A Connection Between Sneezing & Obesity?

By:  Douglas Kalman PhD, RD

Have you ever been in a crowded room and all you seem to hear is people coughing and sniffling? I am not kidding!!!  This happens every time a room is quieted for some type of speech, or at the start of a movie, or during the singing of the National Anthem at a ballgame.  Have you ever given these coughs (and sniffles) any thought?  I mean a real thought about how they can affect you?  And NO, I’m not simply talking about catching a cold!  Have you ever heard of the “obese virus”?

Social Networking?

Dr. Nicholas Christakis of Harvard University studies social networking – you know, those places where we make professional introductions and expand our personal world to meet new people who may become real friends, help with job searching, or become something else in our real lives. In reality we also socially network when we make plans with family, friends, co-workers, etc… The networking can have a great return on its investment when you put effort into it.

Sticking with our initial topic – Have you ever noticed that young children in schools often travel or play in packs of friends with a sprinkling of other people here and there? Imagine these playgroups to also be considered a “social network”.  Well Dr Christakis found that obese people tend to have more obese friends than skinnier people and that if you are married to an overweight person or an obese one your chances of also becoming overweight to obese are increased by an alarming 37%.

Wow, get married, gain a few pounds (one of the spouses) and automatically you are at increased risk of gaining weight due to nothing you initiated.  Fair, huh?  Non-spouse friends of obese people are at a 57% increased risk of also becoming obese.

The Christakis study involved over 12,000 adults and they were followed (data analyzed) for 32 years. The linkage between social networks and weight status was strong. We also know that positive messages and actions can travel through social networks. If you and your friends lead an active healthy lifestyle, the chances increase that the people you surround yourself with and influence will also be healthier.  In other words, pull your brother up (live a healthy lifestyle) before he pulls you down (becomes obese and thus increases your chances of gaining weight).


The obesity flu?

In addition to the fact that if you have overweight or obese friends anyone connected to that obese person is also at increased risk of becoming overweight, we are now also learning that some people may gain weight in response to exposure to the virus that causes the common cold. In fact, about 30% of the overweight/obese population is positive for exposure to the “Adenovirus-36 strain (AD-36). Being a positive carrier of AD-36 has been found in animals AND humans to be positively correlated with weight status. Let me repeat that, if you test positive (and the test is not yet commercialized outside of the research setting) you will be a responder to weight gain or loss.

Meaning, you will appear to have an increased likelihood that you will end up overweight. The AD-36 positive person tends to be heavier and have altered blood lipids (cholesterol, and so on) than a non-infected person. However the good news is that an AD-36 positive person is not destined to only be fat, the individual could get health and personally benefit from a structured weight loss plan while researchers determine if an intervention to halt AD-36 transmission can be produced.

So yes, it is true, obesity and overweight status can be heavily influenced by who your friends are AND if you have been exposed to the AD-36 virus. Surrounding yourself with active, healthy progressive thinking friends is one sure way to stay ahead of the social causes of obesity. So the adage of choose your friends wisely (and always keep clean hands) is also a truism in the fight against obesity. In this vein, taking advantage of coaches and trainers plus networking with other like-minded individuals is one way to power up your anti-obesity social networking skills.


Douglas Kalman PhD, RD is the Sports Nutrition Director for The Blackzilians (MMA Fight Team) and for Florida International University Department of Athletics.  Dr. Kalman also the Nutrition Editor here at DigitalMuscle.com.


  1. New Eng J Med 2007;357(4):370-379.
  2. www.obesityvirus.com