Is Obesity Contagious Or More Media Hype?

Discussion in 'Politics, Religion, Social Issues' started by Pani, Jul 30, 2007.

  1. Pani macrumors member

    Pani

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    #1
    http://tinyurl.com/yrxgl5

    This study has been all over the media. But I wonder how many people know how many serious flaws it has? It was based on data from a study designed for an entirely different purpose. For instance, they never actually tried to determine how many friends a person had, how long they knew them, etc. They relied entirely on a few limited contacts used as backup, just in case the reseachers lost touch with the respondants.
     
  2. tobefirst macrumors 68040

    tobefirst

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    #2
    It's not contagious in that you can "catch" it, in a typical "catch a cold" kind of way, but I don't find it that surprising that the weight of those around me has an effect on my weight. One of the most common ways to interact with someone is over a meal. I've had two in the past week with friends that I don't see all that often, and other meals with people I do see more often.
     
  3. Pani thread starter macrumors member

    Pani

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    #3
    Poorly Designed Study

    I am a sociologist who has been researching weight stigma for years. I brought it up because the media has lauded this study uncritically; yet the study itself is designed VERY poorly. Given how we stigmatize large people, the media has acted extremely irresponsibly. (No surprise there!!!!) I am going to post my longer critique for anyone who is interested. Hope it is not TOO long.

    Don’t Punt Plump Pals Too Promptly

    I am no longer surprised by the sleeze, underhandedness and outright lies of the mainstream media anymore than I am by Brittany's Spears latest publicity stunts. Yet, when I read headlines like “Fat Friends are Bad for Your Health,” I see they are taking yellow journalism to a whole new shade of pale! These amazing conclusions are based on a new study by James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis in July’s NEJM. The premise is that if we have fat friends, we won’t feel so fat ourselves, so we will have the nerve to think we might be o.k. the way we are. Really, it doesn’t sound so bad to me. Except that scientifically speaking, that assertion, based on THAT study alone, is about as weak as Dick Cheney’s old pacemaker.

    One of its first flaws is that it was based on data from a study designed for a completely different purpose. Yes, Framingham is a well respected research project. But it was designed to look at risk factors for heart disease, NOT the relationship between friendship and weight. Study volunteers were asked to provide contact information about friends and relatives so researchers would not lose track of them. Many of those “friends” listed were also study participants. From that contact information, Christakis makes one of the major assumptions of his own study, that the respondent put down a friend they admired. And if they admired them, perhaps they also emulated them. Lets think about this. When you are asked to give contact information for work or other such purposes, do you put down the person you admire most? Personally, I put down the person with the most stable resident history. Or the one I know won’t mind being bothered. Or, quite honestly, sometimes someone I like least whose info I happen to have on hand so my true friends won’t be ticked at me for giving out their address. We have no way of knowing how “close” these friends were, or if the participants admired them or not.

    Unclear relationship to the listed contacts are only the beginning of this study’s problems. If we are going to design a study that examines the influence of our friend’s weight on ourselves, how should we do it? Would it be reasonable to ask a person how many friends they have? How close they are? How often they interact with them? How many are thin? How many are fat? You bet it would!!!! But this study did none of that! All it did was look at people listed in the contact info who also participated in Framingham. So we have no clue how many other friends a person had or what size they are. Such incomplete research leads to inexplicable results. Friends hundreds of miles from the participant had an influence, but neighbors had no effect. Theoretically, it was possible for someone to have one far away fat friend they rarely see weigh more heavily in influence than several thin friends, neighbors and co-workers nearby(pun intended). Absurd!!!!!!!

    Astonishingly enough, that was not the most bizarre finding in this study. Jeanna Bryner of LiveScience explains “If subjects named an obese person as a friend, they tended to be affected by that person's obesity. But when the person on the receiving end did not label the first person as a friend, there was no "obesity contagion" effect in the other direction. The distinct variable here is who calls whom a "friend." Huh???? Basically it works like this. If Tom put down Harry as a friend on his contact sheet and Harry gained weight, Tom also had a higher risk of gaining weight. If they both put down each other, their risk was even higher. But if Harry put down Tom and Tom did not reciprocate, Tom had no increased risk of weight gain. In other words, if you admire a fat person you are in trouble. If a fat person admires you, you are safe from a cellulite attack. At least that is how Dick (oh I guess it is Nick - it just seems a Dick must be involved here somehow!) interprets it. In the first scenario Harry serves as Tom’s reference group so Tom doesn’t mind his tummy too terribly. But are we so SURE that the 3rd scenario (Tom doesn’t put Harry down as a contact) means he doesn’t admire him? That they are not friends? Maybe Tom knew Harry already put him down as a contact so he wanted to give a 3rd person as additional backup. Or a million other reasons. We just don’t know!!!!!

