Don't Share the Weight

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Add your friends to the growing list of things that can help you put on weight.

Or, better yet, lose it.

That second notion is the hidden message in an intriguing report in last week's New England Journal of Medicine that showed a strong link between weight and friendship. And most people read right by it.

"Not only is obesity contagious, but thinness is also contagious. . . . These social networks act like multipliers," says James H. Fowler, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego and co-author of the recent report. "We think this is the really good news from this study."

No need to convince Jennifer Heisler, a Lean Plate Club member from Annandale. Heisler and her husband courted over food, eating out at restaurants and cooking meals together. Both gained weight -- and both ultimately lost it.

Heisler put on more: 25 pounds. "I've always been really thin," says Heisler, 28. "I started gaining weight after I started dating my husband. But he also had a big effect on me being able to lose the weight, because he did it with me."

She didn't have to twist his arm, either. "He saw it was working for me," she says, "and that it was not that much effort or that much change in our lives. So he decided to do it with me."

Now, a year after their wedding, both have not only lost weight and kept it off, but they continue to pack breakfast and lunch together, shop together, cook together and walk their dogs together.

It's that kind of healthy habit contagion that the study found could have a ripple effect as a powerful agent of change. Scientists and policymakers, Fowler says, "have not appreciated how much one person's weight affects another and what a large effect it can have."

Just ask Sallyann McCarthy, a Lean Plate Club member in Frederick. She caught the "healthy change" bug from her sister, who recently underwent surgery and was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. Her sister lost 30 pounds and controlled her diabetes. That motivated McCarthy to address her own weight challenges.

McCarthy then tapped her friend and colleague, Mary Ann Braham, to join her in losing weight. The two met on the job three years ago at Frederick Memorial Hospital, where McCarthy is a diabetes nutrition educator and Braham is a chaplain. They've been close friends ever since. Both also have Type 2 diabetes, so they were motivated to lose weight.

The two friends stock a refrigerator in McCarthy's office with the vegetables, fruit and other ingredients for healthful lunches and snacks that they plan a week ahead. They alternate in preparing salads, soups and other food at home to eat together on workdays. "I eat when I get frustrated," McCarthy says. "So it's nice to have someone to talk with."

When Braham went on vacation last week, the two stayed in touch by phone. They have each lost about 10 pounds since they began their regimen about a month ago. "I've done this with Weight Watchers, where you get some support," McCarthy says. "But it's not the same as doing this with your friend."

Braham has also been inspired by some hospital colleagues who have lost weight, including one nurse who shed 65 pounds. "If she can lose that much," Braham says, "I can take off some, too."

It's that combination of successful role model and social support that leads some scientists to suggest that "we can harness the same forces to slow the spread of obesity that help cause it," says weight-loss researcher Janet D. Latner, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. "Helping each other stay on track is the nature of self-help, whether it occurs on the Internet or in actual self-help groups."

Some experts worry, however, that the latest findings could be used to discriminate against overweight people. "The danger in interpreting these results is to blame obese people for problems that others have," says psychologist Kelly Brownell, director of Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. "That could further stigmatize obese people."

Pat Clark, a Lean Plate Club member in Elk Grove Village, Ill., understands how easily that distancing could occur. Clark's longtime best friend is obese. "With a friend who is obviously not exercising, the most likely, big social thing to do is going out to eat," she says.

Clark, 47, gained 20 pounds while nursing her elderly mother through an extended illness until her death in April. But now that she is working hard to lose the weight, she isn't about to let a few pounds come between her and her best friend. "I'm not cutting off contact," she says, "but I do lay out some boundaries."

So when they recently planned to go to a flea market, Clark's friend suggested having breakfast first at the IHOP. Worried that she'd overeat, Clark suggested that they each pack a breakfast and eat it together at a park near the flea market. "That way," Clark says, "I could control what I was eating and she could eat whatever she wanted."

Clark understands that her new habits add a different dimension to this valued friendship. "I don't push it on her," she says. "She has to get the point where she is ready."

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