Foil Your Friendly Diet Foes

7 strategies to help your diet survive temptations from not-so-supportive friends and loved ones

Medically Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, RD, LD, MPH on November 17, 2003
6 min read

You've decided to turn over a new leaf and you're telling everyone about it. You announce proudly that you're committed to your new diet and exercise routines. Your best friend catches your enthusiasm, and suggests you take an aerobics class together.

But not everyone is so supportive. During the family dinner, your mother keeps pressuring you to have some of her homemade desserts, which have always been your weakness. When you ask her to stop, she says you shouldn't deprive yourself.

You can almost hear the buttons being pushed. Something about announcing your intentions to start making healthy choices about diet and exercise seems to bring out both the best and the worst in family members and friends.

As a nutrition specialist for Kaiser Permanente Department of Health Education Services, Bob Wilson has heard it all. He's also lived it: He's lost 250 pounds and kept it off for 30 years.

"Support for positive changes increases the likelihood of it happening," he says. "But people have an image of us, and some will resist our changing."

Some friends and family members, he says, may fear that if you change your habits, YOU will change. Or your new healthy ways may make them feel guilty about their own fitness foibles. Further, food sometimes helps to define relationships with the friend you meet for lattes on weekend mornings, the spouse who shares chips with you on the couch, the mother whose goodies you've always had a soft spot for.

So what should we do to gain the support we need? Here are some tips from Wilson and other experts.

1. Don't make food the focus

First off, Wilson advises renegotiating relationships that revolve around food.

"My grandmother used to fry a pound of bacon and a dozen eggs for me, give me half-gallons of ice cream, and we'd go to all-you-can-eat restaurants together," he tells WebMD. "When I told her I was committed to losing weight, I suggested exploring new ways we could connect.

We found that we both like gardening and going for walks, so that's what we did. She became willing to show that she loved me without using food."

2. Look for support in the right places

Further, experts say, you shouldn't set yourself up by looking for support in the wrong places. Remember that people do things for their own reasons, not for your reasons.

Maybe you have a mental image of your spouse going for walks with you in the evening, like other couples you've seen. He has a right to say "No," and you have a right to do what will make you fit. Walk with a neighbor, take an aerobics class or hire a personal trainer.

The same strategy applies to diet. Wouldn't it be sublime if co-workers swore off Krispy Kremes and walked a half hour at lunch, the kids begged you to buy broccoli at the store, and your mother offered nothing but kind encouragement?

Give up the fantasy. Instead, hook up with a friend who's as ready to change as you are and become diet buddies. Find a role model who's successfully lost weight and can help you past the rough spots. Enroll in a "Healthy Cooking" class. You've already made a huge step by joining WebMD Weight Loss Clinic. Be sure to check out our community for support and inspiration. You might consider professional help, as well, say a weight management clinic or counselor. The point is to build a support system that enables you to become your own best support.

3. Foil Your Fitness Foes

Another key to dealing with lack of support is to know your temptations, such as going out to eat with friends, and develop a strategy to deal with them.

"Friends may pressure you to make bad choices," says Joseph Quatrochi, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Human Performance, Sport and Leisure Studies at Metropolitan State College of Denver. "Make a couple of decisions in advance."

One of these decisions is to select foods based on their preparation: for example, broiled or baked instead of fried. The other is not to clean your plate. "Often, you can take home one-third to one-half of a meal," Quatrochi tells WebMD.

This advice seems particularly pertinent when you consider the findings of a recent study by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. That research found portion sizes have ballooned anywhere from 23% to 60% over the past 20 years -- not just in fast food places, but in restaurants, packaged snacks, and even our homes.

4. Keep it quiet

Madelyn Fernstrom, PhD, director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Health System Weight Management Center, also suggests that you not draw others' attention to your eating.

"When you announce you're on a diet, people automatically urge you to eat," she tells WebMD. "In situations where people offer you food, accept it, but remember you're not obligated to eat it all or even most of it."

5. Learn to handle sabotage

Perhaps touchiest of all is handling those people who seem bent on sabotaging your efforts

So try turning it around. For example, when your mother pushes her baked goodies on you, ask for her support instead, Wilson says.

"Say, 'Mom, I know you care about me, and I really need your help. Your desserts are a barrier. Will you consider supporting me in this way?'"

"If she accepts, thank her," he says. "If she continues to sabotage, the voice in your head should tell you that you're growing each time you go through this process. Cultivate a positive belief in yourself, and trust that you're getting stronger."

Sabotage, Quatrochi says, is just one factor influencing "compliance," the term professionals use for "stick-to-itiveness."

"If one factor is working against you, make sure other factors encourage compliance," he says. "For example, choose exercise activities that are fun, convenient and not cost-prohibitive."

Fernstrom advises simply ignoring would-be saboteurs.

"This works once you adopt a core belief that you are accountable to yourself," she says. "Understand that the only behavior you can change is your own."

6. Draft a survival script

Since it's guaranteed you'll encounter obstacles, experts say it's a good idea to create a survival "script" for dealing with less-than-supportive loved ones. Imagine various scenarios, and rehearse your responses like an aspiring Academy Award winner:

  • "No, thank you."
  • "Thanks, but I just ate."
  • "I appreciate your making these especially for me. I'll take them home." (And straight to the garbage disposal.)
  • "I don't want to ruin our Friday night tradition, but tonight could we go to Pizza Works instead of Geno's so I can order a salad?"
  • "I've failed to keep weight off in the past, but I'm learning new strategies."
  • "About 300,000 deaths each year are associated with overweight and obesity. I don't want to be a statistic."
  • "I need your support, not your criticism."
  • "I haven't lost weight yet, but I feel better and have more energy when I'm eating right and exercising."

No matter how skilled you become in dealing with your fitness foes, there are times when you really need someone in your corner. But you shouldn't expect one person to be your all-purpose supporter. In fact, Wilson advocates looking for support in six categories:

  • Setting goals. Connect with someone who can help you explore your reasons for adopting a fitness plan and set meaningful, specific goals.
  • Living by example. Not all the fit people you know were always that way. Identify someone who has become fit to use as a role model.
  • Bashing barriers. Time, money, and other factors can be barriers to your fitness plan. A spouse who's unwilling to exercise might agree that the cost of your joining a health club is worthwhile, and agree to watch the kids three evenings a week while you attend aerobics class. Your employer might allow you a more flexible schedule so you can take a yoga class.
  • Building a supportive environment. Your old playmates and playgrounds can hold you back. Find a diet or exercise buddy, and agree that if one of you falters, the other will act as enforcer. Go to a nutrition class. Join a group.
  • Dealing with setbacks. Accept relapse as a normal part of a lifestyle change. Identify someone who will help you get past it. Understand that it can take from one to three years to make new behaviors a permanent part of your life.
  • Celebrating success. Everyone needs a cheering squad. As you reach interim goals, celebrate with people who will be proud of your progress.