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Is Obesity Contagious?

Is Obesity Contagious?

When I sit down to eat with other people, I find it funny to watch their behavior. I am not the food police, but because everyone knows I am a strong advocate for real, whole, fresh food and make the link between food and health, they change what they eat or what they put on their plate or order from the menu simply because I am at the table. I have no judgment and don’t monitor what my friends are eating, but it appears that my focus on health is “contagious.”

Recent research proves that this is, in fact, true. Our social connections have an enormous influence on our health. You are more likely to be healthy if your friends are healthy and more likely to be overweight if your friends are overweight. More striking is you are more likely to be overweight if your friend’s friend (who you may not even know) is overweight. You are also more likely to be happy if your friends or friend’s friends are overweight. Both good health and bad health are contagious. So is happiness or depression. Your mood affects people you don’t even know. You could make your son’s best friends mother unhappy if you are in a bad mood.

In 2007, Harvard researchers published a study in the New England Journal of Medicine,The Spread of Obesity in a Social Network over 32 Years,” that documented how our social connections play a larger role in our health than we ever imagined. They looked at the Framingham data and found 5,124 friends with 53,228 connections from 1971 to 2003. Their findings were striking.

Obesity appeared to break out in clusters. They were 57 percent more likely to be overweight if they had a friend who became obese. What was even more amazing was that the effect seemed to skip people. They were 20 percent more likely to become overweight if the friend of a friend became overweight and 10 percent more likely to become overweight if the friend of a friend of a friend became overweight. People within three degrees of separation from us shape our behavior, even if we have never met them.

What’s even more interesting is something they call directionality. If John thought that Steve was his best friend and John gained weight, Steve would gain weight too. But if John didn’t think Steve was his best friend (just a friend), John was less likely to gain weight if Steve gained weight. It seems, the more you feel connected to someone else the more his or her behaviors affect you.

This study helped me understand that our approach to addressing the epidemic of obesity, diabetes and chronic disease may be backwards because we focus on the individual. We talk about personal responsibility and self-control. But how can that be the whole story if you are more likely to gain weight if the friend of a friend that you have never even met gains weight. We have to rethink our approach to obesity and chronic disease.

The patient, so to speak, may not be a person but the community, a social network of people who influence each other. Think of the power of this approach. Most of us are linked by three degrees of separation to 1,000 people, all of which we can theoretically make healthier and happier by our behavior. How you act, what you eat, if you gain or lose weight will influence the behavior of 1,000 people, most of whom you don’t even know. That should make you stop, think and change your way of seeing the world.

We are now at a catastrophic point in human history with over 1.7 billion people overweight (more than twice as many as those who go to bed hungry). We need to see that just like tuberculosis or AIDS, obesity, type 2 diabetes and chronic disease are also contagious diseases affected by the environment we live in, surrounded by toxic industrial food and the people we are connected to. Obesity is a social disease. And it needs a social cure.

Once I realized this, it became clear to me that we needed a completely different approach. Maybe social groups were both the cause and the cure for our obesity epidemic. That is why, when I met Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church with over 30,000 members who met weekly in close-knit, small groups to support each other in every aspect of their lives, I had an aha! moment. What if we create a social experiment and get people to get healthy together. We designed a healthy living curriculum and delivered it through small groups. We had 15,000 people sign up in the first week, and in one year, they lost over 250,000 pounds.

We found that those who did the program together lost twice as much weight. The changes in behavior in this group caused a ripple effect in the community. The restaurants started offering healthier options. The grocery stores put healthier items at the checkout counters.

The program is called The Daniel Plan, and now, we have created a book, cookbook and curriculum for small groups, along with a kit for pastors to use to bring this to their local churches. It can be used in any faith-based community. I am Jewish and wanted to call the book, “The Jewish Doctor’s Guide to Christian Wellness.”

If you do the math on the effect of social networks on health, keeping in mind the three degrees of influence and that each person’s behavior can affect 1,000 people, all it would take would be for 1 percent of the population to change (if they were in the right social networks) to create a tipping point that could reverse the obesity epidemic.

We need to rethink healthcare and put communities and social groups at the center of healthcare. Think of it as Facebook for health. We have thousands of people in our online communities changing their life together, reversing diabetes, losing weight, supporting each other and sharing ideas, recipes, suggestions and encouragement.

We had over 600 people do The 10-Day Detox Diet together. It is a powerful approach to end sugar and carb addiction and reboot health. They lost over 4,000 pounds in 10 days and had a 62% reduction of all symptoms from all diseases. What was amazing was that, in 10 days, there were over 1,500 pages of comments in the private Facebook page. And they have continued to support each other for over a year. People have a longing to belong, a craving to connect. That is why I encourage people to connect and get healthy together.

This is happening in models all over the world. Microclinic International created a model of small peer groups that help each other get healthy, cutting out doctors and hospitals from the equation. Not only do people get much healthier, the results are far better than with conventional medical care and cost far less.

From Kenya to Kentucky, Microclinic International has proven in the real world that getting people to support each other works. Bell County, Kentucky has some of the highest rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes in the country. After the 40 weeks pilot program, 95 percent of the participants had dramatically improved blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, waist circumference and weight (BMI).

I recently met with Bernice King, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s daughter and leading African American pastors in Atlanta when I spoke about sugar addiction, obesity and my book, The Blood Sugar Solution 10-Day Detox Diet. Their communities have far greater rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes and are more aggressively targeted by the food industry.

We created a plan to bring the movie FED UP (in theaters May 2014), about childhood obesity, sugar and the food industry, to the King Center and gather over 200 church, education and community leaders to watch it and enroll them in community action—in churches using the Daniel Plan and provide tools for communities and schools to get healthy together.

I also met with the CEO of Zumba, and they plan to use their powerful social networks (the tight-knit communities that form in Zumba classes) to “spread” health through small group health programs (like a 10-day sugar detox) and education, using their 200,000 Zumba instructors as community health workers.

This is the way we will change our collective health, together. Think of it as the “Love Diet.” Combine real food with love and community and the result is health and happiness. Think of it as “friend power” rather than will power. As my friend Rick Warren says, “every body needs a buddy.”

If you’re inspired to detox, to end your food addiction and your sugar and carb cravings and renew and reboot your health, check out my #1 bestselling book The Blood Sugar Solution 10-Day Detox Diet! Plus, get these great bonus gifts right away to jump-start your program:

  • In the Kitchen with Dr. Mark Hyman – In this three-part online video series, I teach you how to cook amazingly delicious healing foods quickly.
  • The Missing Ingredient Report – Why we get stuck and how we can sustain our weight loss goals.
  • Dieting 101 Guide – My review of the top 10 weight loss programs, in which I share what works and what doesn’t and WHY?

Wishing you health and happiness,
Mark Hyman, MD

Mark Hyman MD is the Director of Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine, the Founder of The UltraWellness Center, and a ten-time #1 New York Times Bestselling author.

If you are looking for personalized medical support, we highly recommend contacting Dr. Hyman’s UltraWellness Center in Lenox, Massachusetts today.