    Ignorance of the true nature of the relationship did not stop Christakis from using this rather strange finding as a way to dismiss one of the most important questions ALL studies that try and determine a cause and effect relationship need to ask. Could something else be causing them both???? Personally, I don’t think they did enough to take social class into account. (They did control for education, but it is not a complete indicator of social class.) There is an association between social class and obesity in the U.S. Poor people are statistically heavier. People also tend to befriend people in the same socioeconomic status. So maybe, social class affects both ones weight AND the friends you have. Christakis claims that if that were the case, there would be the same results in all 3 of the above scenarios. That the Toms didn’t gain weight when they didn’t list the Harrys back is enough for him there can’t be some intermediate or antecedent variable at work. (Fancy research talk for something that was affecting both their weights besides friendship) Who knows??? Maybe Tom was in a higher social class. In which case, statistically he would be at greater odds of staying thin. And at greater risk of being a big old snob which may why he didn’t put down poor Harry’s name on his contact sheet after Harry was nice enough to name him. Again, we just don’t know!!!!

    Yet, even this is not the most questionable aspect of this study. That honor goes high tech. It turns out that much of this study was based on computer modeling. You can try to read the study itself, but certain parts will leave your head spinning. This is not always an accident in reporting research. When lay people read it, they come away with the feeling it is so over their heads they should leave it up to the experts. When experts read it, many would never admit to being confused, so the just give it thumbs up or down depending on whether or not they agree with the results. The low down on computer models is that they are based on assumptions. Start with one set of assumptions, get one set of results. Start with different assumptions, and get entirely different results. One can get anything one wants with computer models. Which is not really proving anything at all!

    Not, of course, that the media needs proof, truth, or scientific standards to turn this into the admonition that even looking at your fat friend will raise your cholesterol. It is all about pleasing one of their major sponsors, Big Diet/Pharma. To save space, let’s just call it BARFMA. BARFMA has reason to worry of late. Used to be people’s number one worry was their weight! Since BARFMA has spent millions terrorizing us it should be proud! But the times, they are a changing! Weight obsession is a product of an affluent society. Our economy is sinking faster than Bush’s approval ratings. Our dollar is down against other currencies, and so are our home prices. Gas is UP, and so is food and everything else. Just wait till peak oil. We are drowning in debt, both personally and nationally. We face unprecedented environmental disaster, possibly even famine. Even the honey bees are deserting us. Silly Americans are realizing they might have other things to spend their shrinking cash on besides shrinking their waistlines. So the efforts of the dietary-pharmaceutical complex must get even more heavy handed. It is not enough just to scare people about their own health. They must live with the guilt their very presence on earth is a danger to their loved ones. They must be ostracized into action. Diet products are one way obscene amounts of cash get sucked up from the middle class to the corporate elite and that conveyor belt cannot stop! Especially since so many of us found out about that Haliburton thing.

    There are two types of people that should not only ignore this study, but be outraged by the headlines it generated, and the uncritical way it has been promoted in the media. Fat folk themselves who need to wake up and see they are nothing more than walking dollar signs to BARFMA; and, friends everywhere who believe relationships should never be contingent on a price tag! Or a measuring tape!


    New England Journal: http://www.nejm.org


    Link to a good article by a medical writer debunking this bunk: http://tinyurl.com/3aa267
    ( I have no relationship to this writer. In fact, I don't agree with her on all issues!)
     
  4. IJ Reilly macrumors P6

    IJ Reilly

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    #4
    Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't a scientific study released to the public primarily so it can be debated and critiqued?

    The "media hype" card gets overplayed, IMO. I think most of us have learned that whenever a study of this kind is released that it isn't meant as the new gospel truth, that it will set off rounds of discussion and disagreement.
     
  5. Sdashiki macrumors 68040

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  6. Pani thread starter macrumors member

    Pani

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    #6
    Great Point

    Yes, you are right. One of the purposes IS to generate debate. That is also the purpose of peer reviewed journals. Studies need to be replicated over and over again before we are confident of the findings. I have read several media accounts claiming they proved causation! NOT!!!! If people don't care about the potential stigma, we should be concerned with the disintegration of scientific standards. And the account on MacNeil-Leher made me want to vomit. Not ONE criticism! Traditionally, media should get opposing viewpoints. Instead, it was all cheerleading. It sounded like a VRN (video news release that is paid for by some sponsor, but made to look like actual news).

