Is someone you love battling the bulge, and you feel helpless to help them? Or maybe you're the dieter, with a partner, best friend, sibling, or parent who just can't seem to understand what you need to succeed?
Either way, it's a big club, experts say.
"It is always a difficult situation when one person in a family or relationship is attempting to change the status quo by … changing the way they always did something in the past," says Barrie Wolfe-Radbill, RD, a nutritionist with the New York University Surgical Weight Loss Program.
Whenever someone changes their behavior, she says, the dynamic of a relationship can change. That, she says, "can make it hard to know what the other person wants or needs in the way of support."
But getting -- and staying -- on a dieter's good side doesn't have to be hard. In fact, experts say, the best way to know whether you're doing the right thing is simple: Just ask.
"It sounds like such a simple concept, but everyone has different needs when they go on a diet -- some people want you to stay on their case, others need the opposite -- and you won't know that unless you ask," says Jennifer Waugh, RD, LDN, clinical nutrition manager at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.
It's also important to realize that a dieter's needs can change as their weight loss plan progresses.
"As a person begins to assert more control over their eating habits, many people need and want less input from others, so be sensitive to the signs that they want to assume more control," says Wolfe-Radbill.
Top 10 Ways to Help a Dieter Succeed
There are also some general rules of support that can help any dieter go the distance.
Nutritionists Waugh and Wolfe-Radbill, and Fordham University motivational psychologist Paul P. Baard, PhD, helped WebMD come up with a list of the top 10 ways you can help. (If you're the one trying to lose weight, you can help your support person help you by emailing them this list along with a note that says "Thank you for caring!")
1. Be a cheerleader, not a coach. "You don't want to find faults with what the dieter is doing," says Wolfe-Radbill. "Instead, you want to encourage and cheer on the things they are doing right." That means applauding them for reaching goals, or even for trying. And don't dwell on goals they haven't met, particularly if they don't bring them up.
2. Become an active part of their program. "Volunteer to eat some of their diet foods with them, or at least taste the dishes they prepare," says Waugh. "If they are joining a gym and you can afford a membership, join it as well. Be an active participant in their healthy behaviors."
3. Help develop healthy incentives. If the dieter has met a goal for the week or month, Waugh advises, plan a celebratory activity that doesn't focus on food. "Do something that reinforces spending time together, and create healthy activities that can further encourage their goals," she says.
4. Show them you care about the person, not the diet. "The idea here is to pull up real close to them, but not about the issue of dieting," says Baard. "Let them see you care about them overall, and not just about their weight problems." The key, he says, is to let them know they can count on your caring and your participation in their life -- no matter what their size.
5. When they've had a bad day, listen but don't judge. "Ask them about their progress, and be there to listen if they have faltered," says Waugh. "If you know that the dieter usually turns to food when things go wrong, get them to turn to you instead so they can talk it out, and not eat it out, of their system."
6. Be "aggressively supportive." "And by this, I mean don't wait for the dieter to come after you for support," Baard says. "Let them know that you are there, and wanting to help." If the dieter is a friend or relative you don't see every day, call or email frequently to let them know you're thinking about them -- not their weight. "Ask how they are, how the job is going, how their life is going," says Baard. "You don't have to mention dieting or food, just be assertively there for them."
7. Find non-food ways to celebrate the small goals along the way. Be creative in finding ways to celebrate the dieter's successes. Bring them flowers, pay for a manicure, treat them to a golf game, movie, or sporting event -- just don't focus the celebration on eating, Waugh says.
8. Encourage a healthy lifestyle, not just weight loss. "By encouragement, I mean participation," says Waugh. "Don't just tell someone they need to walk more, offer to walk with them …. The point here is to encourage a healthy lifestyle overall by making it a part of the time you spend together."
9. Learn about their weight loss program. Make an effort to learn as much about their diet plan as you can -- the kinds of foods they're eating, how the plan works, and what it involves, such as attending meetings or participating in online support groups. Then, respect the time they want to devote to these activities -- and don't nag if that means spending a little less time with you, Wolfe-Radbill says. "If you learn about their diet plan you won't have to ask them as many questions, and more of their behaviors and choices may make more sense," she says.
10. Be positive! This is the most important tip of all. When you're fighting a battle, says Wolfe-Radbill, nothing beats the feeling of knowing there's someone who believes in your ability to win. "If the dieter stumbles, and feels bad about themselves, remind them of their other accomplishments and encourage them to move forward -- and whatever you do, don't throw in the towel with them, no matter how discouraged they may sound," she says.
What Not to Do
While it's vital for family and friends to concentrate on the positive things that can help a dieter, it's also important to check some negative habits at the door. Our experts offer this checklist of what not to do when someone you love is on a diet:
1. Don't tempt them. Respect the dieter's food choices, and don't tempt them with a "bite" or a "nibble." " Not only can this take the dieter off track, at the end of the week, bites and nibbles add up and can sabotage a weight loss plan," says Wolfe-Radbill.
2. Don't become the "food police." "You can ask someone if they'd like you to play that role, but I can almost guarantee they won't," says Waugh. As such, don't take on the role of reciting out loud everything a person eats, or locking away food you think they shouldn't have, or reprimanding them for eating the "wrong" thing.
3. Don't say anything to the dieter you wouldn't want said to you. While you may not be struggling with a weight problem yourself, Wolfe-Radbill says, think of a challenge you're trying to overcome, then think about how you'd feel if someone was "in your face" about it.
4. Don't use judgmental language. "Avoid phrases such as 'Did you stick to the plan today?' Or 'You should have been more careful,' or 'Why did you eat that?' You are not the umpire of their life, so remember it's not your role to criticize or judge," says Baard.
5. Don't overdo -- anything! "Don't bombard the dieter with weight loss books and articles, subscriptions to fitness magazines, or low-calorie cookbooks unless they say that's what they want," says Wolfe-Radbill. She reminds us that even when that kind of behavior is invited, it's easy to overdo it and come off as rude: "Keep a lid on the helpfulness, and when in doubt, think under-do, not overkill!