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Nov 25, 2013

It's Easier to Lose Weight with Family and Friends, Study Finds

Weight loss interventions in social networks are more effective than standard care.

When it comes to lifestyle choices, we’re closely affected by family and friends in our social network. If you’re a heavy smoker and all of your friends recently kicked the habit, you too may contemplate following their lead. Similarly, if everyone in your family started a new diet and the pounds were melting off, you might want to try out the same diet. After all, seeing your loved ones succeed in achieving their goals can help motivate you to do the same.

That’s why researchers recently tested the concept of “microclinics,” where people were grouped with family and friends as part of a weight loss intervention, the results of which were presented on Nov. 18 at the American Heart Association’s annual conference.

The Randomized Trial of Social Network Lifestyle Intervention for Obesity was conducted in rural Kentucky, where medical care is limited and rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease are high—making it the perfect population for a weight loss intervention. A total of 552 overweight and obese adults participated in this study and each person was assigned to one of two weight loss programs. The first intervention was called a microclinic, where 2–7 people from the same social network participated together in weekly physical activity, nutrition, health education and social activity sessions led by trained health educators. The second weight-loss program was simply standard care for weight loss, like providing information on healthy eating and the importance of exercise.

After following participants for about 10 months, researchers found that adults in the microclinic lost 6.5 pounds more and trimmed an extra quarter-inch from their waists compared to those receiving standard care. Those in social networks also saw greater blood pressure improvement compared to those in the standard care group.

“Leveraging the social network and peer influences and social networks for support may be important for fighting obesity,” said Eric L. Ding, Sc.D., lead author, epidemiologist and nutritionist at Harvard School of Public Health, and Director of Epidemiology at Microclinic International. “We need to focus on more than the individual obese patient in isolation, and look to family and friend networks and the communities where people live.”

Clusters of friends and family can help both establish and spread healthy norms, such as regularly checking weight and blood sugar (if diabetic), exercising, watching calories, and eating fresh fruits and vegetables, he said.

Given the success of this study, authors hope that social network interventions catch on to promote weight loss across the country. Weight loss takes patience, time and dedication but with the support of family and friends, people are more likely to achieve their weight loss goals and sustain them over time.

Questions for You to Consider

  • Can weight loss improve my health?

  • Even a relatively modest weight loss of 5 to 10% of your body weight can produce health benefits such as lower blood pressure, lower blood sugar, and improved cholesterol levels. In addition, weight loss has been shown to help people with asthma have fewer attacks and use less medicine, and improve the quality of sleep in people with obstructive sleep apnea.
  • What is the best way to lose weight?

  • Weight loss boils down to a simple formula: burn more energy each day than you take in from food. A deficit of 3500 calories will net one pound of fat loss. Therefore, if you cut down your food intake by just 100 calories a day, you can expect to lose 10 pounds by the end of the year.

    Although it’s tempting to look for a quick fix with a speedy weight loss scheme, many popular diets are unhealthy or produce only temporary results. You’ll have better luck with an eating plan that includes a variety of healthful foods and gives you enough calories and nutrients to meet your body’s needs. Taking it slow by making ongoing eating and exercise changes is the best way to reach and maintain your optimal weight.

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