    I think your point about the public taking it with a grain of salt is valid. But not everyone is equally as intellectually sophisticated. What are children and teens supposed to think when they hear this?


    As for above post, being fat is simply a fact! As is being tall, short, brunette, blonde, etc. The more diverse a species, the better its chance of survival. Being fat is not wrong either!!!!!
     
  7. IJ Reilly macrumors P6

    IJ Reilly

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    #7
    It happens whenever any new medical study is released. Lots of people run to their doctors insisting on this new test or that new pill. I'm not saying it's a good thing, only that attributing this phenomenon to "media hype" is a bit tired as an explanation.
     
  8. Pani thread starter macrumors member

    Pani

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    #8
    Your take

    Just curious, how would you explain why so many people fear the dreaded restless leg syndrome then? (LOL) p.s. I hear there is a new rap song about said phenomena!
     
  9. Sdashiki macrumors 68040

    Sdashiki

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    #9
    No, being "fat" is not a fact of life, its a way of life rarely brought on by genetics alone.

    Dont equate being tall/short/red/blonde with being fat, apples n oranjes.
     
  10. IJ Reilly macrumors P6

    IJ Reilly

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    #10
    Was that question directed at me? If so, I'm not sure what you mean.
     
  11. notjustjay macrumors 603

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    #11
    Well, let's see. Genetics aside, obesity can be influenced largely by physical habits and eating habits.

    My last girlfriend did not eat red meat, and highly enjoyed soy products. You can bet that my diet was significantly different when eating with her than with, say, my group of buddies from university, all of us 200+ pounds. I remember when we sat down at a fajita place, three of us, and we sat down at a table comprised of three of those tables-for-two, pushed together. We each had an entire table all to ourselves, and we needed it all to contain all the food plates.

    Then there's a group of my friends who insist on going out at 7:00am on Saturday mornings for multiple-mile hikes in the woods, climbing mountain trails, rain or shine, summer and winter. I do with these guys stuff that I would never, ever have any desire to do when I'm alone (hey, how would YOU like to go for a 5-mile hike through the woods in -25 degree weather in the middle of January?)

    So, yeah, I'd say that social factors are huge, and in that sense, contagious.
     
  12. Pani thread starter macrumors member

    Pani

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    #12
    What Dr Jeffrey Friedman Says

    Dr. Jeffrey Friedman, head of the Laboratory of Molecular Genetics at Rockefeller University in New York is one of the foremost experts on the issue of obesity and genetics. “The heritability of obesity is equivalent to that of height and greater than that of almost every other condition that has been studied,” said Dr. Friedman in Nature Medicine. That weight is about lifestyle alone “is at odds with substantial scientific evidence illuminating a precise and powerful biologic system that maintains body weight within a relatively narrow range....genes balance calorie intake and energy expenditure with considerable precision, with us having little long-term control over things." So one of the best minds in the world does not think it is apples and oranges at all!!!!!! People think because it is not immutable, it can't be strongly genetic, but that is wrong.

    NotJustJay, there are many different reasons people get heavy. I am 5'7", about 220lbs, (proud of every ounce of my healthy, natural body) and I have NEVER been a big eater. Not only that, I couldn't afford to even if I wanted to. I also have given up my car out of global warming concerns, so I walk alot in my daily life! (Even in cold Chicago winters!) I live on a 4th floor walkup as well. It also so happens I haven't caught a cold or flu in the past 3 years even though I am a teacher, take public trans, and date a FF/paramedic. So it is not like I am not exposed to germs. How would it be if I said, "Well, I take raw garlic every day and try to stay positive. Therefore, I feel anyone who gets sick has no excuse!!!!" Just because my body reacts differently to environmental factors than theirs! It would be ridiculous!!! Many people are genetically fat. That doesn't mean that some people can't get heavy for other reasons! (Although some genetically thin people can't stay fat for long any more than genetically fat people can stay thin for long!) As a general statement about our society, there is too much judging and not enough attempts at understanding!

    Yes, Reilly, that comment was directed at you. You said the media hype card has been overplayed. So I was just curious what your theories are on why we flock to docs demanding the latest pill etc.
     
  13. IJ Reilly macrumors P6

    IJ Reilly

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    #13
    The implication of attributing the interest in medical studies to media hype is that nobody would notice/care if the information was presented to the public in some other way. Maybe that's true -- if each new study could only be presented with a full scientific explanation, hardly anyone would understand what was being said. Preferable? I don't necessarily think so. One of the other reasons we pester our doctors about the newest pills and treatments is advertising by the manufacturers. The people who really do need to understand these studies are the doctors. They are the ones who tell their patients whether they do or don't need the newest pill or test.
     
