Obesity in America is on the rise. In fact, more than 20 percent of adults in every state is affected by this epidemic. And while there are many reasons why this may be — genetics, eating too much fast food — a new study suggests another explanation: your neighbours could be the cause of you being obese.
Published in JAMA Pediatrics, the study sought to find out if people who live in communities where the majority of people are obese are more likely to become obese by association — almost like how the flu spreads from person to person. In other words, is obesity contagious?
From November 2016 to October 2017, study authors Ashlesha Datar, Ph.D., Director of Program on Children and Families at USC’s Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research, and Nancy Nicosia, Ph.D., senior economist at the RAND Corporation, gathered data from 1,519 military families — men, women, and children — living on 38 bases across the country that had varying levels of obesity.
“One of the reasons we chose to study military families is that these families cannot choose where they live. Rather, they are assigned to installations,” Datar told Men’s Health. “Some of those installations are in counties with higher rates of obesity while others are in counties with lower rates of obesity. So, this would allow us to examine whether living in communities with a higher risk of obesity increases one’s own risk of being obese.”
The results? For every 1 percent increase in a county’s obesity rate, the risk of a teenager becoming overweight went up between 4 and 6 percent, and the risk of an adult becoming overweight went up by 5 percent.
Datar attributes the study’s findings to the social contagion theory. If more people around you are obese, that may increase your own chances of becoming obese.
“In other words,” Datar says, “living in a community where obesity is more common can make sedentary lifestyles, unhealthy eating, and overweight or obesity more socially acceptable.”
Datar says that families exposed to more obese communities reported being less physically active, less likely to have a healthier home environment (tons of junk food in their cabinets and no limit on how much of it they ate), and less likely to cook at home.
Datar and Nicosia are following these military families over time, and hope to have specific data on the weight changes of participants starting from when they began living in their current counties in the near future.
But their findings so far don’t only apply to military families.
“Our data suggests that the rate of overweight or obesity in military families is close to that in the civilian population,” Datar says. “Moreover, a growing proportion of military families live outside the installation in civilian communities, and their children largely attend public schools. Therefore, we think that our findings can also shed light on risk factors for obesity in the general population.”
Obesity comes with health risks like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and heart disease — the leading cause of death in American adults. Combining regular exercise with a healthy diet is your best bet to getting yourself down to a healthy weight. Starting small can help — like taking the stairs more often instead of the elevator — and really try focusing on finding a routine that works for you, otherwise, you’ll be less likely to keep it up.
By Danielle Zickl