Many of us are close with someone who has been trying to lose weight for months, years or even decades. Figuring out how to best support this person, whether he or she is a family member or a friend, can be tough. You want to be encouraging without enabling bad habits. You also want to help the person stick to their goals without being overbearing.
With New Year’s weight-loss resolutions in full effect, here are some helpful things you can do — and not do — to encourage the overweight loved one in your life.
1. Hone Your Response to the “F” Word
Sometimes a loved one will make comments about his or her weight, and you might feel the urge to say something in return — except you may not know what you should say. Oftentimes your gut reaction might be to quickly say “no you’re not” or ignore the comment by quickly changing the subject.
“Avoid arguing about whether or not a loved one is actually fat. This is his or her perception, true or false,” says therapist Karen R. Koenig, M.Ed., LCSW, who specializes in the psychology of eating. “Ask your loved one what he or she is looking for from you when making an ‘I’m fat’ statement or expressing unhappiness with weight.”
Then the conversation can continue from there in a more productive manner that will truly benefit your friend or family member without either of you feeling awkward or helpless.
2. Validate Their Feelings
When loved ones express concern about their weight, especially if they have tried and failed at diets in the past, they are often expressing frustration and hopelessness, says New Jersey-based psychologist Dr. Julie Davelman, who specializes in helping people meet their health and wellness goals.
While you may want to jump in and suggest solutions, it’s more important to make your loved one feel heard. “Consider saying things like ‘I know that it must be frustrating to think about tackling your weight again’ or ‘I see how upset you are that you were not able to stick with your diet,’” Davelman suggests. “Having their feelings understood will help them to feel less defensive.” This will ultimately help them see that you genuinely want to help.
3. Don’t Be Pushy
Fitness professional Sarah Ann Kelly, founder of MomTrainer.com, notes that it can be extremely frustrating to watch a friend or family member struggle with weight — but it’s up to him or her to make a change. Saying they’d like to lose weight and taking the steps to do so are two different things, and it’s not your place to force the issue.
You need to keep your comments in check so you can avoid sounding judgmental or bossy. “Never say things like ‘Should you eat that?’ ‘Haven’t you had enough?’ ‘Why don’t you go exercise today?’ and ‘I thought you wanted to lose weight,’" says weight-loss educator and trainer Patricia Moreno. However well-intended, these comments will just push people away and could even discourage them from working toward their goals.
4. Ask How You Can Provide Support
The best way to help encourage your loved one on the weight-loss journey is to ask one question: “What can I do to be supportive while you consider what you might do?” says psychologist and eating-disorders therapist Robin Hornstein, Ph.D.
In some cases, your friend or family member may want to walk this path toward a healthier lifestyle alone or with others in the same situation by joining a weight-loss group. In other cases, he or she may have concrete ideas of how you can best provide support. Listen to these ideas and be willing to assist those in need the way they would like to be helped, not how you think it would be best to help them.
5. Provide the Context for Change
If the person wanting to lose weight is someone who lives with you, such as a sibling, parent or significant other, this lifestyle change may become a household affair. “Talk about ways that you as a family can reach your health goals,” Davelman suggests. “For example, consider saying, ‘For my part in our health plan, I will take on the responsibility of buying the fruits and vegetables so that we always have healthy snack options in the house. What task do you want?’” Approaching this process as partners will decrease the judgment and help the person feel supported.
She also advises setting specific, manageable goals like cooking at home a couple of nights a week or going for a 15-minute walk together every morning. “This slow process allows the person to have a positive experience with getting healthy instead of a negative and punitive one that they might have had in the past,” she says.
6. Discourage Negative Self-Talk
According to sports psychology consultant and personal trainer Jacqueline Kelly, the most important thing you can do when trying to help a loved one make a behavioral change is to reinforce positive self-talk. “Give them a concrete thought to replace the negative one,” she says. “So when they say, ‘I’m fat’ or ‘I can’t do X’ or “I’ll never be Y,’ you say, ‘That’s just a thought. And here’s another: 'Small steps are all it takes. You are taking small, important steps every day,’ or ‘You are perfect the way you are, and you’re choosing to be healthier today.'”
Kelly explains that if the person approaches his or her goal from a place of self-acceptance, the behavior changes will be easier to maintain. Feeling “good enough” is a crucial part of this process.
7. Refrain From Offering Advice
It’s tempting to want to give advice or share what worked for you when losing weight or changing your lifestyle, but these comments won’t be helpful to your loved one, Koenig says. “Realize that the main reason we push advice or suggestions on others is because we feel helpless about helping them,” she explains. “Learn to sit with this helplessness. Better yet, express the helplessness to your loved one. You might say, ‘I love you so much and feel helpless that I don’t know how to help you.’”
What you can do instead of offering advice, Kelly says, is set a positive example. “Many of my weight-loss clients get extremely upset when family members ‘encourage’ them to lose weight, but they’re always motivated when they see the people around them getting results,” she says. “If you want to inspire change without putting a strain on the relationship, make some visible changes to your life — something as simple as trying a new class at the gym or setting out your clothes the night before a run.”
8. Celebrate Progress
One of the best ways to provide support is to be a cheerleader for your loved one. “Encourage any progress you notice,” Moreno says. “Or, if you notice they have had a setback and they’re upset, remind them there is no straight road to success and that this is a long-term change, not a quick fix.”
Celebrate successes by finding new, healthier indulgences: Go see a concert in the park together, treat yourselves to some retail therapy or opt for “happy hour” at a juice bar. Whatever you choose to do, your enthusiasm and solidarity will encourage your loved one to keep going.
What Do YOU Think?
Are you close to someone that is trying to lose weight? What are some ways that you support them that resonates? Will you try any of the tactics mentioned above?