Thursday, July 26, 2007

Fat Comes in on Little Cat Feet

By GAIL COLLINS
Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
July 27, 2007

Tonight on television:

8 p.m. — “Friends.” In a much-anticipated reunion special, the gang has all bought condos in the same strangely affordable Manhattan apartment building. Tension mounts as Phoebe and Rachel notice that Monica is putting on weight. Well aware of the new study showing that obesity travels through friendship networks, they evict her. “The body mass of the many is more important than the survival of the one,” says a saddened Ross. “ Even if she is my sister.” Later, the rest of the group reminisces about good times past with their now-shunned buddy. Nicole Richie guest stars as Chandler’s new love interest

10 p.m. — “Big Brother.” Dustin is caught overeating and the other houseguests, aware how fast this sort of thing can spread, decide he must go. Since this isn’t an eviction night, they kill him.




The New England Journal of Medicine has just published a study concluding that fat is catching, particularly among close mutual friends of the same sex. This is the same issue that contains an article about Oscar, the cat who can predict when people are going to die. There was a time when the New England Journal of Medicine did not come up that often in water-cooler conversation, but pretty soon it’s going to be all you need to read.

As Gina Kolata reported in The Times, Dr. Nicholas Christakis and Professor James Fowler took a very large and very long-running federally funded study of heart disease in Framingham, Mass., and used it to examine who in Framingham had gained or lost weight over the past 32 years, and how they connected to one another. Unsurprisingly, they found that relationships mattered.

Weirdly, they determined that the biggest influence comes from good mutual friends, even if they live far away. If your close friend gains a significant amount of weight, the researchers concluded, you have a 171 percent greater chance of becoming obese, too.

They believe this is true even if said friend lives in Bangkok. The far-away friend has far more influence on your weight than relatives in the same house. And your neighbors can gain or lose the equivalent of several persons without it having any impact whatsoever.

Now science is science, and we cannot blame the researchers for the way their data crunched. Stop sending these guys angry e-mails, people.

Nevertheless, this does not feel like the kind of information that’s going to brighten up anybody’s day. I’ve been overweight my entire life, and although I’ve had a lot of friends, I can’t think of one who got fat while hanging around with me. But if there’s anybody out there, I really do apologize. I’d have dropped you ages ago if only I’d known.

Dr. Christakis thinks the findings suggest that obesity can spread through a network of people like “a kind of social contagion.” Can you imagine how mean the high school mean girls are going to get if they think they have scientific evidence that ostracizing the chubby kids is a blow for physical fitness?

And now that his theory about leprosy-bearing Mexicans sneaking across the border has been completely debunked, Lou Dobbs will be hyperventilating about obese illegal immigrants ingratiating themselves and their fat into American communities.

We’re not going to hear the end of this for a long time. Professor Fowler says he and Dr. Christakis are looking for other very large long-running studies that would allow them to test their hypotheses, and satisfy those of us who find it hard to believe that a good friend across the continent has more effect on a person’s weight than a spouse across the bed.

Meanwhile, the researchers say they do not want to encourage the shunning of overweight people, in part because losing a good friend is — like every single other thing in the universe except parsnips — bad for one’s health. (Rather than lose your original chunky friend, Dr. Christakis proposes bringing a third, thin person into the relationship. This sounds like a sitcom of the Fox fall schedule.)

Actually, if this model works, avoiding weight-gain contagion is pretty hopeless anyway. The network of fat-influencing relationships are so dense, Dr. Christakis said in a phone interview, that in the end “your weight status might depend on the weight difference of your sister’s brother’s friend.”

Right now, somewhere, somebody is gaining weight, and it’s headed right toward you. Maybe we can find a cat to detect it.

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