Researchers from the Institute of Prevention Research at the Keck School of Medicine have found a link between obesity and social networks among adolescents. In fact, overweight youth were twice as likely to have overweight friends.
“Although this finding was expected, it was surprising how strong the peer effect is and how early in life it starts,” said lead author Thomas Valente, professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School.
Previous data had shown a connection between overweight adults and their social peers, but the study used more advanced statistical modeling techniques than previous research and the association remained strong, Valente said.
In-school surveys were conducted among 617 students ages 11-13. In addition to finding that overweight adolescents were more likely to have overweight friends than their normal-weight peers, the researchers also found that overweight girls were more likely to name more friends, but less likely to be named as a friend than normal-weight girls.
“This suggests marginalization,” Valente said, “and a call to develop interventions that take peer constructs into account.”
For parents, he said this means being conscious of potential social consequences that their children may suffer as a result of being overweight.
“We tend to focus on health consequences when talking about weight in adolescents, but being popular resonates much more,” said Valente.
He said more study is needed on the relationship between being overweight and social status among adolescents.