A recent study from Arizona State University confirmed birds of a feather flock together when it comes to weight gain — women are more likely to be obese if their family and friends are obese.
Social activities, or lack thereof, and diminished emphasis on family meals are partially to blame for the socially contagious condition, according to the study, published online in the American Journal of Public Health last month.
Researchers examined the body mass index of 101 women from Phoenix and 812 of their closest family and friends. The study concluded that peer influence on what is an acceptable body size and pressure to achieve that size are not prevalent factors contributing to obesity. Rather, factors such as eating and exercising in groups are more important in causing communal weight gain.
BYU student nurse Amy Pulsipher, 22, from San Diego, comes from a family of six siblings and confirmed the study’s findings in her personal life. Pulsipher said her family heavily influenced her nutrition and exercise choices growing up.
“We always ate dinner together as a family Sunday through Thursday,” Pulsipher said. “We all have gym passes to 24 Hour Fitness and we go together when we visit home from college.”
Pulsipher commented on her mother’s influence in particular to her family’s healthy habits.
“My mom always set a good example for our family by eating well herself,” Pulsipher said. “She instilled healthy eating habits by giving us the opportunity to eat the healthy foods she enjoyed eating.”
Amy’s mother, Linda Pulsipher, said she felt it was her obligation to create a dinner environment that her family would be able to enjoy together.
“We didn’t usually formally set the table or anything, but I always had a dinner made and we would sit down to eat together as a family,” she said.
But the Pulsipher family hasn’t always been the picture of perfect health.
“Each child in our family has struggled with their self-image or tried to take eating and dieting too far at some point in their life,” Amy Pulsipher said. “But I think we’ve managed to find a healthy balance overall.”
Amy’s older brother, Craig Pulsipher, disagreed.
“I don’t think everyone in our family has found a balance,” he said. “Some of us are still super strict about dieting but others are more relaxed, so I guess maybe in that way we balance each other out. But as individuals, we’re still working on it.”
Craig Pulsipher commented on the societal factors that may have come into play with his family’s self-image.
“I think we all grew up with a heavy emphasis placed on looking a certain way in our family, plus my mom has always dieted and focused on eating healthy,” he said. “That definitely got passed on to us as far as wanting to look a certain way. I don’t know if it’s more from our family or the culture we grew up in. There’s a heavy emphasis on looking good in today’s world.”
The Arizona study confirmed those cultural stigmas. Research participants were asked if they would rather be obese or have one of 12 conditions carrying a social stigma, like herpes or alcoholism.
Women often chose one of the conditions over obesity. One-fourth of female participants preferred severe depression and 14.5 percent chose total blindness over obesity.
The rate of childhood obesity has doubled in the past three decades for preschool children living in the United States. About nine million children in America over the age of 6 are considered obese, according to the Deseret News.
BYU student Connor Ericksen, 21, majoring in PDBio, said the best way for a family to prevent obesity is to establish healthy eating habits early on.
“It’s important to have regular mealtimes,” Ericksen said. “That way, the kids aren’t just eating whatever, whenever, which leads to overeating. That’s probably one of the multiple reasons for the ‘freshman 15.’”
Alexandra Brewis, co-author of the Arizona study, said this research is important because it debunks certain notions people may hold about obesity.
“While the clustering of people with larger or smaller bodies is real, it is not shared values between friends that accounts for it,” Brewis said. “This gives us important clues about the best ways to tackle obesity as a public health issue; we need to focus on what people do together, rather than what people think.”
The obesity epidemic is nothing new.
One study conducted in 2000 by the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General estimated that overweight or obese Americans cost the country $117 billion per year in direct and indirect costs.
Surgeon General Richard Carmona spoke of the health costs of fast food in the study.
“While extra value meals may save us some change at the counter, they’re costing us billions of dollars in health care and lost productivity,” he said. “Physical inactivity and super-sized meals are leading to a nation of oversized people.”
Dr. Carmona declared obesity as the fastest-growing cause of death and disease in the country in a statement to the House of Representatives in 2003.