The Fat Friend Factor

As a high school senior thinking about going to college, there are a few things you hear over and over about your upcoming educational year. They say that you won’t have any time to sleep with the onslaught of schoolwork; that you will be frequenting drunken fraternity parties every weekend and you will become outrageously promiscuous after one too many drinks. You are guaranteed a roommate from hell, and of course, no one can let you end a conversation without telling you about the dreaded “Freshman 15.” But do the reasons you gain that weight truly lie only in the move from a structured, routine family life to a newfound college independence?

As of late, many professionals are saying no. While personal decisions (good or bad) will of course affect the ways in which your routine changes, you also have to consider why you make those decisions. After all, what are we if not a product of our society? According to new studies reported by the New England Journal of Medicine, obesity is potentially contagious – much like the flu among friends. So perhaps you are not entirely to blame for your sudden stocky physique.

The study by the New England Journal of Medicine analyzed the body mass index for 12,067 people involved in another study on heart disease. These people were all socially connected to each other and were observed over a 32-year span. It showed the relationships between friends, spouses, siblings and their respective weight gains.

Even with the prior knowledge that certain relationships made you more prone to obesity, the actual numbers are shocking. Could it really be true that if your sibling becomes obese, you have a 40 percent chance of it yourself? Or that your good friends becoming obese raises your chances to 57 percent? According to the study, the answer to this question is a resounding “yes.” The study also showed participants to be 37 percent more likely to become obese if they had a spouse that tipped the scales. It may seem like there is only one route for successful weight loss: complete isolation from everyone around you, right? Not necessarily. Before you start burning those bridges, you may want to consider the other side of this information.

“I snack a lot more than my boyfriend. A lot of times when I’m hungry he’s not, so you have to deal with that,” said Jena Donlin, a professional writing junior. This seems to be the counter reaction to the studies findings on obesity. Not only do you gain weight with your friends, you also have an easier time losing weight with your friends, or in some cases, significant others. “A lot of my friends are athletes and that definitely affects what we eat and what kind of food is available in our apartment,” said Donlin. So before you start blaming those extra pounds on your buddies, you should keep in mind that your friends can be on your team as well. Strength in numbers is the way that many diet plans and the companies that push them market themselves.

“My roommate loves to cook, so she’s always making dinner for us when I get home,” said Laura Irvin, a dietetics junior. “Now that I live off campus, we eat so healthy. I can actually sit down and make a nice meal that I am satisfied with.”

The famed Weight Watchers diet is known for its approach to weight loss as a group effort, emphasizing the importance of attending group meetings and support systems as key factors on the road to healthier living. On their Web site, the Weight Watchers Research Department states, “Many people who have achieved sustained weight-loss with Weight Watchers tell us that they believe attending the meetings was the single biggest reason that they were successful.” The meetings also involve people who have found success in the program who are “Lifetime Members” and offer hope and inspiration for those trying to lose weight. Though these people may not begin as friends, they certainly do come out that way.

So could the key to college weight fluctuation really be as easy as changing your social habits? Perhaps a day at the gym instead of a movie (with a large popcorn smothered in butter and Milk Duds, obviously) would be a possible change to consider. “I like to be healthier. There are a lot more opportunities in college to work out and be healthier,” said James Vaughen, an accounting sophomore.

Students are also prone to meeting and having social gatherings based around food and eating. While some are prone to always go to a particularly unhealthy restaurant or go get dessert with a buddy, others simply enjoy grabbing a beverage with friends. “I don’t think our relationship is based on food, but I think coffee has become a way of meeting with people,” said Donlin.

Another new development here at MSU that could put even more emphasis on what seems to be social eating is the new cafeteria plan featuring extended hours of operation. With some keeping their services open until midnight, students have the opportunity to adopt the Taco Bell “fourth meal” without shelling out the extra bucks. “There are a lot of students using the new hours, myself included,” said Vaughen. “It was a good mix of people. Students by themselves, people reading, groups of friends.”

While people are clearly using the extra hours, many wonder if they are still actually something that was needed and why the university extended them in the first place. “They probably just saw a demand and an opportunity,” said Irvin.  “Just to know that it’s there is always good.”

Instant gratification plays a huge role in the success of after-hours dining. “Late at night when you get hungry and you don’t want to wait an hour for Jimmy Johns, you want something fast and kind of free. The later cafeteria hours give you that option,” said Ashley Juengling, interdisciplinary studies senior. However, Juengling also sees the option interfering with students’ health. Is it necessarily beneficial for students to have access to tons of food that late at night?

“I think any cafeteria hours would increase student obesity. You’re not supposed to eat for a few hours before you go to bed so you can actually digest what you’ve eaten,” said Irvin.

As one important thing to remember, like any sort of social study, it is a hard matter to prove as fact. What is true for one person may not be true for another and so on. It is certain, however, that professionals in the field will continue to do research on the topic and find a way to cement and prove their findings. Until then, try not to feel too bad about sitting around watching a movie and eating ice cream with your best friend.

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