It’s time we categorized obesity as a contagious disease
07/28/2019 // Melissa Smith // Views

It may not be a virus, but obesity can spread from person to person. A study published in JAMA Pediatrics suggested that obesity can spread through communities like a social contagion. The study found that moving to an area with a high rate of obesity can increase your risk of becoming obese yourself, because you may adopt the unhealthy habits and behaviors of the people around you subconsciously.

In this study, researchers at the University of Southern California looked at whether exposure to communities with high rates of obesity increases the risk of obesity in individual residents. They recruited families of U.S. Army personnel at 38 military bases across America. A total of 1,314 parents and 1,111 children participated, whose rates of obesity reflected the national rates. One in three adults in a typical U.S. county is obese, and some of the bases were in counties with high rates of obesity, ranging from 21 to 38 percent.

The researchers found that residents assigned to bases in counties with high rates of obesity were more likely to become overweight or obese. For every single percentage-point increase in the obesity rate of locals, the odds that a teenager would be overweight or obese increased by four to six percent. The chances that a parent would become obese increased by five percent.

Furthermore, the longer the families lived there, the more likely they were to see their weight increase. Even after considering environmental factors that could influence obesity rate, the link was still apparent. It is possible that living in an area where there was a lack of gyms and an easier access to fast food restaurants both play a key role. (Related: Be careful or you might catch obesity, suggests new study.)


"Social contagion in obesity means that if more people around you are obese, then that may increase your own chances of becoming obese," explained Dr. Ashlesha Datar, one of the authors of the study.

Community efforts to prevent obesity

To fight the obesity epidemic, community efforts must focus on encouraging healthy eating and active lifestyle in various settings. Community leaders can create programs and policies that contribute to the creation of healthy community food environments. For example, they can provide incentives for supermarkets or farmers markets to establish their business in underserved areas; or restaurants to put nutrition and calorie labels on their menu. They may also encourage residents to be physically active by providing places where they can be active, such as creating walking trails.

Schools and workplaces can also take part in promoting healthy eating and active living. School authorities can encourage children to drink water instead of sugar-sweetened beverages by providing them access to free drinking water. Schools should also ensure that the available food and drink options are healthy. School authorities should help children meet their dietary recommendations for fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and non-fat or low-fat dairy products. Additionally, they can increase the amount of time spent in physical education classes to make sure students are physically active.

In the workplace community, authorities can create a healthy work environment by offering a worksite wellness program to their employees. They can encourage physical activity by offering management support, as well as giving access to opportunities, policies, and social supports. Moreover, workplace cafeterias should also make healthier food choices more accessible to their employees.

Obesity is the root of a lot of health problems, so preventing and even reversing it can reduce many cases of fatal medical conditions.

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