Learning to eat less of the high-calorie foods you love isn't always easy. What can make it even harder: having to stare down those fattening foods at your very own dinner table.
From the spouse who brings you a huge box of chocolates on Valentine's Day to the mother-in-law who plies you with home-baked goodies to the skinny friend who invites you to uber-fattening lunch dates, the result is much the same. While their intentions may be all good, experts say the results can be all bad for the dieter trying to stick to a healthy eating plan.
"In most cases, tempting a dieter with food or treats they know are forbidden is really an unconscious act on the part of the non-dieter, says Charles Goodstein, MD, clinical professor of psychiatry at NYU Medical Center. "Still, when it happens, it can make sticking to your resolve a lot more difficult."
If this sounds familiar, take heart! Three experts interviewed by WebMD offer five simple strategies to help keep you from falling off the weight loss wagon, even when you're surrounded by non-dieting friends and loved ones.
1. Make a Statement
While it may seem that your partner or other loved one is deliberately tempting you by bringing home that quart of premium ice cream, experts say their intentions are probably not what they seem.
According to Nancy Restuccia, MS, RD, folks who don't have issues with food frequently don't realize the level of temptation experienced by people who do. So it's up to the dieter to make their feelings known.
"You have to let your partner know that having all this food in plain view breaks down your willpower, making it harder for you to stick to your meal plan," says Restuccia, a dietitian at the Center for Obesity Surgery at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center.
Also important, she says, is to let them know this has nothing to do with being weak-willed.
"They need to understand that no one has an unending supply of willpower -- and no matter how strong you are, you just can't stare fattening foods in the face every day without your willpower breaking down," Restuccia tells WebMD.
The best approach, she says, is to directly ask your loved ones not to give you food as gifts -- and, more important, to eat any calorie-laden food they enjoy themselves when you aren't around to see, hear, and smell it.
2. Keep Temptation Out of Sight
Even if your loved ones agree to eat their fattening goodies when you're not around, sometimes just knowing the forbidden foods are within arm's reach is enough to derail your diet. When this is the case, Lynda Mezansky, MS, RD, tells WebMD that playing a little game of hide-and-seek might be just what the diet doctor ordered.
"I'm not saying hide the food from your family members, just get it out of your sight -- ask them to keep it in a cabinet where you don't normally go for your diet foods, for example, or if you have a refrigerator in the basement or family room, keep the tempting foods there," says Mezansky, a clinical nutritionist at the Health and Fitness Center of Stamford Hospital in Connecticut.
If it's harder for you to get to the forbidden food, she says, you'll be less tempted to eat it.
3. Learn the Art of Substitution
While getting through the main course of dinner is usually not all that difficult -- even if you're rubbing elbows with a band of diet saboteurs -- that can change when dessert time rolls around. When family members trot out the apple pie a la mode, cheesecake samplers, or fudgey chocolate brownies, it can leave you feeling depressed and deprived -- not to mention tempted.
"It can be even worse if you are the one who has to prepare these desserts," says Restuccia. "You can certainly feel a little down when you spend the time making the foods that you can't eat."
The solution here: Give yourself a taste treat of your own by preparing a less-caloric dessert that captures some of the essence of what your family members are wolfing down.
For example, if the clan loves cheesecake, Restuccia says, "doctor up" some low-fat ricotta cheese with low-calorie sweetener and strawberries or blueberries to capture the taste without the calories. If it's apple pie you've got to look at, mix applesauce with cinnamon and some low-calorie whipped topping to help nip temptation in the bud.
"Be creative in finding foods that capture the smell and the taste of the tempting treats without the calories, and you'll often find that watching others eat the goodies won't be so hard," says Restuccia.
4. Share the Health
While traditional "diet" foods may not sound appealing to your partner or family, experts say you can often make the foods that everyone craves in a more healthful and calorie-conscious way. This not only benefits you, but everyone you share meals with.
The trick is to learn the art of ingredient substitution.
"Use unflavored, no-fat yogurt in place of mayonnaise in coleslaw or salad dressing, always use skim milk instead of whole milk, make lasagna with low-fat cheese instead of whole milk-cheese," says Mezansky. "If you make the changes gradually over a few weeks' time, your family may not even notice the difference."
Creating a low-calorie shopping list will also help.
"If you get them used to baked chips instead of fried chips, popcorn instead of cheese doodles, diet soda instead of regular soda, you will be helping everyone -- and if you are tempted to snack, you'll be controlling at least some of the calories and fat," says Mezansky.
But what if you're not the one cooking the meals or doing the shopping?
Anytime you're served high-calorie foods, experts say, eat a little of the most calorie-dense dishes (like lasagna or pizza), and fill the rest of your plate with salad and vegetables. Be sure to skip the high-calorie accoutrements like garlic bread or gravy. The same strategy works when your best friend insists on taking you to lunch at Calorie City.
"If there are only high-calorie foods on the menu, ask your friend to split an entree with you so at least you're eating less," says Restuccia. And insist that next time, you get to pick the restaurant. Then choose one where you know you can order something healthy.
5. Be Reassuring
For some, seeing and smelling forbidden foods can be the ultimate seduction. For others, it matters not so much what their partners eat as what they say.
This is especially true when a loved one hands over that box of chocolates while saying things like, "I like you plump" or, "You're sexier when you're heavy." Experts say such words can often send a dieter over the edge. "Something many overweight people share in common is low self-esteem, and when you already believe you're undesirable, hearing that losing weight will make you even more undesirable can make dieting very difficult," Restuccia tells WebMD.
What should you do if this happens? First, Goodstein says, try to get the bottom of why your partner feels this way. You may find it's really their fears and not their desires they're expressing, he says.
"When one partner begins to lose weight and improve their appearance, the other may feel threatened or scared that this new attractive person won't want them anymore," says Goodstein.
By encouraging the dieter to remain overweight, the partner can exert a form of control -- or at least ensure that the one with the "new" body is less likely to stray.
To get around it, he says, lovingly reassure your partner that your weight loss goals are driven by health, not vanity, and that losing those extra pounds will help ensure a better future for both of you.
"Make certain to explain the serious health risks involved in being overweight, and assure them that sticking to your diet is one way to ensure that you'll be around longer to share the future together," says Mezansky.
What can also help: Include your partner in your weight loss rewards.
"Tell them that if they can help you to lose the next 10 pounds, there will be a reward in it that you both can enjoy, like a weekend away, or purchasing an item for the house that you both want," Mezansky tells WebMD.
If, however, a partner, family member, or friend appears to be deliberately subverting your weight- loss plans -- and talking it out doesn't help -- talk to your doctor.
Adds Goodstein: "Though it doesn't happen too often, sometimes, one person's need to subvert the other person's success is a sign of a sadistic personality -- with problems that are likely to be evident in other areas of the relationship as well."
Originally published Feb. 15, 2005.
Medically updated Jan. 23, 2006.