Friday, August 10, 2007

Viral Obesity

On July 26th the New York Times published an article claiming that “obesity can spread from person to person, much like a virus.” The central concept is that if a person’s friends and family are obese, that person is more likely to be so as well. But is this viral? Is obesity a viral disease that spreads from person to person, infecting the whole lot? Or is this simply virus-like behavior? The concept of viral marketing has been around for ages in the tomes of science fiction literature and for all I know, they have a viral marketing 101 class at university. Viral marketing is the simple concept is that if you can get one person to start a trend, such as wearing a red bandana, they will pass on this behavior to their friends and their friend’s friends until everyone is wearing a red bandana. This works particularly well in the marketing of new, improved diet foods that really, really work.

Obesity has always been partially a product of cultural norms and personal exposures. If an entire social circle consumes multiple homemade pies and cakes in one sitting and shuns exercise because they do not like to sweat, that group of people is more likely to be obese than a group whose norm it is to go mountain biking and then finish the day with grilled chicken and salad. As family counseling demonstrates, it is extremely difficult to change group dynamics. One person in the dessert eating group shunning grandma’s German Chocolate Cake for weight loss reasons will be viewed as a threat to the entire circle and pressure will be put on that person to fall back into line. Obesity obviously has strong ties to cultural conditioning but is this really viral behavior or just a new, fancy term to make it sound like a contagious disease, further ostracizing overweight individuals?

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