Study gives clues to how obesity spreads socially

May 9, 2011

Obesity is socially contagious, according to research published in the past few years. How it is “caught” from others remains a murky area. But findings from Arizona State University researchers published online May 5 in the American Journal of Public Health shed light on the transmission of obesity among friends and family.

Shared ideas about acceptable weight or body size play only a minor role in spreading obesity among friends, according to the findings published in the article “Shared Norms and Their Explanation for the Social Clustering of Obesity.” Download Full Image

“Interventions targeted at changing ideas about appropriate body mass indexes or body sizes may be less useful than those working more directly with behaviors, for example, by changing eating habits or transforming opportunities for and constraints on dietary intake,” wrote lead author Daniel J. Hruschka, and co-authors Amber Wutich, Alexandra Brewis and Benjamin Morin, all with ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change.

Hruschka and Wutich are cultural anthropologists, while Brewis is a biological anthropologist, and Morin is a graduate student in applied mathematics for the life and social sciences.

"When you see that something like obesity spreads among close friends and family members, this raises important questions about how it's spreading. Is it because we learn ideas about acceptable body size from our friends and family members, or that we hike together, watch TV together or go out to eat together?" said Hruschka.

“If we can figure out exactly why obesity spreads among friends and family members, that can tell us where to focus resources in curbing rates of obesity. Is it more effective to change people’s ideals of acceptable body size in hopes that they will change their behaviors or rather directly target socially shared behaviors that can contribute to weight gain or loss?”

To dig deeper into how clustering of body attitudes account for the observed social contagion of obesity in past studies, the ASU team interviewed 101 women from the Phoenix area and 812 of their closest friends and family members.

Comparing the body mass index (BMI) of the women, their friends and family members, the researchers confirmed prior findings that the risk of a woman’s obesity rose if her social network was obese.

But the team also examined three potential pathways by which shared ideals of acceptable body size might cause obesity and body size to spread through social ties.

Hruschka explained: “You might learn what is an acceptable body size from your friends and then change your diet and exercise to try to achieve that. Or, you might not agree with what your friends or family members think, but still feel pressure from them to achieve some ideal body size. Finally, you may form an idea of appropriate body size by simply observing your friends’ bodies, which in turn changes your eating and exercise habits.”

The team discovered no evidence for the first and second pathways as means of transmission and found only limited support for the third, suggesting that other factors such as eating and exercising together may be more important in causing friends to gain and lose weight together.

A strength of the study was the range of approaches taken to assess body size ideals, including ideal body size, anti-obesity preference and anti-fat stigma. For example, the participants were asked to choose whether they would rather be obese or have one of 12 socially stigmatized conditions, such as alcoholism or herpes. In many cases, the women would rather have more of the other conditions, with 25.4 percent preferring severe depression and 14.5 percent preferring total blindness over obesity.

While this study provides some clues, the authors noted that more work needs to be done to assess how other proposed factors, such as shared activities or other kinds of social norms, account for the relationship between social proximity and similarity in BMI.

“This study is important because it shows that while the clustering of people with larger or smaller bodies is real, it is not shared values between friends that accounts for it,” said Brewis, director of the Center for Global Health in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Science. “This gives us important clues about the best ways to tackle obesity as a public health issue; we need to focus on what people do together, rather than what people think.”

Written by Rebecca Howe.

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CET award recipients show commitment to diversity

May 9, 2011

A demonstrated, continuous commitment to promoting cultural diversity has earned several faculty, staff and students at ASU’s West campus recognition from the Campus Environment Team. The CET on the West campus awarded its 2011 Excellence in Diversity Awards to Omayra Ortega (faculty), Bobbi Magdaleno (staff/administrator), Bruce Bale (student), Natalie Ohannessian (community servant), and the M.A. program in social justice and human rights (group).

“All of the nominees were extremely deserving, so it wasn’t easy to choose the recipients,” said Margot Monroe, West campus CET chair. “Each nominee models the type of behavior that promotes a positive, welcoming atmosphere on the West campus.” Download Full Image

Ortega, a faculty member in New College’s Division of Mathematical and Natural Sciences, served as chair of the MLK Planning Committee at West, coordinating the highly successful “March on West” event that brought 1,200 students from local middle schools to campus for the annual “I Have a Dream” speech reenactment. Her numerous other activities include serving as faculty mentor of the Black Students Association and mentoring student clubs including the Hispanic Honor Society, Black Student Union, and the Axe Capoeira at ASU, a group performing Brazilian martial arts, music and dance. Ortega is described as an individual who truly models respectful treatment of all individuals in her daily interactions with students, fellow faculty, staff and community partners.

Magdaleno, director of community relations in Public Affairs, received a special unanimous nomination from the CET committee. The committee cited her tireless work as an advocate of all West campus cultural programs. “Bobbi is a constant supporter, and is first to see and voice the value in working with a very diverse group of individuals across several cultural committees,” Monroe said. “Campus committees such as Native American, Hispanic, MLK Planning and the Black History Month Committee all know the value of her commitment to keeping the tenets of valuing diversity live and well on the campus. She also works hard to ensure there is a connection that keeps the West campus on the forefront of community visibility and participation.”

Bale received the student award for his regular support and promotion of campus and community cultural diversity and awareness. Bale volunteers for student and special interest group causes, and meets and befriends people of all cultures, ethnicities and backgrounds. He is described as relishing the opportunity to learn about any cultural different from his own, and has made a point of promoting awareness of different cultures in and around campus.  Recently Bale volunteered for a program called “Meals for Vegans,” which advocates and lobbies for greater vegan awareness and accessibility of vegan meals, although he is not a vegan himself.

Ohannessian is a community member who serves as advisor to the Teachers of the Future student organization. She has lent her assistance to several events at the West campus, including Winter Warmth, Book Bash and Fairy Godmothers, an event that collects prom dresses for girls who cannot afford them. Ohannessian is described as a kind-hearted individual who always puts others of all ethnic backgrounds before herself.

The faculty, students and staff associated with the master’s program in social justice and human rights received the group award for their success in fostering and enhancing diversity and justice. Founding faculty identified a need for a program of study focused on social change, including improving the status of marginalized peoples at all levels from the local to the institutional to global. From its outset the program has emphasized diversity, with a focus on women’s empowerment, outreach efforts, and activities on campus. The MASJHR program evolved out of the first-ever Border Justice event at ASU, which focused on femicides in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Since then the program’s major focus is on courses in transnational feminism, human trafficking, and sexual violence again migrant women.

Along with the award recipients, additional individuals and groups were nominated this year for the CET Excellence in Diversity Award in recognition for their commitment to the support and promotion of cultural diversity. Nominees included faculty members Akua Duku Anokye and Bel Winemiller and groups Kappa Delta Pi and Teachers of the Future.

CET is an advisory group to the Provost that promotes a positive, harmonious campus environment that celebrates individual and group diversity, promotes individualism, provides information to the campus community, and resolves issues in such a manner as to respect all people and their dignity.

For more information about CET at the West campus, contact Margot Monroe at (602) 543-8407 or margot.monroe">">