Friends and Family Could Sabotage Your Diet

Friends and family could sabotage your diet
May 10, 2017

When you’re trying to lose weight, there are often obstacles to overcome. My fiancée and I have been dieting and exercising to get ready for our wedding, and to just be healthier in general, but there always seems to be something that gets in the way.

One weekend, UNC beating Duke requires celebratory beers. One day, it is just too cold and windy outside to go for a run. Another day and the lasagna at the family reunion is so good that we can’t pass up seconds.

We are by no means the only ones who hit these types of roadblocks. In fact, while studies disagree about the exact statistics, many people who successfully lose weight are not successful in keeping it off for the next five years.

Carrot Cake

These roadblocks are not just about cheat days, craving high-calorie foods and falling out of an exercise routine. There are social barriers to sticking with a weight loss program, and new research from North Carolina State University shows that family and friends are often detriments to someone trying to lose weight.

NC State assistant communication professor and lead author of the study Lynsey Romo interviewed 40 people who said they used to be overweight or obese and have since lost weight. All 40 volunteers said that they had been either pressured to eat foods restricted by their diet, openly chided for trying to eat healthier or both, by friends, family and coworkers in the course of their weight loss. The results are reported in the journal Health Communication.

Romo describes these issues in terms of a communication theory called face negotiation, which was developed to explain how people from different cultures navigate social situation. The basic idea with weight loss is that everyone has a “face,” or an image they present to society. Losing weight and making healthier food choices effectively changes one’s face in their group. Changing one’s face can threaten others in the group, either because they perceive the dieter’s change as a disruption to the group dynamic or as a judgment against their own face.

Friends, family and coworkers reacted negatively toward these “face-threatening acts” and placed what Romo describes as a “weight-based stigma” on the dieters. Participants recounted stories of people questioning why they would order a salad, saying that they were losing weight too quickly and trying to convince them to eat foods restricted by their diets. There were even stories of people intentionally making the dieters’ favorite desserts to get them to break their diet or telling them that they will just end up putting the weight back on.

The volunteers said they felt that friends were insecure or envious about the weight changes they were making. Romo attributes that behavior to a group always seeing someone as heavier and not wanting to see a change in that dynamic.

Eating an Apple

That is the bad news: people trying to lose weight have one more obstacle, and that obstacle comes in the form of the people the dieter would want to rely on for support. The good news is that all the volunteers for the study found ways to get around these social pressures.

Romo grouped these solutions into two categories: preventive facework, which constitutes either preparing friends and family for the face change or keeping up the appearance that their face hasn’t changed, and corrective facework, which is about explaining the face change after the fact.

On the preventive side, the dieters found that they had fewer issues with their friends and family when they explained why they wanted to lose weight. By being up front with people about why they were losing weight, dieters prevented others from perceiving the weight loss as a threat or attack.

Dieters were also able to disguise their dieting. Either by avoiding social situations with food, taking the food they were offered and eating little, if any of it or organizing their diet cheat days to coincide with social events, they were able to keep up the appearance of their old selves while still adhering to their diet goals.

If they were questioned about their diet choices, some of the dieters referred to having excuses loaded and ready. They would cite personal health, personal choice or preparing for an athletic endeavor, in order to make other people comfortable.

This study covered a very small sample of people, but the fact that all of the participants had similar experiences could speak to a larger issue in how we treat weight loss. It is hard enough to lose weight, and even though there are strategies to help dieters deal with lean stigma, there is also more that friends and family can do to support people in their weight loss.

—Daniel Lane

Daniel Lane covers science, medicine, engineering and the environment in North Carolina.

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