- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Obesity is deadly, epidemic and … contagious?

A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics shows that being around obese people for extended periods makes it more likely that you will become obese.

The study also suggests that people who are surrounded by a community and environment that promote healthy living will mirror that lifestyle.

“Even though the word ‘contagion’ has a negative connotation, what we really want people to take away is that we can actually use it to our advantage,” Ashlesha Datar, co-author of the recently published study, told The Washington Times.

More than one-third of the U.S. population is obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Excessive weight and obesity are contributing factors to the leading causes of death and health maladies in the country, including heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and a number of cancers.

A number of factors have contributed to the nation’s obesity epidemic — including sedentary lifestyles, poor dietary choices and limited access to healthy opportunities — but the latest research emphasizes that changing cultural norms have made the problem worse.

“The social influence component is an important component, and too much attention may have been focused just on the built environment,” said Ms. Datar, a senior economist at the Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research at the University of Southern California. “That doesn’t seem to be where the answer is, that you can build all these parks and things. There’s the social influence aspect that has to be addressed as well.”

Ms. Datar, with co-author Nancy Nicosia of the Rand Corp., set out on a study that evaluated how location influences obesity rates in military families, who often move around the country because of where they are needed and not by personal choice.

“To be honest with you, we were not expecting to find a social contagion,” said Ms. Datar, adding that the study originally was meant to look at how the built environment influenced obesity rates in neighborhoods.

The researchers followed 1,314 adults and 1,111 children ages 12 and 13 at 38 military facilities throughout the country. Data were collected from the Military Teenagers Environments Exercise and Nutrition (M-TEEN) study in 2013 and 2014.

The researchers found that in counties with high obesity rates — greater than the national average of 30 percent — parents in military families were 25 percent more likely to be overweight. Children had a 19 percent higher chance of being overweight or obese in those counties.

Furthermore, the chances of being overweight or obese increased if a military family lived off base and within the community and for periods longer than two years, compared with those who lived on military installations or were living in the area for less than two years.

“There are some counties that are more obese than others, but it’s not because one has a different built environment than the other — or at least that’s not explaining why our military families are mirroring the obesity risk of the community that they’ve been assigned to,” Ms. Datar said.

Their data represented a snapshot of time, she said, and didn’t examine whether individuals gained or lost a certain amount of weight when they moved.

Yet Ms. Datar pointed out that this social contagion can have a positive influence.

For example, the researchers found that military families living in counties with low rates of obesity mirrored the local populations. In El Paso County, Colorado, which has one of the lowest obesity rates (21 percent), adults were 29 percent less likely to be overweight or obese. Children were 23 percent less likely to have weight issues.

“Maybe we can have policies that actually leverage that sort of feature of human behavior and create a culture of health that will automatically have this multiplier effect where everybody wants to be that, everybody wants to lead a heathy lifestyle,” Ms. Datar said.

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