Editor’s Note: This article is a part of an Op-Ed series, “Second Opinion,” where patient experts share their take on current research, news, and trends in health and medicine. The views expressed in this article do not reflect the opinions or views of HealthCentral.com.
The New York Post featured a column on “successful dieters” who had decided to abandon their usual social dinners to eat alone. The individuals featured shared the fact that when they ate with their friends, each of them realized that they, “ate more; drank alcohol; chose less nutritious choices.” They were all committed — REALLY committed — to losing weight, and they had each come to the realization that eating out socially was destroying their weight loss efforts.
Similar to individuals who struggle with alcoholism, these people decided that they needed to change their food-based social habits, at least temporarily. A study seems to confirm this strategy.
The study, out of North Carolina State University, suggests that when you decide to commit to weight loss, an unexpected consequence may be that people around you sabotage you, consciously and unconsciously. That’s right, the very people who love you, family, friends and co-workers, may not support your diet. In fact, they may actually try to undermine your efforts. We’ll get to “the why” in a moment.
The study results were based on in depth interviews with 40 people, who had been previously overweight or living with obesity, but were now slim or at goal weight at the time of the interview. Every one of the subjects reported dealing with some pushback from others. The pushback covered a range of behaviors including people “tempting them,” to having people belittle their efforts. Some people made snide remarks about the healthy eating habits, while others who were uncomfortable would tell them that they were going to “gain the weight back anyway, so why bother dieting?” The researcher actually termed the pushback as “lean stigma.” In all 40 cases, the researcher found that the subjects used two types of strategies to deal with the negative behaviors directed their way.
The techniques involved helping those around them save face by saying something like, “I can only take a tiny piece of cake and that has to be my one treat.” Another technique was termed, “damage control.” This consisted of conversational strategies to limit how other people felt in the presence of a dieter, with responses such as, “I really need to do this for health reasons, but my issues are (of course) not your issues.” In this second approach, dieters went out of their way to let others know that no judgement was being made. “The fact that I am dieting has no bearing on your health and food choices.”
I’ve worked with clients for over 25 years and I can tell you that interpersonal issues must be addressed. You can keep your home food environment pristine only to have your husband bring home donuts or a box of chocolates “because he loves you.” What’s at play is often a feeling of great discomfort — if she (he) loses weight, will she still love me? Will losing weight changer her (or him) in other ways? It is pretty astounding that when you decide to go on a diet, it can become “all about them.”
I am a restrictive eater when I go to restaurants. I have two or three standard orders, and I always check for an online menu so I go armed with my choices. This makes some of my friends uncomfortable, even after all these years, and I‘ve learned to basically tell them to chill and enjoy what they want. I’ve worked on my anti-sabotage skillsets for decades.
I think this study really hits the nail on the head in terms of delineating the kind of challenges most dieters will encounter. You do have to prepare a set of responses and behaviors that become natural and comfortable, so you can navigate social circumstances and sabotage efforts. It is incredible that no one would tell a recovering alcoholic to “just have one,” but those rules don’t apply to someone struggling with food.
I recommend having the courage to have a meaningful conversation with your social group. Let them know how important and difficult this effort is. Tell them that this is about your own personal health and emotional needs. Assure them that you can still party, but in a different way. Other tips include:
- Save your treat day for social events, so you can indulge a bit with friends.
- Consider initially limiting the number of times you dine out, until you feel in control of your restaurant habits. You can also order ahead to reduce temptation and the “sabotage conversation.”
- If you do find yourself on the receiving end of food gifts, be gracious, but firm. Let the giver know that you are going to donate the food gift and that next time, they can make a donation in your name to a local pantry or food bank. This is a case of you educating others, and that effort requires patience and strategizing.
I think it is helpful for you to know that this is a common challenge that dieters face, so you feel less isolated and daunted. Be proactive and prepare responses ahead of time. Unfortunately, some dieters do find that they need to change the dynamics of some relationships. Sometimes marriage counseling is necessary to explore deeper issues that may be superficially rooted in foodstuff. Maybe the day will come when those around us understand that obesity is a disease and as such, deserves the kind of support commonly given for other conditions like diabetes and alcoholism.
Until then, try to create “no judgement” interplay between you and others. Ask them to support you in your choices and offer to be supportive in their choices. Framing the discussion this way may help them to get it!
See More Helpful Articles:
Known as The HealthGal, expert contributor Amy Hendel is a popular medical and lifestyle reporter, nutrition and fitness expert, columnist, and brand ambassador, as well as a health coach. Trained as a physician assistant, she maintains a health coach private practice in New York and Los Angeles. Author of The Four Habits of Healthy Families, you can find her on Twitter @HealthGal1103 and on Facebook at TheHealthGal. Her personal mantra is “Fix it first with food, fitness, and lifestyle.”