There's no getting around it: The road to weight loss can be a bumpy one. But much like life's other journeys, the going can be smoother when you have someone to share the trip.
That's where a "diet buddy" comes in -- a partner who not only shares your weight loss and workout goals, but can help you navigate a kinder, gentler path to sveltesville. Many experts now say buddying up can make the difference between failure and success with any weight loss plan.
"Most people put all their effort into finding the right diet or exercise program but don't put any energy into creating a support and accountability system, and too often, that's where the devil lies," says Adam Shafran, DC, an exercise physiologist and chiropractor who is the author of You Can't Lose Weight Alone: The Partner Power Weight Loss Program.
Shafran, who also hosts Dr. Fitness and the Fat Guy, an Internet radio show focusing on weight loss, says people fail not necessarily because they're following a bad weight loss plan, but because they lack a good support system.
"It can be the deciding factor that makes a diet work -- or not work," say Shafran.
Some psychologists agree.
"In the realm of dieting, there is evidence that social support is a positive factor influencing weight loss," says Kenneth Schwarz, PhD, who with his wife, Julie Schwarz, wrote the book Maria's Last Diet: How to Break through the 15 Obstacles to Achieve Diet Success.
In research published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology in 2005, doctors at Brown Medical School and Dartmouth University found that people who had an exercise buddy who successfully lost weight were more successful at losing, too.
What Makes a Good Buddy
Most of us know what turns us on in a partner, and it's easy to count the virtues of our best friends. But if you're thinking of using these same guidelines to find a diet buddy, you could be making a mistake.
"You may have a partner or a best friend who you love dearly, but if you're still overweight and struggling to lose it, then clearly, that partnership, while perfect in other areas of your life, is not the right relationship to help you lose weight," says Joey Dweck, founder and CEO of DietBuddy.com, an online "match service" for those seeking weight loss partners.
As such, he says, seeking a diet buddy who has the same qualities you see in your partner or best friend may not be the ideal solution.
Experts say that sometimes, qualities you would never tolerate in a partner -- like holding you accountable for every bite you take -- could be the very qualities you need in a weight loss buddy.
The bottom line: "Choosing a diet partner, like choosing a diet, is a very personal matter," says Schwarz. Just as there is no one diet that's perfect for every person, Schwarz tells WebMD, there is no one type of diet buddy that is universally better than another.
Shafran agrees, "The truth is that even if we share the same goals, what it takes to get us there is different for every person. And that means every person needs something slightly different in a diet buddy."
So how do you figure out what you need? Look deep inside yourself and be brutally honest about what you need to get your weight loss mojo working, Dweck says.
Don't just focus on doing things together, Shafran says.
"Diet buddies are just two people who share a common goal and know they can count on each other to help them achieve that goal in whatever way it takes to do that," says Shafran.
For some, that may mean working out together or getting together to cook or swap recipes a couple times a week. For others, it can mean taking turns babysitting so that each of you can get to the gym separately.
Another consideration is mutual availability. Both partners should agree up front on how much time and energy they have to devote to the partnership, and discuss what they need from each other during that time.
Also important: The primary mode of contact and support. If you're constantly monitoring your email and need a buddy who's always there when you send out that Instant Message S.O.S., be sure you pick a buddy who is as computer-accessible as you. If what you really need is face-to-face contact, pick a buddy who has a similar need -- and the time to share.
"For some people, the anonymity of having an Internet buddy is the best solution. For others, it has to be someone who they can get together with for a Wednesday night weigh-in," says Shafran. "It doesn't matter, as long as both buddies want the same thing."
No matter what your mode of communication, it's important that buddies spend time listening to each other.
"It can be online in a chat; it can be on the phone; it can be in an email; or it can be in person, as long as there is some time that each of you can devote to listening and encouraging the other," says Dweck.
It's also important to recognize that encouragement comes in many different forms.
"For some people, it means hearing kind and supportive words; for others, it means having someone come by and literally drag them out of the house and to the gym," Dweck says. "As long as both buddies know what the other needs and expects, then they can be there for each other."
The Buddy Contract
To help ensure that both you and your buddy get what you bargained for, consider writing up a "buddy contract" -- a document that spells out your mutual goals and the ways you plan to help each other achieve them.
Be sure to include both short-term goals ("I want to get to the gym three times a week and I need you to go with me") and long-term ones -- such as how much weight you'd like to lose, or how many miles you'd eventually like to walk each week.
"The goals should be firm, but the ways to accomplish them should be flexible, to accommodate what you learn about yourselves and each other along the way," says Shafran.
He suggests that both buddies keep a copy of the agreement and re-read it often, reminding each other of what you're each trying to accomplish.
At the same time, don't be afraid to call it quits when a diet buddy isn't working out. If you're not getting what you need, or if your buddy wants more than you can give, have a heart-to-heart chat about what's going wrong. If it can't be fixed, it's time to move on, Dweck says.
"The purpose of a diet buddy is to enhance the weight loss journey for both partners, and make it easier and more fun for each of you," he says. If that's not happening, there's no point in sticking it out.
At the same time, if your diet buddy partnership begins to blossom into a beautiful friendship -- experts say, "Go for it!"
Says Dweck, "You may find that you are building a lifelong friendship that continues on with mutual support for the rest of your lives."