"You're doing so great -- you can have one little piece." Or: "C'mon, honey, I like a little meat on my women." Sound familiar? These people, consciously or not, are trying to sabotage your diet.
David L. Katz, MD, MPH, director of Yale University's Prevention Research Center and author of The Way to Eat, says sooner or later, you may find yourself in a toxic nutritional environment -- almost all dieters do. Some things that people might say or do to throw you off course:
- "Fear" for your health. "What's the matter -- you are wasting away. Are you sure you aren't losing too much too fast?" Or: "Are you sure that diet won't raise your cholesterol?"
- Acting insulted. "You don't like my pot roast all of a sudden? You're too good for my cheesecake?"
- Mixing up food with love. "You don't come to dinner -- you don't love me anymore."
- Making you an outsider. Katz says this sometimes happens among co-workers. "You can't eat Mexican because of your diet, so we will see you after we go out."
- Leaving food around. The big candy dish on the receptionist's desk in an office of dieters. Or: "Here, one doughnut left, want it?" The leftovers from the office party. Or the spouse who keeps dragging half the chips in the store into the house.
- Creating special food. One husband didn't want to babysit on Overeaters Anonymous night, so made a big dinner each time and told his wife to bring some of her "dieting friends" over.
- Making up special holiday rules. "It's your birthday -- one piece of cake won't hurt!"
- Imparting discouraging news. "I am so proud of you for trying this, even though you know that 95% of people fail to keep the weight off." Or: "It's not my business, but don't runners get a lot of injuries?"
- Volunteering amateur psychoanalysis. "You know, you don't seem to be as funny since you lost weight."
Why People Sabotage
"I have had people try to get someone who has lost a lot of weight to put it all back on!" exclaims Linda Spangle, RN, MA, author of Life is Hard, Food is Easy. "One woman had lost more than 100 pounds, but her husband bought her a size 4X blouse and candy for Christmas."
"He wants the old me back," she told Spangle. She saw it as a control issue and eventually divorced the man for trying to control her so destructively.
"In some instances," Spangle says, "a spouse may have the need to control. A man may think if his wife stays fat she won't be flirting or attracting notice. Sometimes, this spouse will compliment the heavy person. No one else does, so this is a way of keeping control."
Katz says people who are themselves overweight (two-thirds of Americans) feel threatened. "Most people struggle with weight issues," Katz says. "If I am fat and you go on a diet, you put me in the uncomfortable position of feeling bad about my own weight; deciding to do something about it, which I may not be ready to do; or trying to talk you out of what you are doing.
"People who are threatened," Katz sums up, "fight back."
Sexual anxiety is also a part of it, he agrees. "If the person gets thin, they may find someone else. That is a factor. 'My wife is getting so sexy, she may dump me.'"
And, Katz says, being reassuring to the dieter may be a higher form of love. "A mother may think it's her job to make the child feel better about themselves. They may be on a mission to get a daughter to accept her size."
Co-workers, he says, tend to be competitive. If you are succeeding at something, even losing weight, it makes them look less successful. Plus, you might attract notice for a promotion.
What If You Are Sabotaging Yourself?
The first step in dealing with diet sabotage, Spangle says, is to recognize it. Your saboteur may want to guard the status quo, keep you under control, or prevent your leaving to find a new life with your new body.
The dieter, too, may be finding power in the status quo and talk him or herself out of dieting. The unknown is always scary. Women, especially, may have self-esteem issues and think they don't deserve to be thin. They need to become braver to shed the cloak of fat that keeps others from seeing them or wanting them.
"Sometimes," Spangle says, "working with a life coach can help the dieter discover how to build strength of this kind."
How to Deal With Diet Saboteurs
"Women tend to take things personally," says Trish Ryan, fitness coach and co-owner of the Bodyworks Group Exercise Studio in Hanover, Massachusetts. "It's harder for women to stick in their heels and say, 'No, I am not drinking wine every day anymore.'"
"Let's face it," Katz says, "we live in a society where we ostracize obesity, even though many people are obese. This makes us reluctant to talk about these issues openly.
"The first thing I tell people is being fat is not their fault," Katz continues. "It's like a polar bear trying to stay cool in the desert. We don't have the body mechanisms to deal with the society in which we find ourselves."
Katz emphasizes that it's OK to spit it out, so to speak. Say, "Mom, I know I am overweight. It doesn't make me a bad person. But I need your help. When I come over, you need to cook more veggies or lean meat."
To a husband, say right out: "Honey, I love you. We have been together 15 years. I am not going anywhere. You are my best friend and I need your help and understanding." (This may or may not be the time to say, "You could afford to drop a few, too.")
To co-workers, you can say, "I am still the same person I always was, but I am carrying excess body weight and want to get rid of it. I won't succeed if you don't help."
If someone persists in offering food, say, "It looks great. Maybe later." Make sure later never comes. They won't notice.
What True Friends Can Do
If you know someone who is trying to change life eating patterns, talk about it openly.
- Offer to take a walk instead of going to the sub shop at lunchtime -- make the meeting, not the food, the focus.
- Become a diet buddy and get on board if you want to.
- If you start to say something negative or discouraging, ask yourself why.
- If you are the office manager, get diet sodas in the machine or arrange for discounted gym memberships.
- Plan a fun vacation when a goal is achieved.
Most of all, Ryan says: "Bring flowers, not candy."
Star Lawrence is a medical journalist based in the Phoenix area.
Published Jan. 19, 2004.