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A little fat between friends

- The Washington Times - Monday, July 30, 2007

Why am I not surprised? Secondhand obesity has now been documented.

That according to a study just out in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine, and funded by the National Institute on Aging.

AP science writer Alicia Chang summarized the study this way — "If your friends and family get fat, chances are you will too, researchers report in a startling new study that suggests obesity is [both] 'socially contagious' and can spread easily from person to person."

The study found one's chances of becoming obese through "contagion" is most significant when it comes to good friends, even friends who live far apart, much more so than among those who swim in the same gene pool. If your pal becomes obese, your chances of tipping the scales too much will go up 57 percent; 40 percent if your sibling becomes overweight; and 37 percent if your spouse does.

Two-thirds of Americans are now overweight or obese. Obesity is America's second leading cause of preventable death, after smoking, and it's fast closing in on becoming No. 1. It claims about 300,000 lives a year.

The finding that it's social relationships, not genetic ones, which offer the biggest risk in weight gain just — again — reiterates that obesity is not primarily about random genetic malfunction. It's about a generation of us who just can't say no to anything, including food. But it's becoming increasingly clear it's also very much about a food culture that feeds that lust, pun intended.

In any event, the idea this is "startling" to researchers is the element of all this I find most, well, startling. I've written in the past that I genuinely feel obese people, particularly the rapidly growing number of obese kids, present a health risk to my kids. After all, when my children look around and see overweight and obese people and children everywhere, it could easily make them think it's, well, at some level OK. It's just human nature to think that "everybody is doing it" or "that guy is doing it even more than I am — so no problem."

And seeing food itself everywhere only "feeds" into this too.

I hear from friends who tell me about the office "foodie." The typically heavy person who fills his or her desk with chocolates, potato chips, cookies and is always ready to share.

If one is struggling with weight — that's a way to fail. Where are the second-hand smoke police when you need them?

Why can't such people be told, "this is a snack-free zone," and then be forced to suck down the goodies outside the front door of the office on a freezing cold day? Seriously.

But if the "foodie" doesn't get you, the food culture might. Snacks and goodies at every church, school or kids' event, it's always somebody's birthday in the office (don't we have to have cake?) and the grotesquely huge portions at most restaurants, especially of deserts, never cease to amaze me.

I continue to think resisting this stuff is ultimately up to each one of us. (We had junk food when I was a kid, too.) But more and more, I'm beginning to see that the increasingly ubiquitous food culture is becoming something like our increasingly ubiquitous pornographic culture.

It's just everywhere. And so a good thing, sex, food, in the right context, becomes a perverted, controlling monster in the wrong one.

If that perversion is not of interest to you in the first place, of course, it might not matter how much is around you, you typically won't succumb to it. But if you have a weakness for the stuff at all, watch out. It can destroy you.

In other words, this latest study shows — again — that Americans have to wake up and stop taking our obesity epidemic... so lightly.

Betsy Hart hosts the "It Takes a Parent" radio show on WYLL-AM 1160 in Chicago. This column was distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.