To lose weight, it helps to be surrounded by supportive people. But when trying to support a dieter, well-intentioned comments often backfire.
"People use food for very good reasons: stress, loneliness, because they don't know what else to do to handle what's going on," says Geneen Roth, author of Women, Food, and God. "When you say something that judges, threatens, or controls an eater, all you do is create a relationship issue between the two of you. And that's another thing for him or her to be stressed about," Roth says. "It's the last thing they need."
How can you be encouraging to someone who's trying to lose weight? Avoid putting your foot in your mouth by not saying the following:
1. "Sorry, no seconds for you."
Variations:"Don't eat that!" "Your doctor says you shouldn't eat fat/simple carbs/sugar/etc." "You don't really want that."
Why it's unhelpful: Playing "food police" by depriving someone, hiding food, shaming, or otherwise monitoring his or her diet is controlling. Just as nobody can put food in someone's mouth, nobody but the eater can put the fork down, Roth says. The desire to lose weight has to come from that person.
Better: Address the stress, or the other source of the eating, not the eating itself. Instead of telling the eater what to do (or, more typically, what not to do), Roth suggests asking what you can do to help: "What can I do that would support you?"
Don't make it food-specific. For example, to an overwhelmed "sandwich generation" caregiver looking after children and aging parents, you might offer respite care so she can go shopping or take a walk.
2. "But I made it just for you."
Variations:"Just taste it." "Come on, a little won't hurt you." "What? You don't like it?"
Why it's unhelpful:"Food pushers" who guilt others into eating tend to be insecure about their own weight or eating habits, or they feel threatened by a dieter's self-improvement efforts, says Beth Reardon, Caring.com senior food and nutrition editor and director of integrative nutrition at Duke Integrative Medicine. "The person trying to lose weight shines a light on the food pusher's unhealthy body."
It's true that we cook for others out of love -- but when we goad them to eat the results, we're doing it for ourselves.
Better: Offer food without editorializing, either beforehand or when it's refused. If you're the dieter, practice the art of "no." "Instead of making excuses or explaining why you don't want to eat something, just say, 'No thank you,'" Reardon says. "At a party, take it and toss it a few steps later."
3. "Are you sure your diet allows that?"
Variations:"I can't believe you're eating that." "Isn't that fattening?" "Why did you eat that?"
Why it's unhelpful: Questioning every bite your friend or loved one attempts is another form of control -- one that dishes up heaping helpings of guilt and shame.
Better: Be a silent good example, not a nag. Keep healthful food choices in the house and minimize junk without pointing it out. In restaurants, order what you'd like without commenting on the dieter's plate. If you're the eater, stand up for your choices. Reardon suggests comebacks such as, "Sure I can have it -- my diet is about moderation, not deprivation."
4. "You look great just the way you are."
Variations:"Oh, you don't need to lose weight." "I think you've lost enough." "Just think how great you'll look if you just lose ten pounds."
Why it's unhelpful: Judging the size of someone's else's body is never our business, writer Geneen Roth says. "You may love them, adore them, or be concerned about their health, but what they put in their mouth is not your business."
Better: Respect boundaries. Whether you feel a loved one or friend is too heavy or too thin, your opinion has no bearing on what she chooses to do about her body -- that's the individual's call. Let the person and her doctor decide what's a healthy weight and what to do about it.
5. "Let's go get ice cream."
Variations:"This celebration calls for dessert." "Just this once. . . ."
Why it's unhelpful: Tempting the person with foods you know she's trying to steer clear of is the opposite of offering support, nutrition expert Reardon says, even if you mean it as a harmless suggestion and even if it's for a "good excuse."
Better: Make an activity, rather than a food, the focus of a social outing or celebration. Propose a toast. Buy a gift (one that's not related to food). Invite your friend or loved one out for coffee or for a bike ride. Say, "Let's meet at the dog park" or, "Let's go have tea."
6. "I hate to see you depriving yourself."
Variation:"It must be so hard." "You're so brave to do this."
Why it's unhelpful: Reminding a dieter of his daily struggle doesn't tell him anything he doesn't already know.
Better: Skip the empathy altogether. People often fall into these conversations at big events, like weddings or parties, where guests tend to indulge, because they transfer their own guilt or worry to the dieter. Resist the temptation to talk about the food. Stick to discussing the weather or the bride.
7. "You're no fun anymore."
Variation:"Nobody likes to eat with you now." "Your diet is ruining my appetite."
Why it's unhelpful: Criticism of any kind undermines progress. And when commentary on diet becomes a commentary on personality, too, it's just plain rude.
Better: Remember that the comments we make to others about their weight-loss efforts tend to highlight our own insecurities, says Caring.com's Reardon. Ask yourself why you think the person is "no fun." Is it because you feel guilty about your own food choices or lack of willpower? Because food was central to your friendship, and your friend or loved one has moved past that?
8. "You look skinny today!"
Variations:"You look thinner than last week." "That dress is very slimming."
Why it's unhelpful: What seems like praise (and indeed may be meant that way) laser-points an emphasis on appearance that can make the dieter feel self conscious -- and judged.
Better: Instead of placing an unnecessary emphasis on looks, acknowledge weight-loss efforts by focusing on the health benefits, Reardon suggests. For example: "Wow, I bet you feel fabulous!" "You seem so vibrant these days."
9. "You should join a gym."
Variations:"You should walk more." "You'll never lose weight by exercise alone."
Why it's unhelpful:"You should" comments come across like criticism, even when you mean them constructively, and even though it's true that the key to losing weight is to manage exercise as well as diet.
Better: To help the person who's losing weight get more exercise, make a string-free offer that sounds like help, not an attack: "Do you want to join the Y with me?" "I'm walking the dog; do you want to come?"
10. "This book will help you lose weight."
Variations:"Have you tried Weight Watchers?" "I read about this new diet. . . ."
Why it's unhelpful: Even concrete weight-loss advice can sound like meddling and judging. "It's tricky,' Geneen Roth says. "You can't say 'Here, read these books,' because the person perceives it as you trying to control them. And here I'm an author saying this!"
Better: It's usually best not to discuss food and diet even indirectly. "It's never about the food," says Roth. "If you focus on the food, the person will have her antennae out. She'll think, 'What you're really saying is I shouldn't have so many mashed potatoes.'"
Instead, support a loved one's efforts to change her life for the better by helping her manage stress or loneliness, not tempting her, and by doing what you can to improve your own health. "People respond to love and caring, not judging and shame," Roth says.