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Why Your Friends Can Be Bad For Your Weight

How even a small change in your social circle can help you drop pounds

Being overweight is often viewed as a failure of personal responsibility.

“She just hasn’t tried hard enough.”

“He eats too much sugar and he knows it’s bad, but he won’t give it up.”

“Gosh, she’s reeeeally let herself go.”

While personal habits are part of the weight-loss equation, the idea that they’re the only factor is misguided.

“The notion that we are somehow islands when it comes to our weight simply isn’t true,” write Walter Willett and Malissa Wood in Thinfluence: The Powerful and Surprising Effect Friends, Family, Work, and Environment Have on Weight.

As hormonal and other physiological changes in midlife make unwanted pounds easier to put on than take off, it is important to remember that many other factors come into play, including how much money you make, local and national politics, the ubiquity of fast (and often unhealthy) foods, even the design of many homes (think of how many contemporary dining areas are outfitted with, or adjacent to, a television — a distraction that can cause you to unwittingly eat more than you think you have).

“We encounter influences like these and more every day,” the authors write. “They are often so commonplace and subtle, they have become invisible — until they hit our waistlines, that is. These ‘blind spots’ affect our efforts to lose or maintain our weight. And their impact is considerable.”

(MORE: 7 Things Skinny People Eat All the Time)

One of the major factors — and the emphasis of Willett's and Wood’s book — is who you hang out with. Social networks, their research says, play a significant role in weight.

Wood is a clinical cardiologist, staff physician at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, and assistant professor of clinical medicine at Harvard Medical School. I talked with her about the power of "thinfluence" and what everyone needs know about maintaining a healthy weight in midlife.

Next Avenue: What is Thinfluence?

Wood: It is very hard to be the one person making a healthy change in a group of heavy people who like to eat and don’t like to exercise. But losing weight is isolating if you don’t engage other people in the process.

If you want to lose weight, you need to find people who support that behavior. Most often, the friends you have who are overweight are not going to want to change. If you decide to break the norm, you will be isolated. You need to find even just one person in your circle who wants to do what you’re doing  — or find someone else outside that circle.

What hurdles do people face when they’re looking to surround themselves with more health-motivated friends?

Stigma deeply affects weight loss efforts because people are embarrassed to go out in public. I love when I see a really heavy person racing in an event; it takes a lot of strength to do that. I did a triathlon a few weeks ago and the last finisher was a 350-pound woman. To surround yourself with people so different is hard.

That is the basis of our book: We surround ourselves with people who are like us. So if people want to lose weight, they have to hang out with people different than themselves in order to get to a better place.

(MORE: Fiftysomething Diet: 5 Powerful Weight Loss Boosters)

Some people say, “Sure, social networks might affect some people, but not me. Obesity just runs in my family.” What do you tell them?

Plenty of people have a family history of obesity and are not obese. The biggest thing is recognizing you have that risk and you have to work harder to avoid the downstream effect.

Epigenetics [the ability to influence gene expression through behavior and lifestyle modification] affects genes and weight. So it’s important to recognize that you’re at risk and change your behavior. You could consult an obesity specialist and say, ‘What are my options?’

What is unique about weight gain and weight loss in midlife?

I’m the perfect person to ask. I’m 51, and once you pass age 40, your body biology changes. And what worked in past — say, skipping a meal or two — doesn’t work. You have to eat regular meals and exercise.

Most people coast through their 40s; I recommend treating the 40s as a bootcamp for midlife. Start minimizing sugars and ramp up exercise because it will be easier when the 50s come. Eat a little less bread and fewer French fries. These small changes can have a huge impact, and a gradual change in your 40s is much easier than making a drastic change when you hit 50.

If you find you’ve put on pounds in midlife, you need to be more aggressive about exercise. Look at each day and say, ‘Where do I have fifteen or twenty minutes today to fit in exercise?’

What you do ninety percent of the time affects your health; what you do ten percent of the time doesn’t. If you have a business dinner, you may think, ‘All bets are off.' No. Those things matter. If you stick with it most of the time, you will see the benefits, and those small changes will have a long lasting effect.

(MORE: Quick Weight Loss Products Are Usually Just Gimmicks)

How can people find new social networks that support weight loss?

Whatever poor choices you make, you will gravitate toward people who make those same bad choices. But all it takes to change is one person. You just have to find one person.

Look at your friends: If they support better health, stick with them. If they’re keeping you from achieving better health or encouraging you to make choices that don’t support your health, then find new groups. Go to a race, bump into someone from your past, go walk the track in the morning.

You don’t have to abandon friends and family; you just need to have more support during change so you can achieve success.

Here’s an example: I went to do a race, but I hadn’t been exercising a lot before then. I bumped into a friend I hadn’t seen in 30 years. She hadn’t been exercising regularly much either. So we were like, ‘Let’s eat healthier and exercise together.’ It’s important to realize that people who will support you are out there; you just need to find them.

What one thing would you want everyone to walk away from this interview knowing?

It is never too late to change. One little step at time makes a huge difference, and within a year you can make substantial changes.

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