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Is there evidence that friends influence body weight? A systematic review of empirical research


  • Cunningham, Solveig A.
  • Vaquera, Elizabeth
  • Maturo, Claire C.
  • Venkat Narayan, K.M.


Researchers and policymakers from diverse fields are engaged in efforts to understand the biological and social causes of obesity in order to develop policies, interventions, and recommendations to stop or reverse increases in obesity. One potentially promising approach is to harness influence from social contacts. An important foundation for this approach involves critically analyzing available data regarding whether and how body weight can be affected by close social contacts, especially friends. This systematic review examines evidence from published studies addressing the influences of friends on body weight. The majority of the sixteen studies conclude that there is evidence of influence: six reported that friends influence body weight and ten reported evidence of influence in some circumstances or specifications. However, this literature sheds little light on mechanisms of influence. There is limited evidence that friends’ communication about weight is associated with weight status and no compelling evidence that friends’ behaviors affect one’s weight. Many of the studies best designed to examine influence were the ones that did not explore mechanisms of influence. A priority for future research is to understand how, when, and how much friends affect the risk of obesity.

Suggested Citation

  • Cunningham, Solveig A. & Vaquera, Elizabeth & Maturo, Claire C. & Venkat Narayan, K.M., 2012. "Is there evidence that friends influence body weight? A systematic review of empirical research," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 75(7), pages 1175-1183.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:socmed:v:75:y:2012:i:7:p:1175-1183 DOI: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2012.05.024

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Cohen-Cole, Ethan & Fletcher, Jason M., 2008. "Is obesity contagious? Social networks vs. environmental factors in the obesity epidemic," Journal of Health Economics, Elsevier, vol. 27(5), pages 1382-1387, September.
    2. Trogdon, Justin G. & Nonnemaker, James & Pais, Joanne, 2008. "Peer effects in adolescent overweight," Journal of Health Economics, Elsevier, vol. 27(5), pages 1388-1399, September.
    3. Halliday, Timothy J. & Kwak, Sally, 2009. "Weight gain in adolescents and their peers," Economics & Human Biology, Elsevier, vol. 7(2), pages 181-190, July.
    4. Fowler, J.H. & Christakis, N.A., 2008. "Estimating peer effects on health in social networks: A response to Cohen-Cole and Fletcher; and Trogdon, Nonnemaker, and Pais," Journal of Health Economics, Elsevier, vol. 27(5), pages 1400-1405, September.
    5. Renna, Francesco & Grafova, Irina B. & Thakur, Nidhi, 2008. "The effect of friends on adolescent body weight," Economics & Human Biology, Elsevier, vol. 6(3), pages 377-387, December.
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    Cited by:

    1. Zhang, J. & Tong, L. & Lamberson, P.J. & Durazo-Arvizu, R.A. & Luke, A. & Shoham, D.A., 2015. "Leveraging social influence to address overweight and obesity using agent-based models: The role of adolescent social networks," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 125(C), pages 203-213.
    2. Trogdon, Justin G. & Allaire, Benjamin T., 2014. "The effect of friend selection on social influences in obesity," Economics & Human Biology, Elsevier, vol. 15(C), pages 153-164.
    3. Gwozdz, Wencke & Sousa-Poza, Alfonso & Reisch, Lucia A. & Bammann, Karin & Eiben, Gabriele & Kourides, Yiannis & Kovács, Éva & Lauria, Fabio & Konstabel, Kenn & Santaliestra-Pasias, Alba M. & Vyncke, , 2015. "Peer effects on obesity in a sample of European children," Economics & Human Biology, Elsevier, vol. 18(C), pages 139-152.
    4. Christensen, Vibeke T. & Carpiano, Richard M., 2014. "Social class differences in BMI among Danish women: Applying Cockerham's health lifestyles approach and Bourdieu's theory of lifestyle," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 112(C), pages 12-21.
    5. Choi, Jaesung & Park, Hyunjoon & Behrman, Jere R., 2015. "Separating boys and girls and increasing weight? Assessing the impacts of single-sex schools through random assignment in Seoul," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 134(C), pages 1-11.


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