the incentive you need to throw out all those chocolate-chip cookies and start stocking up on fresh fruit and vegetables. And no matter what your current weight, that has to qualify as a good start.

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