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Can Social Networks Help Decrease Obesity?

Updated on October 5, 2014

Obesity Epidemic in the United States

Obesity is a literally growing problem in the United States. The Chicago Community Trust (CTT) (2012) mentions that nationwide 72 million adults are obese. These figures have doubled since 1990, further highlighting the need for intervention (Gostin, 2005).

Obesity contributes to many other health problems, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some types of cancer; these are some of the leading causes of death in the U.S. (CCT, 2012). This causes medical care costs to be staggering. Obese individuals have medical costs that are $1,429 higher than those of normal weight, and no state has an obesity rate less than the national goal of 15% (CCT, 2012). The total economic cost of obesity in the United States is $270 billion per year (CCT, 2012).

Can Twitter Help You Lose Weight?

Effects of Social Networks on Obesity Trends

Research has argued the correlation of social environments negatively influencing obesity. A study by Cohen-Cole and Fletcher (n.d.) suggested that the spread of obesity was related more to the environment that the social network. The authors can’t rule out the possibility of induction, but their results suggest that shared environment factors can cause the appearance of social network effects. Cohen-Cole and Fletcher (n.d.) mention that alcohol and smoking cessation programs have been proven more effective when coupled with peer support from social networks. Argument can continue to be made both supporting and negating that social networks attribute to increasing obesity.

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Using Social Networks to Change the Obesity Trend

Social networks can have various functions including influence, control, undermining, comparison, companionship and support (Glanz, Rimer, & Viswanath, 2008). The networks assist in meeting the basic human needs for companionship, intimacy, sense of belonging, reassurance of worth, and supportive ties that enhance well-being and health. Using this knowledge, public health educators must utilize these resources in a positive light, to challenge the health problem of obesity.

Glanz et al. (2008) explains that social networks provide new contacts and information to identify and solve problems. These interactive linkages may help individuals to reinterpret events and problems in a more positive and constructive light. Aiming education for obesity reduction and prevention at social groups will assist community’s to achieve self-efficacy. Glanz et al. (2008) describes that self-efficacy can be developed by social modeling, improving physical and emotional states, and verbal persuasion. Public health professionals must incorporate interventions into social networks to increase a community’s ability to garner its resources, achieve self-efficacy, and solve problems such as obesity.

Providing Support for the Obese

Social networks can provide support to individuals when challenged by obesity. Research has found that social networks do influence health; we just have to ensure it is in a positive way (Rao, 2012). Organizations and groups such as Weight Watchers and Overeaters Anonymous provide networking, education, and contacts to assist in successful intervention. Conventional weight management programs use social media to provide support, motivation, and information (Rao, 2012). While these groups have many members and are well known to society, social stigma can prevent potential members from joining them.

Using Fame to Decrease Obesity

According to Hill (n.d.), we can target well connected individuals, such as social network celebrities, to create change. For example, Jennifer Hudson represents Weight Watchers in the media. She lived a low to middle-class life until becoming famous on a reality contest television show, allowing her to connect with many American people who may be suffering from obesity. Hill (n.d.) explains that using social network models will assist with changing social forces through advertising.

Although cost is associated with using celebrities to drive change and promote healthy behaviors, it is much less in comparison to the estimated health-related costs of obesity. Trust for America’s Health (2012) states that the nation must make an investment in obesity prevention in a way that matches the severity of the health and financial burden. Comprehensive obesity prevention programs function in a dose‐response relationship; the more money that is invested in the programs, the fewer people that will become sick or die from obesity. Surrounding environments contribute to unhealthy eating and physical inactivity, and therefore must change; we need to mobilize all members of society (Pomerance, 2012).

Example of Advertising Online Weight Loss Methods


The Chicago Community Trust. (2012). Preventing and reducing obesity. Retrieved from

Cohen-Cole, E., &Fletcher, J.M. (n.d.). Is obesity contagious? Social networks vs. environmental factors in the obesity epidemic. Retrieved from

Glanz, K., Rimer, B. K., & Viswanath, K. (2008). Health behavior and health education: Theory, research, and practice. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Gostin, L. O. (2005). Fast and supersized: Is the answer to diet by fiat? Hastings Center Report, 35(2), 11-12. doi:10.1353/hcr.2005.0021

Hill, J. O. (n.d.). Exploring social networks to mitigate the obesity epidemic. Retrieved from

Pomerance, R. (2012, August 16). Why we’re so fat: What’s behind the latest obesity rates. U.S. News and World Report. Retrieved from

Rao, G. (2012). The promise of social networks and social media in tackling childhood obesity. Retrieved from

Trust for America’s Health. (2012). F as in fat: How obesity threatens America’s future 2012. Retrieved from


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