Last summer, I saw an unflattering photo of myself posted online that sent my self-esteem spiraling within seconds. So I did what any mature adult would do: I panicked and hit delete as fast as possible. Next, I quickly found the shirt I’d had on in the photo, threw it in the “donate” pile, and then sat reflecting on how much the odd angle and bad lighting were to blame.
When the emotional dust settled, I faced facts: The real issue didn’t have anything to do with my shirt or the photo’s angle or lighting. The real issue was my weight.
Right then and there, I committed to improving not only my own eating habits, but my family’s too. Surely my husband and children would be enthused, right? I mean, who doesn’t want to eat healthier? I love to cook, and adding more fruits and vegetables would probably go unnoticed.
Turns out I was wrong on all counts.
Cutting out our weekly pizza and fast food was met with resistance. Clearing our kitchen of chips, cookies, and sugary drinks didn’t go over so well either. We’d gotten used to eating to celebrate, eating between meals, eating while watching TV at night. Changing these well-worn habits would be no easy task.
It’s not that my family was completely unsupportive; they were simply used to eating whatever, whenever . . . so the transition wasn’t a smooth one.
More than once, a 24-pack of soda and several containers of chip dip appeared like a vision in our refrigerator. My husband, in a habitual act of love, repeatedly brought home goodies from my favorite bakery. My seven-year-old daughter is still traumatized from the time I tried to pass off “cauliflower fried rice” as the real thing.
Certainly, I’m not alone in this struggle. Diet saboteurs can take many forms and are found at home, at work, and in our social circles. Their actions, questions, and comments may be well-intentioned, but they can readily set you off course if you’re not prepared.
Liz N., 48, can relate. “My mother shows her love by cooking and taking care of people,” she says. “This is a pretty universal issue, but it gets incredibly complicated when you’re trying to diet and you’re turning down your mother’s casseroles, which ‘equal’ her love. I think my mom tries really hard not to, but she gets so hurt and even angry when I say I can’t eat something she’s cooked.”
Thirty-eight-year-old nurse manager Dave S. offers another example of food pressure from family, explaining how his mother is notorious for asking him to “finish the last few pieces of pizza or that last scoop of whatever dish she’s made, so she can clean up the kitchen.”
Every time you try to make a healthier choice, there’s likely to be someone who pushes back or undermines your decision with statements like these:
“You’re no fun anymore!”
“What’s the big deal about a slice or two of pizza?”
“But I made this meal just for you! You have to eat it.”
“You don’t need to lose any weight! You’re fine just the way you are.”
“Can’t you skip exercising just this once?”
“It’s your/my birthday! One piece of cake won’t hurt.”
“Why can’t you loosen up and eat what everybody else is eating?”
Holding on to the people—and the food—you love
The truth is, your relationships can dramatically affect your diet, whether it’s coworkers badgering you to join them for calorie-laden snacks or meals, a thin friend scoffing at your food choices, or a well-meaning spouse who feels threatened by your healthy changes.
In one study from Stanford University, 90 percent of women participating in a group weight-loss program said they rarely or never received support from their friends for healthy eating. Seventy-eight percent said the same about their family. A number of the dieters even reported that loved ones purposely sabotaged their efforts to slim down.
“A lot of times people internalize the actions of others,” says marriage and family therapist Vanessa Sovine. “They look at what other people do as a reflection of what they are—or aren’t—doing in their lives.”
Friends and family who see you improving your health may feel jealousy, judgment, or even guilt for not making changes themselves. You order a salad, and they feel they should be doing the same thing. They push treats or offer extra helpings, and they give you a hard time if you say no. They fear your relationship will change—and not for the better—if you no longer enjoy eating together.
“Sometimes it is difficult to see past our own feelings,” says Sovine. The key is to recognize potential sabotage and learn how to appropriately respond to it. “Ask yourself if your family or friend is offering suggestions, solutions, or options that are taking you closer to or further away from your goal,” says Sovine.
Here are other ways to stay true to your healthy habits while dealing with those who may not be supportive of your goals:
1.Present your diet as a “get healthy” plan instead of a “get skinny” one
Claiming you’re not hungry, that you have to control your blood sugar, or that you’re allergic to a certain food may momentarily quiet a naysayer. But award-winning dietitian and author Kristin Kirkpatrick says honesty about the big picture is key when explaining why you’re making changes. She explains, “You can say, ‘I’m trying really hard to improve my health so I can live longer and be strong for _____’ (and fill in the blank with grandchildren, wife, etc.).”
“Make it about health and doing something for family, as opposed to making it about weight and fitting into your high school jeans,” says Kirkpatrick.
2. Be up front
“I am always an advocate of open and honest communication,” says Sovine. “The key is to use ‘I feel’ statements and focus on your feelings and goals. When you focus on the behaviors of others, people can become defensive and stop listening to what you are saying. Most people resent when others try to force change on them; so make it clear that you’re asking them to support you, not to change with you.”
Though it may be uncomfortable, explain why you need support and offer examples of how to be helpful. Try something like, “I appreciate when you think of me and bake my favorite treats, but I’m trying not to eat so many sweets. Maybe we can try out some new recipes that I can eat” (rather than discussing what you “can’t” eat).
3. Come prepared
If you find yourself facing pressure (and no healthy choices!) at social events or family get-togethers, be sure to have a plan in place so you don’t wind up hungry and cranky.
Start your plan before you even leave home, says Kirkpatrick. To ensure you don’t arrive at the event ravenous, have a handful of almonds or a few apple slices with peanut butter. “Or bring something healthy with you if you think there will be nothing available,” says Kirkpatrick.
4. Remember, most people are well-intentioned
Yes, actual saboteurs do exist. You may run into friends who are competitive about weight loss, spouses who would rather you stay overweight, and family members who are angry about the changes you’ve made.
But the vast majority of people are not thinking about your diet. If someone brings your favorite doughnuts to work, they’re probably not out to ruin your day of healthy eating. Likewise, if your mother-in-law offers a second helping of her famous casserole, she’s most likely doing it out of love and habit. A simple, “No, thank you” or, “It’s delicious, but I’m full!” should suffice.
If you continue to receive pressure, it may be time for a more serious conversation about why you’re making different food choices.
Carol Heffernan writes from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where she enjoys writing healthy-living articles, experimenting with new recipes her whole family will enjoy, and eating baked goods (every once in a while).