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Do’s and don’ts when helping someone lose weight

Helping someone lose weight | UPMC Health Plan

Social support is a crucial part of any big change in your life, especially anything that you do for your health. You can be successful without anybody helping you, but success is much more likely if the people in your life are on board with it.

Social support can come in many forms:

  • Direct aid in the needed activity (like joining you for a walk, or helping you plan/make/prepare healthy foods)
  • Aid in another activity that frees them up for the needed activity (like watching your kids so you can go to the gym without undue stress)
  • Removing obstacles that would normally be in the way (not scheduling a meeting at lunch time so you can get your walk in)
  • Direct encouragement (“I think what you’re doing is awesome!”)
  • Declining to discourage (not doing your usual friendly teasing during this time)

You may have a loved one or friend who tells you that they are trying to lose weight. Weight loss is difficult for most people. If it isn’t clear to you how to help, here are some thoughts about what you can do and what you shouldn’t.

When someone is trying to lose weight, don’t:

  • Tell them “You should…”: “You should join a gym,” “You should follow the _____ diet,” “You should stop eating ____.” Just get “You should” out of your vocabulary. What follows will almost always be interpreted as judgment and criticism.
  • Aggressively offer them food: “But I made this just for you!” “You’re crazy! You don’t have to lose weight,” “Have one, they’re good!” Maybe you’re proud of your cooking or your hospitality, but try being more considerate instead.
  • Act as the food police: “Are you supposed to eat that?” “I thought you weren’t going to eat that anymore.” Just cut it out. Nobody is perfect, so stop pointing out their faults.
  • Bombard them with advice: If they ask for your opinion once, it doesn’t give you license to make them into your personal project. There is a limit, even if advice is solicited.
  • Embarrass them about it: There isno need to announce their weight loss plans to everyone in the room. They can control the message themselves.
  • Celebrate things with food gifts: Wrong signal.
  • Ask why they ate something: “Why” is usually interpreted as an attack on their decisions.
  • Eat in front of them: Seeing other people eat is one of the most powerful food cues. You could be making their mouths water and stomach growl.
  • Threaten them: Making your decent treatment of them contingent on their weight loss success is mean, and they will likely rebel against you, if only for their own dignity.
  • Minimize the struggle: “Just don’t eat so much.” Baloney. Just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it’s easy. And just because something is easy for you doesn’t mean it’s easy for others.
  • Guilt them for no longer being “fun”: This is selfish, or worse.

When someone is trying to lose weight, do:

  • Ask how you can be helpful: They usually know best; just ask. Get specifics, and then resolve to follow your friend’s requests.
  • Celebrate things with a non-food activity: Go to the movies, take a painting class, go sky-diving, or take a walk together. Buy them a hat. Don’t make food the only reinforcer.
  • Put away the junk food: Have it put away and out of sight. The sight of food is powerful. Make it easier on them.
  • Be a good listener: Do this especially after you’ve asked them how you can be helpful. Listen without judgment. Suspend the urge to help ‘fix” things (unless they directly, explicitly ask you to). Just hear and understand them.
  • Join them: Eat healthy choices while with them, even if it isn’t your usual way of eating. Go for walks with them. Be a partner.
  • Offer to help them with other things: Maybe doing their dishes for them or picking up their kids from school gives them breathing room to plan meals or take more time to grocery shop.
  • If you know their obstacles (if they’ve told you), anticipate those obstacles and clear them ahead of time: Maybe you can help them with a seat assignment that isn’t near a vending machine or cookie table. Take a driving route that doesn’t go past the fast food places.
  • Tell them how proud you are of their efforts: Make it about who they are, not just about their weight loss success or results. They’re doing something difficult. Openly admire their tenacity.
  • Cheer on the good: Let them know you see their progress. “I’m so proud of what you’re doing!”
  • Lead by example: Go for the salad or other healthy food choice in a tough environment. Get your own walk in, and invite them along. You may inspire and embolden them to see healthy actions as normal, even in a challenging setting.
  • Set aside the teasing: Maybe that’s a fun part of your friendship, but it can wait until they’re on less shaky ground.

Raise your hand if you’ve done some of the don’ts, and neglected some of the do’s. (My hand is raised.) That’s OK. You can decide to be more aware from now on.

Ultimately, the responsibility to make healthy changes is on them, not you. But it’s already difficult for most people, so why be part of the problem when you can be part of the solution?

Remember, if you or someone you know wants help with weight loss, they can call a UPMC Health Plan health coach at 1-800-807-0751. If they are not eligible for our programs, the health coach will direct them to competent and helpful resources.