Betsy Hart

Why am I not surprised? Second hand obesity has now been documented.

That according to a study just out in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine, and funded by the National Institute on Aging.

AP science writer Alicia Chang summarized the study this way — "If your friends and family get fat, chances are you will too, researchers report in a startling new study that suggests obesity is (both) 'socially contagious' and can spread easily from person to person."

The study found that one's chances of becoming obese through "contagion" is most significant when it comes to good friends, even friends who live far apart, much more so than among those who swim in the same gene pool. If your pal becomes obese, your chances of tipping the scales too much will go up 57 percent; 40 percent if your sibling becomes overweight; and 37 percent if your spouse does.

Two-thirds of Americans are now overweight or obese. Obesity is America's second leading cause of preventable death, after smoking, and it's fast closing in on becoming number one. It claims about three hundred thousand lives a year.

The finding that it's social relationships, not genetic ones, which offer the biggest risk in weight gain just — again — reiterates that obesity is not primarily about random genetic malfunction. It's about a generation of us who just can't say no to anything, including food. But it's becoming increasingly clear that it's also very much about a food culture that feeds that lust pun intended.

In any event, the idea that this is "startling" to researchers is the element of all this that I find most, well, startling. I've written in the past that I genuinely feel obese people, particularly the rapidly growing number of obese kids, present a health risk to my kids. After all, when my children look around and see overweight and obese people and children everywhere, it could easily make them think it's, well, at some level OK.

It's just human nature to think that "everybody is doing it" or "that guy is doing it even more than I am — so no problem!"

And seeing food itself everywhere only "feeds" into this too.

I hear from friends who tell me about the office "foodie." The typcially heavy person who fills his or her desk with chocolates, potato chips, cookies and is always ready to share.

If one is struggling with weight — that's a way to fail. Where are the second-hand smoke police when you need them?

Why can't such people be told, "this is a snack free zone," and then be forced to suck down the goodies outside the front door of the office on a freezing cold day? Seriously.

Betsy Hart

Betsy Hart is a nationally syndicated columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service. Her column on cultural and family issues, “From the Hart,” is distributed each week to hundreds of newspapers cross the country. Betsy’s first book, "It Takes a Parent: How the Culture of Pushover Parenting is Hurting out Kids – and What to do About It," was released in September, 2005, and was a top seller for its publisher, Putnam Books.