Can Health Be Contagious?

“I felt so guilty...”

Posted on | Ramani Durvasula, PhD | Comments ()

“I felt so guilty...”

These were the words shared with me by one of my research staff at the university where I work. 

“Why?” I asked.

“Because I ordered the shrimp and pasta …”

I was still confused. I had recently taken my staff to lunch, and at the end of the conversation came to  understand that she felt guilty for ordering a rich buttery dish that I would likely not order and that was not a healthy choice. After that conversation, I felt guilty. I never intended to be a poster child for healthy eating, and just as with everything else, I want people to feel comfortable doing what they want to do in front of me.

Yesterday, I went to grab something off her desk, and saw her lunch sitting there – a heaping pile of vegetables. Last week it was boiled eggs and some fruit.

She fessed up and said she sees what I eat and wanted to try to eat healthier.

I never said anything to her over the past many months. I honestly don’t care what she or anyone else eats; I care how they eat it. In fact, at the university I typically take my lunch at my desk, in private.

There are scads of research indicating that health is contagious – hanging out with people who follow healthy lifestyles begets a healthy lifestyle. It’s viral, like catching a cold. Thus, the best way to influence how people eat is simply to eat and act healthily in front of them. This has been shown in children, families, adults.  [Psychologist] Albert Bandura  showed us years ago that the most powerful way of learning is to watch others do something. Don’t lecture them, don’t make them read about it, don’t punish them – just live it. And let them run with it. 

This is incredibly powerful with kids – eat healthy, and they will follow; they truly do what they see and not what they hear. But it works with adults, too. Watch how a large group orders at a restaurant – they shape their requests to the “culture” of the table. A few healthy “orderers” at the table – and all of a sudden you see more vegetables, lean meats and dressings on the side. 

Southern California is FULL of health gurus who have made eating impossibly organic/raw/never-been-touched-by-human-hands food a full-time lifestyle. I don’t have time for that nonsense and when they preach to me, I smile politely. When I see a busy working mother pull some healthy stuff out of a cooler at work, I take notice – because it feels real.

Americans have a dozen new health recommendations thrown at them daily – mgs of this, cups of that, this many calories, that much exercise. It’s information overload. And we have never been more overweight in modern history. 

If you want the people – kids, partners, family, friends, co-workers – around you to get healthier, then start with yourself.   

And see if they “catch” how you eat.

Blog written by Ramani Durvasula, PhD
Dr. Ramani Durvasula has over 15 years of teaching, clinical and research experience. After receiving her doctorate in clinical...