Changing health behaviors can be extremely challenging . Behavioral theories usually include measures of four variables that have a direct or indirect influence on our behavior.
These include behavioral intentions, attitudes towards the behavior, perceived control over the behavior, and social norms/support as they relate to the behavior. When we are trying to lose weight and don’t have the support of our friends or family it can feel like we are dieting with the enemy.
Social norms describe the following:
- Descriptive norms: actual behaviors of friends and family: Do most of my friends exercise? Do most of my friends eat unhealthy?
- Injunctive norms: the perception of how supportive friends and family would be of the behavior: Would my friends approve of me beginning an exercise program? Would my friends support me if I tried to lose weight?
In a review of 32 years of data, Yale professor Nicholas Christakis found that obesity exhibits a pattern of social clustering, meaning that if people in one’s social network gain weight, they are themselves more likely to gain weight (1).
People eat more if they are dining with large groups and also eat more if the people they are eating with are heavy eaters.
Weight Loss Saboteurs
Friends, family, and coworkers can create pressure for people who are trying to lose weight. These people have been known to make ‘snide’ comments concerning healthy food choices (3,5).
Peer pressure is best described by participants in a study by Dr. Catherine Metzgar:
“You look ill.’; ‘You are having a salad again today?’; ‘I don’t know why you have to eat all that healthy stuff, just eat less’; ‘You should stop losing weight’; and ‘Go ahead and eat that dessert. You deserve that. You work hard”.
Other researchers have discovered the existence of weight loss ‘saboteurs’ who make similar comments to the one’s above (2).
Researchers Ryan Rhodes and Kerry Courneya found that there is little gained by achieving extremely positive levels of injunctive norms but there is a lot to be gained from not having negative norms (4).
So, the good news is that it may not be necessary to turn a saboteur into a supporter. It may be enough to get individuals to simply not sabotage weight loss efforts.
What do we do if we have a weight loss goal that is not supported or actively discouraged by friends or family? There are a number of different approaches that can be used but I believe the first line of defense is to be completely up front.
Dealing with Weight Loss Sabotage
Most of us would probably agree that sprinting head first into a brick wall sounds more appealing than talking about our feelings. This isn’t totally our fault though.
Somehow, we’re not the greatest listeners and easily get offended by people who are closest to us. We’re also not the best communicators, we often hold our feelings in. Then they end up coming out explosively at the wrong time or in a passive aggressive way.
So not only do we kind of suck at listening to other people’s feelings we also kind of suck at expressing our feelings. I’m not even the best. This is how I reacted when I got stood up for dinner by one of my best friends (still don’t totally forgive you Pat).
When someone says “you are having a salad again today?” we usually bite our lip and let the frustration or sadness over lack of support build. What we don’t say is exactly what we want from that person.
When your friend/husband/girlfriend/person it’s complicated with says “I don’t know why you have to eat all that healthy stuff” take a deep breath and try the following:
Don’t respond in a hot state
When a friend, family member, or significant other says “I don’t know why you have to eat all that healthy stuff” on a continual basis, your heart rate increases and anger might build up inside of you. You’ve told them at least a dozen times that you are trying to lose weight. Why don’t they get it?
Make sure you take a deep breath, now is not the time to respond.
When we respond in a hot/emotional state we tend to explode at the wrong time and nobody wants to have a screaming match in Olive Garden. Wait until you are emotionally cooled down to have ‘the talk’.
Remember, their comments have nothing to do with you
I love the concept of unconditional positive regard, it means that despite a person’s self-destructive or not so nice behavior you believe they are trying their best. ‘Negative’ behavior is often a coping mechanism so that people don’t feel bad about themselves.
When your co-worker says:
“Oh, never mind, we can’t get pizza for everyone because Linda is on a diet”
Remember that the comment has nothing to do with you. While this person may be coming across as a complete jerk it’s not because they don’t like you or really intend to be a mean person.
Whether or not they consciously realize it, your attempts to change may be psychologically damaging to them.
Your effort to change reminds them that they have insecurities with themselves.
I mean think about it, when has someone who has it all together ever taken a dump on you for trying to be a better person? It doesn’t happen.
In order to deal with their issues, they cope by making passive aggressive comments. It’s not that they are a bad person, they are just trying their best in the situation they are in to not feel bad about themselves.
Remembering that the negative comments people make have to do with their own problems can help you get back to a cool state.
Approaching the conflict
There will be an appropriate time to have a talk with a saboteur. This is the wrong way to address it:
Saboteur: “We’ll all have drinks but Christine will just have a water, she’s on a diet and forgot how to be fun”
Christine: (a little bit too loudly) “I really wish you would just cut that shit out.”
Rest of table: …………
Despite being upset just laugh off the comment for the time being. When you are outside of the hot situation tell your friend that there is something you would like to talk about and ask when a good time to talk would be.
When you do have ‘the talk’ stick strictly to the facts and tell the person exactly what you want them to do. This conversation might look like this:
“I have been trying to lose weight. This goal is really important to me because I have not been feeling healthy or good about myself lately. It’s really hard for me to resist food temptations when we all go out together.
When you made that comment about me being on a diet and not knowing how to have fun it made me feel really bad about myself.
You are one of my close friends so I really want your support. In the future can you be sure to not make any negative comments about me trying to lose weight?”
Key points of this conversation
- You stated a fact that cannot be argued with: “When you made that comment about me being on a diet and not knowing how to have fun”
- You said exactly how you felt, this can’t be argued with either: “it made me feel really bad about myself”. It’s important to say that it was the comment that made you feel bad, not the person. Remember we don’t want to attack people because we can all be really really sensitive sometimes.
- You said exactly what you want: “In the future can you be sure to not make any negative comments about me trying to lose weight?”
After you have said what you want to say it is imperative to listen to what the other person says. They may make a joke or hit you back with an “okay”. If they respond back in a less than ideal way remember their response is not about you, it’s about them.
Always give them a chance to say what is on their mind, ask them if they have any questions about what you just said and always thank them for listening.
We often form friendships that revolve around certain behaviors. We hang out with people that are a lot like us. This is usually great but when we want to change certain behaviors the pressure from our social group can make this challenging.
If a person wants to lose weight this can be seen as a threat to the psychological health of some of the members of the group. They might make snide comments or sabotage your efforts. When these comments are made, refrain from responding in a passive aggressive or angry way.
Remember that the comments your friends or family make are not about you. Your desire to change for the better may highlight insecurities they have. Their negative responses are not because they dislike and it’s not because they don’t want you to be happy. These comments are their way of coping.
Find a ‘cool’ situation to talk to these people. State exactly what they said and how this made you feel along with how you would like that person to act around you in future situations.
1.Christakis NA, and Fowler JH (2007). The spread of obesity in large social network over 32 years. New England Journal of Medicine 357(4): 370-379.
2.Hindle, L., Carpenter, C. (2011). An exploration of the experiences and perceptions of people who have maintained weight loss. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, 24, 342-350.
3.Metzgar, C.J., Preston, A.G., Miller, D.L., & Nickols-Richardson, S.M. (2015). Facilitators and barriers to weight loss and weight loss maintenance: A qualitative exploration. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, 28, 593-603.
4.Rhodes RE, Courneya KS (2005). Threshold assessment of attitude, subjective norm, and perceived behavioral control for predicting exercise intetion and behavior. Psychology of Sport and Exercise. 6, 349-361.
5.Thomas, S.L, Hyden, J., Karunaratne, A., Kausman, R., & Komesaroff, P.A. (2008). “They all work…when you stick to them”: A qualitative investigation of dieting, weight loss, and physical exercise, in obese individuals. Nutrition Journal, 7:34