July 26, 2007

Taste Better: Obesity Is Contagious

Posted in news, vegan, veganism at 6:59 pm by nevavegan

A new study has come out telling us that obesity in contagious, not physically contagious, but we’re more likely to gain weight when our friends and family do. This might also tell us something about how our friends and family can discourage veganism and actually punish people for trying to change their diet and lifestyle. We’d hope veganism would be contagious, but I fear it’s more likely that the diet of the majority of the peer group would be enforced on other members of the group.

I know that when I first decided to become vegetarian my family and my friends were very opposed to the idea. They tempted me with meat based foods and also ridiculed my efforts. When I became vegan my mother went so far as to put cheese over all of the vegetables (even though I’d cleaned and cut and prepared them) so that there would be nothing I could eat as a vegan. They were certainly fighting my efforts to break away from the pack. I know other people who have similar stories of resistance from their friends and family. Other people didn’t face such blatant sabotage but found themselves feeling left out as their friends stopped inviting them places (“we were all going for ice cream and you’re vegan now”) or felt picked on as others constantly made little jokes about their diet.

When we look at all of this, no wonder people can be a little reluctant to jump on the vegan bandwagon, and no wonder so many people abandon veganism after a while.

I’m a firm believer now in speaking honestly and openly. Instead of sulking because your friend said something derogatory about veganism, maybe you should say in a nice way “you know that actually hurts my feelings. This is important to me and it hurts to think that my friends are making fun of me for it.” Or in the case of being left out of the ice cream run one could say “I’d still like the company even if I don’t eat ice cream, besides I think that place has some fruit based sorbet.” Sometimes our friends need reassurance too, that even though we’re making a major change we still do care about them.

In families control over food can become a primary battleground naturally, as food has come to represent almost everything else other than nutrition in our culture. Food represents tradition, and so efforts to change that tradition can be met with much opposition from other family members. Feeding family members and spouse foods they like represents love to many people, and so when one family member tries to change the types of food being served, it might be seen not as an effort to save animals, but as a diminishment of affection. Further the sharing of food still means companionship and it’s amazing how hurt people can get when loved ones don’t eat the same foods together.

All these are reasons why eating habits, particularly the poor ones that contribute to contagious obesity, can be so hard to break away from.

There are times where some of this can cross the line into abusive behavior though. Anyone that consistently belittles your beliefs or insults you isn’t a friend. Family should be there to support us and encourage us as we learn and grow, not to make us feel terrible for doing something we believe in.

Another reason obesity might be contagious is that people might feel better about eating foods they know are bad for them if a friend does it too. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard these exact words from a friend “Dessert? I really shouldn’t… Oh, are you going to have some? I’ll get some if you do.” Gobbling candy bars in the middle of the night might strike us as disordered eating, but if you’re just having a piece of cake with a friend then that’s totally normal. I’ve seen this happen with people “cheating” on veganism as well “Sue ate one of the cookies, so I just tried one too.”

The upside of this study though is that it demonstrates that having vegan friends can probably help us stay vegan, just as having healthy friends might inspire us to be a little healthier. I also always think it’s helpful to understand some of the hidden motivators behind our eating habits. I know so many people who feel like their eating controls them, not the other way around. But if they have information about the social pressures surrounding eating it might lead to more thoughtful eating. And hopefully more thoughtful eating can lead to more vegan eating. Anyway the hope would be to move from an internal dialogue that says “must eat cookie now” to one that says “I feel like I want a cookie, but that could be only because Sue is eating one. I think I’ll wait and try to make a better decision.”



  1. Vivacious Vegan said,

    This is so true. I just spent a few weeks with my very obese family and I found myself eating more than I normally would. For example, if I have dessert in the house, I limit my consumption of it to dessert only. However, when I was with my family, if one of them brought out a bag of cookies or brownies I made in the middle of the day, I was very likely to indulge as well. I did this without thinking for a couple of days. Then I realized what I was doing and kept doing it – rationalizing it in my head that they’re only hear for a short time, I might as well treat myself. Then, after a couple of days of that, I got a hold of myself and put the brakes on overeating. I felt so much better about myself, my diet, and my lifestyle. My husband, on the other hand, says that being around my obese family makes him LESS likely to overeat. When surrounded by them at the dinner table, they are all the reminder he needs not to have that second helping.

  2. Vivacious Vegan said,

    I just re-read what I wrote and I’m so embarassed that I wrote hear instead of here. What is wrong with me????

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