Right now, someone you know is trying to lose weight. It’s more likely to be a woman, as studies have shown. It may even be you—bounding into the new year eager to make a huge change in your life.
Here’s what doesn’t help: “Oh come on, treat yourself.” “Well, if you’re not going to have a dessert, then I won’t either.” “I don’t know what you’re talking about, you’re fine the way you are.” You’ve probably heard these phrases before. You may have uttered them yourself, with nothing but good intentions.
But let’s be clear: They’re sabotage. Unless you’re exhibiting signs of disordered eating or compulsive dieting—an important question to ask yourself—then your efforts to reach a healthier weight, and your reasons for dieting, are nobody’s business but your own.
If you think your friends, and even family, are trying to sabotage your weight loss efforts, you’re not alone. A Stanford University study showed that over 75% of women ”never” or “rarely” experienced support from friends or family when it came to losing weight.
Why would people who love you sabotage your efforts to do something so difficult? There are many reasons, ranging from benign (wanting you to enjoy something delicious) to pathological.
Publicly declaring your goal to shed some weight can be a threat to others, psychologists have found (paywall). “Thin privilege” is a part of this: For women in particular, the slimmer you are, the more privileged you are in your love life, career, and economic situation. Studies have shown that both men and women consider women to be more attractive when thin (and actually under a healthy weight range).
This depressing truth can trigger competitiveness and feelings of inferiority in your eating companions. For example, if you opt for a salad instead of the pasta, the other person might feel pressed to do the same, matching your weight loss efforts in a competitive way—a habit that can become a symptom of disordered eating. Their insecurity may also manifest in trying to dissuade you from dieting, or questioning whether you should carry on with your goals.
It may not even be as complex as that though. Some studies show that friends actively avoid other friends or if they are dieting, or sabotage their efforts, because they become “boring.” A study shows that to avoid social awkwardness, those actively looking to manage their weight give up on their plans, or alter their behavior (sometimes drastically) to maintain relationships. Some end up creating “cheat days” on which they can ignore their diets on social occasions. The problem with cheat days is that they offer greater risk of falling into binge eating, one of the key causes of becoming overweight.
Of all the reasons your friends might sabotage you, the most dispiriting one is that they want to keep you fat because it makes themselves feel better. The term “DUFF”—the pop culture moniker for the “designated ugly fat friend”—suggests that within a group, there is always one person that is perceived as less attractive than the rest. That actually elevates perceived attractiveness levels off the non-DUFFs, say researchers. That’s why nobody wants to lose their DUFF.
Your friends aren’t always to blame, though. There’s also self-sabotage. If you know that going to certain restaurants or buying particular foods will tempt you, avoid them—and stay away from triggering situations or people that are likely to make you want to stress-eat.
But even just the act of telling your friends of your intention to make big changes to yourself or life can be a form of self-sabotage. Psychologists have found that making a public declaration of your “identity goals”—goals to change your concept of who you are, from choosing a career path, to becoming a better parent, to achieving a specific weight—can spectacularly backfire (pdf). For one thing, if you tell people your goals, you’re less likely to be as motivated or to put in as much effort to succeed.
For another, change is often incremental, not dramatic—especially when it comes to dieting. Experts advise that in order to succeed, it’s best to aim really low. So instead of thinking, “I am going to lose 100lbs,” think “I am going to lose a pound.” Once you’ve achieved that, set another low target. If you’ve ever tried losing weight before, you know that losing a pound and maintaining that loss are very different things, for a whole host of reasons.
Of course, that’s why you feel the need for support. And you should have it; just don’t expect it will necessarily come from the people you usually brunch with. Join a support group. This could be in person or online via an app, as an informal group of colleagues or neighbors, or via a weight-loss service like Weight Watchers. Many studies have shown that social support can help your success in losing weight.
And choose a select few loved ones to clearly explain your goals to, and ask them to refrain from trying to dissuade you. Of course, if you are in a partnership, that person is likely to wield the greatest influence on your journey, so getting them on board is key.
There is no shame in asking for help or support. But when it comes to the loaded issue of weight loss, there’s a right way to do that, and a wrong way.