Is Being Fat Contagious?

By: Dan Kennedy on: October 13th, 2009 8 Comments

IS BEING FAT CONTAGIOUS? – so said The New England Journal of Medicine, reporting on a new,”groundbreaking” study from Harvard Medical School, which indicates that hanging out with fat friends, in person or even at a distance via phone, text, e-mail and Facebook, can”make you fat.”

This is good news for everybody in the weight loss industry; it provides yet another way to let the customer off the hook, to say “it’s not your fault.” (A necessary step in selling anyone anything intended to substitute for personal responsibility.)

Let’s be clear: your fat friends don’t make you fat or fatter unless you are prone to cannibalism. What you eat and the quantity of it eaten is the culprit. As a matter of fact, nobody makes you anything; you make you.

If the principle of associative environmental transfer was perfect, there would be no success stories from The Projects. Specific to weight and overweight friends, you could choose to use them as role models of everything not to do. If Elvis made the MemphisMafia fatter, why hasn’t Gene Simmons made all the other KISS band members smarter, more entrepreneurial and richer or, for that matter, Alice Cooper led all rockers by his Christian conversion?

Because the override switch for accidental environmental conditioning or even purposeful indoctrination, example, education, and, to a great degree, genetics is choice. Which is why no discussion of any ill, physical, fiscal or other, ought omit discussion of personal choice and responsibility.

To discuss real estate foreclosures without discussing the foreclosed-upon family’s choices to have two new cars, cellphones and purchased ringtones for all five family members, and two mortgages so the new kitchen, new deck and new media room could all be acquired simultaneously as opposed to paying down the one mortgage as fast as possible is silly.

On the other hand, or on another level, the study as a surprise to scientists and media folk was and is amusing. It should be no surprise. We know it is hard to rise above your associations and better to be lifted up to smarter, better behavior and grander aspirations by them than to be the odd man out trying to lift – or at least not be dragged down by – the others.

For years we’ve known: “tell me about the books you read, the TV programs you watch, and the people you associate with and I can predict your future”.

Napoleon Hill wrote about it positively. The Chinese cautioned “lie down with dogs, wake up with fleas.” In Don Quixote: “Tell me thy company and I’ll tell the world what thou art.”

In this way, everything and everybody is contagious, and that’s important to remember in choosing your associations and in managing employees and even in acquiring customers. The ‘bad influence’ usually has more influence. The stupidity, sloth, greed,gluttony, etc. of the worst in the tribe tends to influence all the others, even the best, more than the intelligence, industriousness,etc. of the best tends to influence.

That’s why putting a player on your team who strangles his coach or disrespects all other players and badmouths everybody else to the media and frequently gets arrested isa very risky and questionable choice, no matter how fast he can run or how high he can jump. That’s why failing to fire the toxic or incompetent is so costly. When Norman Vincent Peale wrote that enthusiasm is contagious,he might have noted that the absence of it is even more contagious.

The JAMA reported Harvard study failed to advise if having thin friends made you thin. I would bet not. It seems even more important to avoid negative associations than to have positive ones. You can succeed in near isolation and many people do, myself included, by choice. But it is damnably hard to succeed immersed in association with people in attitudinal and behavioral disharmony with the goals and values you prioritize.

Positive association’s greatest value may be as a “space filler” to prevent negative association.Hanging out with thin friends may benefit by consuming time so you are unable to hang out with fat ones. One thing’s pretty clear: the most successful people very deliberately choose those they associate with;unsuccessful people associate with whoever circumstances randomly send their way. Just because a person has purchased the house next to yours does not mean he is worthy of spending time with.

Contagion is an undeniably powerful force, for good and evil and mediocrity and achievement. It is to be respected, guarded against and when possible,harnessed and used – never to be underestimated or ignored. But the more powerful force deserving far greater attention is choice.


Dan Kennedy is internationally recognized as the 'Millionaire Maker,' helping people in just about every category of business turn their ideas into fortunes. Dan's "No B.S." approach is refreshing amidst a world of small business marketing hype and enriches those who act on his advice. For more money-making marketing tips, tactics and strategies, go to

8 Responses

  1. Rob Anspach says:

    today before I even read this article… I was driving down the street and noticed a very large man (I mean huge, probably weighing close to 500 pounds) riding on a motorized scotter while drinking a 50 ounce big gulp soda… and I thought to myself what makes a person get this large…or so lazy they need a scooter…or want or need to drink a 50 ounce soda… and the more I thought about it the more I came to the conclusion … they arn’t motivated enough to be thin… to be healthy… to be independant.

    The power of laziness is so much ingained in people’s minds that they hang out with the wrong people, they let themselves get fat, they eat & drink the wrong things and they demotivate themselves.

    As entrepreneurs, the best way to stay motivated is to hang out with motivating people… those that build you up, that encourage you, that strive for and achieve that which you hope to accomplish.

    Yes trim the fat and stop being lazy… get motivated! Take action! Listen to people that have done what you want to do, emulate them! Make a choice to be better!

  2. So much like golf. You get to choose your handicap.

  3. So true Dan – or in common parlance:

    “You smell like who you hang with.”

    Rob: I don’t believe in laziness.

    What makes someone behave like that is not laziness – but a lack of self-esteem. If you liked yourself – if you loved yourself and valued the contribution you made to the world – if you felt like you had a purpose and a calling and a mission on this Earth, it would be impossible to let yourself get that large and scootery (too much to do! Even when I don’t have time to exercise I never stop moving!).

    What people call “laziness” doesn’t actually exist – it’s a front for bigger issues.

    You can choose to judge others for being “lazy” – or you can choose to help people break those patterns and hold them to a higher standard. Or if that’s not your calling, you can choose to ignore it …

    But judging others is very different to holding them to a higher standard and helping them … one is very easy and full of smug self-satisfaction and ego. The other is an act of humanity.

  4. Sharp, biting, to-the-point No B.S. commentary, as usual, Dan.

    I believe it was a very sage advisor who wrote “Control = Responsibility”:

    We are all in control over what we put into our minds and bodies, and must take responsibility for our choices.

    Speaking of which, I’m in Baltimore this week to associate with dozens of positive, motivated, forward-thinking, fired-up people at the GKIC Peak Performers meeting! YES!!

    p.s. I didn’t see many scooters in the parking lot, or Big Gulp cups on the various meeting room tables…

  5. Get in maaaaaaaah belly!

  6. Joy Johnson says:

    Obesity is a “tipping point” problem. It was frowned upon for years so people watched their weight. It was not acceptable to fail to exercise appropriate self-control. More people gradually got fatter and fatter. As more people got fatter, more tipped to the tolerant side as extremes increased in magnitude. Now normal weight seems to be the anomaly. In fact, being around thin people did keep people thin and, yes, being around fat people allows more people to put aside self-discipline and become fat.

  7. Rob Anspach says:

    In my local newspaper today (the back page) – Ambulances are now charging extra for obese people.

  8. “As a matter of fact, nobody makes you anything; you make you.” Great point, Dan.

    Responsibility, the lost art:
    The same thing happens to me over and over. I respond the same way I always do. I get the same result. Waaaaaaahhhhhhhhh!
    The same thing happens to me over and over. I respond differently. I get a different, better result. Mmmmmmmmmmm!

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