Slimming World’s new diet plan: avoid fatter friends, maintain weight loss!

Yes, you heard it here, folks (although you may have read about this in your info stream already): Slimming World, a UK-based dieting business, considers no lifestyle change too extreme if the goal is to maintain weight loss. These changes now include “spend less time with your overweight friends.”

As is common these days, the news was broken by an Instagrammer whose friend, upon reaching her target weight on her Slimming World plan, was given a booklet of tips for maintaining weight.  Most of them were the usual suspects, like eat a good breakfast (which, in some studies, have failed to find systematic associations between eating breakfast and weight loss or maintenance; see here for a recent study that shows an  association only for men, NOT for women… I’ll be blogging more about this later).

However, at the bottom of (but still on) the list is this:

A screenshot of a list of dos and don’ts for weight loss. The last one says 4% of weight loss maintainers spend less time with overweight friends. really.

There are so many things wrong with this advice. Let me state a few, and then say where in the world this may have come from, and then explain why it’s still wrong wrong wrong.

First, the math person in me has to point this out: telling me to do something based on the fact that 4% of my group does this is not compelling advice. I’m willing to bet that at least 4% of some group of weight loss maintainers: 1) play badminton twice a week; or 2) do hydroponic gardening; or 3) vote solely based on what their podiatrist advises. This is not, by itself, a good reason for me to do this thing.

By the way, Slimming World claimed that they got this list (including the 4% claim) from the National Weight Control Registry, which collects and does research on data from more than 10,000 people who have lost a lot of weight and maintained that weight loss. I know their work well, and spent a good bit of time looking for the study that supports this 4% claim.  I couldn’t find it.

Their list contains a bunch of relatively common bits of advice, which, according to said list, at least 25% of the group members do.  Then there’s a big gap– from 25% down to 4%.  Where are the other things that groups between 4 and 25% of the people do? This is suspicious to me.  Either they left out a lot of more useful tips, or they had incomplete information, or…

Or, they deliberately chose to highlight and misinterpret a complex result (why complex?  because science is complicated!) from 2007 by researchers Christakis and Fowler. You can see it here. In their social network analysis of 32 years’ worth of data from participants in the Framingham Heart Study, they found associations between social connections and chances of gaining (or losing) weight.  For mutually-identified same-sex friends, if one person gets fatter, that increases the chances that the other person also gets fatter.  It also works in the other direction, but there weren’t many data points for that association.

The press, as you can imagine, had a field day with this study.  Even the New York Times indulged itself in the headline “Are your friends making you fat?” Shame on you, New York Times.  Of course, the real story is (wait for it)… complicated. Christakis and Fowler say in their article that their results don’t support any theories about how these influences work.  They also don’t know what amplifies or mitigates them.

I published an article co-authored with my friend Norah ten years ago about their work, and we are continuing to study the ways that community affiliation (like being a part of the Fit is a Feminist Issue community!) influences views about health promotion, health and identity.  These are fascinating and complex questions, and their exploration involves examining deep issues about how we see ourselves, and how connections with others affect how we see ourselves. And, finally, how all this translates into how we form our own health goals.

Nowhere in this literature is anyone who knows anything about this advising anyone to shun their friends.

Take that, Slimming World!

It’s a fact that we weigh what we weigh, and we have the strengths and weaknesses we have with respect to all kinds of activities (confession:  I am the most terrible volleyball player ever.  Please don’t make me play it ever again.) We navigate all of this information with our friends and community in complex ways.

So, dear readers, what are your thoughts?  How do you manage social or community or family connections with physical activity? I tend to do a variety of activities with different folks, and also I like mixed age/experience groups for social activity– like a nature walk or beach bike ride. What do you do?  I’d love to hear from you.


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