Fitness + Well-being

Are your friends making you fat?

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Picture this: Your partner has had a tough day at work, comes home and heads straight for the pantry, pulls out a bag of chips and crunches while unloading about all the annoyances of the day. Later, it’s ice cream on the couch while watching TV.

What are you doing during all of this? You may have thought, "Hey, I had a tough day, too, gimme a handful.” Or perhaps, sensing just how sad and disappointed your partner is, you, too, start feeling down, so you grab a spoon and commiserate over the vanilla chip.

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If you find that you overeat when you’re emotionally overwhelmed, you may just be a "food empath," Judith Orloff, MD, author of the new book "The Empath’s Survival Guide," told Fox News. These types of people “absorb stressful energy from the world into their own bodies and then overeat as a result,” she explained. “You reach for food when you’re stressed out about anything.”

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And yes, loved ones can be a source of that stress. And yes, their anxious attitudes can be, too. “Being a food empath is contagious,” Orloff said. The effect is often surprising. These emotions and your knee-jerk reaction to them can be an unconscious habit.

Because the pull to eat in the face of this type of energy is so strong, Orloff recommended putting physical distance between you and the person who’s stressed. In other words, take several steps back, which will lessen their influence over you. Immediately focus on breathing slowly and deeply. “This releases any tension you may have picked up,” she said.

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Reducing the added sugar in your diet is another strategy that can help you maintain even blood sugar levels so you’re less prone to swings in mood. Eating multiple small protein-rich meals throughout the day will also help, Orloff said.

Finally, there’s the issue of adopting a friend or family member’s unhealthy habits — and what that’s doing to your waistline. “If your friends are prone to skipping workouts over Netflix binges with junk food, you’re more likely to do to the same,” Tamara Melton, MD, RDN, director of LaCarte Wellness in Atlanta, told Fox News. “Peer pressure is very real when it comes to healthy eating, and surrounding yourself with people who have healthy habits will help you stick to yours.”

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It’s all about building on behaviors — both good and bad. One study found that obesity spreads among social networks, but the researchers found that you can use that contagion to force healthy habits to catch like wildfire through a group. Indeed, “people who are at a healthy weight seek out healthy foods and ways to be active, and their lifestyle — and therefore the people they hand out with — support their healthy weight,” Melton said.

So the power is yours: When a friend asks what you want to do, tell them to grab their sneakers for a hike. When you’re in charge of bringing lunch, take along a veggie-packed grain salad with fruit. It’s the little steps that add up. And when they’re in full freak-out mode, maybe urge them to burn off the nervous energy with a walk around the neighborhood with you — rather than heading for the fridge.