  14. Blue Velvet Moderator emeritus

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    #14
    How many of these 'genetically fat' people are in Darfur or Somalia?
     
  15. Dagless macrumors Core

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    #15
    Being fat isn't wrong, being obese (which is what this is all about) is. It's bad for the person, for the health service that will have to take care of them, for their family in constant worry over the person...

    I'd say this too. If I had fat friends then I'd likely take after their lifestyle. But since my friends (like you said too) are hikers and adventurers then I keep in good trim as I'm dragged along with them.
     
  16. MRU macrumors demi-god

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    #16
    Besides there's not much else to do up Saddleworth ;):p


    Touche ;)

    I think they isolated the 'fat' gene. It's called McDonald's FatArsosis :p
     
  17. notjustjay macrumors 603

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    #17
    I don't dispute the many reasons (genetic or otherwise) for the different shapes and sizes that people come in... I'm just saying that lifestyle choices do have a huge impact, generally speaking, and those choices are frequently influenced by the choices of the people you spend time with. I don't think there's anything earth-shattering in that statement. :)

    Generally I don't cast judgement on overweight people, unless I see that it's obviously brought on by poor lifestyle choices. I have lots of friends that are "big boned", and I have no problem at all with that. But the huge person who's got their fourth plate piled high with deep fried food at the all you can eat buffet, makes me shake my head.
     
  18. Sdashiki macrumors 68040

    Sdashiki

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    #18
    I wash myself with a rag on a stick.

    fatBart.gif

    I'll have a double whopper, with cheese, extra pickles, large fries, large chicken salad, and a Diet Coke. Oh, and an apple pie.

    I'm bigger than you, I'm higher on the food chain.
     
  19. Dagless macrumors Core

    Dagless

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    #19
    Stop knowing everywhere!

    But it's true though :eek: I hurt my back mountaineering up Raven Stones the other day :eek:
     
  20. Pani thread starter macrumors member

    Pani

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    #20
    Wo!

    I am always floored when people use that argument because it underlies how cluesless we as a society are about the complexity of weight. There are not many fat people in Dafur because they are STARVING. Yes, it is true that if one is denied food long enough one will become emaciated and starve. That is one of the reasons for fat in the first place, survival of the species. Is starving desirable? Why don't you ask the family of Anna Carolina Reston about that. She was a beautiful promising model who became anorexic while doing a show in China when someone told her she was fat. She died recently of heart failure. Weight loss can be dangerous, even when it is not in famine conditions or the result of anorexia. A little reported study found a weight loss of 10 lbs or more increases the risk of heart attack. Weight loss is also associated with increased death among people over 50. Dieting can also lead to clinical depression, irritability, and reduced cognitive functions. BTW 2002 life expectancy U.S. 77 Ethopia 45

    As far as fat driving up health care costs, fat people are a convenient scapegoat for the corporate elite. Actually, much of the health care costs associated with fat are from risky weight loss practices. Like fen-phen which cost millions to treat in heart problems. Since it is pharma that does the scare studies, they put the risk under obesity instead of greed!

    I would like to say to anyone out there reading this who may agree with me but doesn't want to get their feelings hurt that I have introduced this issue on many boards, and the above has been an atypical response. One of the reasons we don't hear the other side to the obesity hype is because every time someone posts something contrary to the media, they are met with insensitivity. But, in many places, the tide is turning. People are ready to hear extreme weight obsession is just one more way we have of being manipulated by the powers that be. I post because of the 20+ years of pain and hurt I have encountered from people I have talked to in the course of my research on weight stigma. As for me personally, don't give a darn what people think. I am proud I am able to so freely admit I weight 220lbs and if the world doesn't like it, it can kiss my cellulite. Quite honestly, I have a firefighter who does that exquisitely, and a police officer before him. If these two heroes found my body beautiful, why should I care what anyone else thinks? Even more important, I like what I see in the mirror, and wish the same for everyone else. That is the healthiest attitude of all.

    "Fat can be beautiful. Intolerance is ALWAYS ugly!"
     
  21. IJ Reilly macrumors P6

    IJ Reilly

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    #21
    I have to admit, the more I read of your arguments, the less I understand or agree them. You seem to be coming from a place not so much of science as personal experience.

    One of the reasons weight loss in older people is associated with increased mortality is that weight loss is often the result of chronic disease, especially wasting diseases, such as cancer. It's also a huge leap from weight loss, which for most people would be a healthy event, to crash diets, fen-phen, and anorexia (a clinical condition not to be confused with Weight Watchers). For someone who complains about hype, you really should be more careful about casually conflating such different concepts.
     
