The Tribal Urge to Belong


Belonging is an acknowledged basic human need. To be part of a group makes a lot of people happy, to the point where the traits, qualities, or purposes of the group take a far second place behind the fact of belonging to it. Could it be that, as time goes on, more obese people experience a higher quality of life simply because they come closer every day to being a part of the majority?

The Framingham Heart Study learned that if, during the study, a person became obese, there was a significant chance that their sibling or spouse would become obese also. Genetics and proximity could explain those cases.

However, there is more to it:

But if study participants had a friend who became obese, the chance the study participant would become obese rose by 57%. Sure, friends share some meals, but nothing like most meals.

Dr. Anthony Komaroff goes on to say:

Although scientists don’t fully understand how obesity spreads, they suspect that a social network influences what its members perceive as normal and acceptable. If people see their friends becoming heavier and heavier over time, they may accept weight gain as natural, even inevitable. Instead of exercising more or eating less when their weight begins to creep up, they may simply go with the flow and join the crowd.

Bingo! Joining the gang is what it’s all about. This could explain the twisted appeal of aligning with the extreme “fat acceptance” side of things — to be part of a rowdy crowd of misfits, like the gentlemen in the illustration.

Or maybe not. Maybe everybody is overthinking it, and the mystery isn’t all that complicated. What if, Dr. Pretlow asks, “they simply love the pleasure of food/eating and are willing to tolerate the obesity side effect?”

In “Obese Youth and Motivation,” Dr. Pretlow says:

It’s difficult to distinguish willful pleasure-seeking with food versus true out-of-control eating and inability to change in obese young people. The quandary is whether obesity is due to brain changes, which the individual cannot help, or is it a voluntary choice?

The idea of committing suicide by sugar is hard to assimilate, but it really should not come as that much of a shock. People are willing to die for things — for a flag, or a rush, or a chance to play professional sports. Why not for food?

The first place where a person wants to feel a sense of belonging is in the family of origin. One of the findings of the landmark 2007 meta study on Quality of Life amongst the obese young makes it clear that healing needs to start at home.

Led by Dr. Rebecca M. Puhl of Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, the study showed that teasing by parents is common. The text reads:

A growing body of research shows that parents and educators are also biased against heavy children. In a 1999 study of 115 middle and high school teachers, 20 per cent said they believed obese people are untidy, less likely to succeed and more emotional.

It is possible that parents may take out their frustration, anger and guilt on their overweight child by adopting stigmatizing attitudes and behavior, such as making critical and negative comments toward their child.

The study authors suggest, as always, that more research is needed.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Social networks can affect weight, happiness,”, 10/29/15
Source: “Quality of life for obese kids same as cancer patients: analysis,”, 07/12/07
Photo credit: genebrooks via Visualhunt/CC BY

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

FAQs and Media Requests: Click here…

Profiles: Kids Struggling with Weight

Profiles: Kids Struggling with Obesity top bottom

The Book

OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

Food & Health Resources