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THE COUNSELOR’S CORNER: Study is a big fat waste of time

Do you remember when you were a child and first you would learn that hard toothbrushes were in, then it was soft toothbrushes, then it would be hard toothbrushes again?

Or how about when pasta was the recommended diet, later to be given a bad name for all of the carbs it contains?

Throughout my life, there have been many of these back and forths, and I recently read about a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine that I predict will be countered and found to be erroneous within the next five years: “Obesity is something that can spread from person to person, similar to a virus.”

This study says that if one person gains weight, that person’s close friends tend to gain weight as well. This study is based on the lives of 12,067 people who were followed from 1971 to 2003. The investigators asked each person in the study to give his or her weight at various times over the 32 years. They also knew who was friends with whom, which members of the study were related to other individuals and which were neighbors. They then concluded that if your friend becomes obese, that increases your chances of becoming obese by 57%. If a neighbor of yours becomes too heavy, that was found to have no effect on your weight gain. Family members putting on the pounds were found to have some effect but not nearly as much as friends.

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Interestingly — or in my opinion, ridiculously — even if the friend was hundreds of miles away, the “obesity effect” was still in play, the researchers say. One of the principals of this study is Dr. Nicholas Christakis, a physician and professor of medical sociology at Harvard Medical School. Christakis opines that, in effect, if you see a friend become obese, obesity no longer looks so bad. It is his view that “you change your idea of what is an acceptable body type by looking at the people around you.”

That’s funny; I thought that by looking at people around you, you could decide what it was about them that you liked and wanted to emulate and what it was about them that you didn’t think was particularly wonderful.

I have a couple of friends who are now sporting tattoos; it hasn’t led me to rush to the tattoo parlor. I have a friend with a nose piercing; she doesn’t usually ask, but when she does I delight in telling her how ridiculous I think it looks. And yes, some of my favorite people in the world have put on a whole bunch of weight, and whenever we talk about it, they talk about wanting to lose weight, and I never talk about wanting to catch up to them.

Those involved with the study believe that this helps explain why Americans, in general, have become heavier in recent years. That’s funny; I thought it was the fact that we are getting less exercise and spending too much time watching TV and surfing the net.

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The investigators conclude that the way to avoid becoming fat is to avoid having fat friends. That may be the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever read; it’s at least in the top five. I wonder if next they are going to study whether dumping your heavy friends will then cause you to lose weight.

Christakis actually suggests that you should make friends with thin people and let the thin people’s behavior influence you and any obese friends you hang around with. I tell you, I’m starting to lose whatever respect I had for Harvard Medical School. When someone with the credentials of Christakis speaks, people tend to take this stuff seriously. I mean how dumb is this? Where did common sense go in this study? Apparently out the Harvard Medical School window.

Of course, maybe this is a localized problem, because apparently all 12,067 people in the study live in the town of Framingham, Mass. In fact, that is the total population of Framingham. Christakis learned that the data he needed to explore his theory was available in a study of heart disease sponsored by the federal government in Framingham, which kept track of everyone in the study in a number of aspects of life, including their friendships and their weight. So, Christakis is generalizing from the town of Framingham to all of America? Yes, I realize there is a so-called obesity epidemic in this country, but to link it to friendships is just flat-out foolish.

It has been said that this study and its conclusions have caught obesity specialists and social scientists by surprise. No kidding! How about stopping being surprised and, if anybody really thinks this is important enough, launching a nationwide study with a random sampling of the population. I never got great grades in my statistics classes, but I do remember enough to recall that a random sampling of the population is the key to getting a study that can be relied upon.

I look forward to reading someone with more influence than I rising up to debunk this silliness. If something is counter-intuitive, it ought to be questioned. If something appears to you to be implausible, then perhaps it is. If you have found this column at all amusing, please remember that laughter can be contagious, not fat.


 CHARLES J. UNGER is a criminal defense attorney in the Glendale law firm of Flanagan, Unger & Grover, and a therapist at the Foothill Centre for Personal and Family Growth. He may be reached at (818) 244-8694 or at www.charlieunger.com.


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