  22. Pani thread starter macrumors member

    Pani

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    #22
    Not So Fast

    Actually, NO the reason older people who lose weight have a higher risk of dying is NOT just because they suffer from disease. There are many studies that have taken that into account, and taken sick people our of their data. The results hold for HEALTHY seniors.

    My arguments are based on science. I have read many of the journal articles myself (and have training in research methods.) People argue with me using popular prejudices, but very few have gone to the scientific sources to see how many perspectives are out there we do not hear about. Actually, the risks of fat itself has never been separated from risky weight loss practice. Or many other confounding variables. Some very learned medical minds question the benefits of weight loss.

    I brought up anorexia up because the Dafur argument was equally tangential. I hear that, and the concentration camp one all the time. So people in the most inhuman conditions can die of starvation. What does that really prove?

    My arguments may be based on science but my motives are also personal. In my discipline of sociology, that is allowed! We have traditions of both qualitative and quantitative research, as well as ameliorating social problems. Besides, many posters brought up personal arguments. Why is my personal experience any less valid that the poster from England who attributes his "nice trim" body to his personal habits? Other than it is socially acceptable to be proud if one is thin and social heresy to like one's body fat! I think it is a socially conditioned comfort level that I breached.

    BTW - you challenged my post from the very beginning. Nothing wrong with that!!!! But, you never really gave an alternate explanation. Advertising IS media hype. The line between ads and program content is getting thinner all the time. Ever hear of a VNR? (Video New Release) It is a news segment bought and paid for by sponsors to look like news. If it is in your face, all over the place, odds are it is an orchestrated marketing campaign. One of the original points of my post was to bring an alternate perspective about the study the media did not. No one countered any of my arguments about the study itself, they just brought in personal experience. Personal experience alone does not refute a research design!

    Have a good evening!
     
  23. leekohler macrumors G5

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    #23
    While I definitely feel for you and what you've been through, and agree with your assertion the obese should not be stigmatized, much of what I'm reading sounds like excuses to me.

    Go to Europe for example- you won't see the obesity you see here. It just doesn't exist at nearly the scale it does here- not even close. Do they have better genes? Nope. Are there some obese people? Sure, but not nearly as many as we have here.

    It absolutely has a lot to do with lifestyle. We as a society in general, have become complacent in so many ways with regards to physical activity and diet. That doesn't mean that people should be ridiculed. However, it is alarming in the sense that we're becoming increasingly heavier as a nation.

    Are some people simply big people? Of course, but we should not be seeing obesity levels this high. That doesn't mean that everyone has to be the same shape, weight and size- or go on binge diets. It does mean that we need to make some lifestyle changes- eat better, exercise, quit sitting in front of the TV, and walk a lot more.

    Is it hard to do? Yep. Any life change is difficult. And no one should ever hate themselves for what they look like. But there also can be no denying that there is a problem here, and to not address the problem because someone's feelings might be hurt is rather disingenuous and not at all helpful to anyone.
     
  24. IJ Reilly macrumors P6

    IJ Reilly

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    #24
    Actually yes, I did offer some alternative suggestions, you just didn't seem interested enough to respond. And no, I'm not interested in taking a position on the original study. I don't know enough about the subject to take one confidently. My purpose in responding to your post in the first place was to suggest that media hype is a bit of canard, or at the very least, a tired cliché. Crying media hype every time a story pops up that doesn't quite say what you think it should, is itself a form of hype (which, after all, is the short form of hyperbole). People have an obligation to understand what they are hearing and seeing, and it is doctors who dispense pills and treatments, not the media.

    I say this with the knowledge and experience of someone who has seen aspects of his own profession misrepresented in the media but has never seen fit to call this situation "hype." The press often gets things wrong, they give short shift, they oversimplify. But this is a far cry from a deliberate and concerted effort to deceive for some foul or dishonest purpose.
     
  25. Pani thread starter macrumors member

    Pani

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    #25
    To Each Her Own

    Well, we are all entitled to our own opinion. I stand by the term hype. If one plugs this story into google, it comes up at least 500 times. Yet, most of those accounts do not offer any criticism, which is a long standing tradition in science. It WAS a tradition in the media to offer counterpoints. If 'hype" didn't work, they wouldn't spend so much money doing it. And doctors are not free from the effects of marketing either. According to one study, about 1/2 the articles in medical journals are written by pharma by ghostwriters. Then they pay some expert to put their name on it. They study is done with the purpose to sell more pills. I know someone who does this, the practice is real. And doctors themselves get kickbacks on some pills and services they prescribe. Besides, the tired cliche of "hype" was just to put in the title box. In the post itself I went into the flaws in the studies design.
     

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