Friendship as a social mechanism influencing body mass index (BMI) among emerging adults

Meg Bruening, Irene van Woerden, David R. Schaefer, Daniel Hruschka, Alexandra Brewis, Corrie M. Whisner, Genevieve F. Dunton, Michael Todd, Punam Ohri-Vachaspati, Melissa N. Laska

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Background Social relationships have been proposed as a significant factor shaping obesity risk. The first year of college, a period of major social, behavioral, and weight changes, provides a context well-suited to tracking longitudinally the impact of shifting friendships on weight outcomes. This study sought to identify social mechanisms impacting BMI change among emerging adults. Methods An analytic sample of 276 college students (71.0% female, 52.2% non-White) provided repeated reports of relationships and BMI was measured up to four times during 2015–2016. Stochastic actor-oriented models were used to examine change in BMI through social influence and change in friendships over time, controlling for sex and race/ethnicity. Results At baseline, mean BMI was 24.2±4.5 kg/m 2 . Overall, mean BMI increased over time; individual decreases in BMI were uncommon. There was a selection effect of BMI: participants with BMIs between 22 and 26 kg/m 2 were most likely to be nominated as a friend. While participants did not select friends based on BMI similarity, participants who were reported as friends were more likely to experience convergence in BMI over time relative to the BMIs of non-friends (p = 0.015). An increase in BMI (versus stability or a decrease) was more likely for those whose friends had a higher BMI on average compared to participants whose friends had the same or lower BMI (OR = 2.85, 95% CI = 1.22, 6.71). Conclusion Analyses indicated BMI affected friend selection, not through students selecting friends with similar BMI, but rather, by students avoiding friends with more extreme BMI levels.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere0208894
JournalPloS one
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2018

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This study was supported by the NIH Common Fund from the Office of the Director and the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research, grant number 1DP5OD017910 (PI: MB). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript. The authors would like to thank the students for taking the time to participate in this study. We would like to thank the devilSPARC research team for their assistance in collecting the data.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 Bruening et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.


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