What Does Support Really Mean When It Comes to Food and Weight?

Two Big Tips for Supporting Someone’s Path to Health

Look around.  People are trying to improve their diet. Some people are trying to eat “better” because they see their weight steadily increasing.  For others, they want to start eating more wholesome foods to prevent chronic diseases.  And, for others, they recognize that their eating is very disordered and restrictive and they want to get back to more “normal” eating.

You probably have a friend, colleague and/or family member who has confided in you about their goal to improve their diet.  And likely, you want to help.  But how?  No one teaches us how to be supportive and relying on our instincts can sometimes do more harm than good.  Think about the following scenarios and ask yourself if this sounds like the kind of support you would want if you were trying to improve your health?  

1. You are at a work-related dinner that is serving buffet style.  You are trying to make selective choices on the buffet line and decide that the fried chicken is more special then the mac and cheese so you take a piece of the fried chicken along with a salad and a dinner roll.  You sit down and your friend/colleague gives you a look of disappointment, and even says, “should you be eating that?”  How does that make you feel?

2. You went to your doctor and was told you have pre-diabetes.  Your spouse decides that you shouldn’t be eating too much pasta and bread so for dinner she makes a delicious lasagna for the family and makes you some spaghetti squash with sugar-free, sodium-free spaghetti sauce and a baked chicken breast.  How does that make you feel?

3. You have been in recovery from an eating disorder and now at your goal weight.  You are visiting your aunt with your family.  Your aunt hadn’t seen you since you were severely underweight. When you arrive, and take your coat off, your aunt states that you look so much better and your cheeks are so full again.   How does that make you feel?

In the above scenarios, I’d bet the person making the effort to improve health felt worse after the encounter even though the intentions were to be supportive.  What might be more helpful?

The following are two tips for more effective support:

1. Ask specifically what you can do to provide support.

Instead of assuming you know what to say or do to show support, ASK!   Even as a clinician, I ask my patients, “what can I do or say to help support your efforts?”  Once you get a response, continue the conversation. For example, “I hear you say that it doesn’t help when I ask you what you ate for lunch, and would guess that when I ask you this question I’m not really showing that I trust you. Did I get that right? Is there anything that would be more helpful for me to ask or say?”  Asking how to support is never a one and done.  Periodically ask, “How am I doing supporting you?  Am I doing too much or too little of anything?  Is there anything else I can do to help?

2. Encourage, don’t control

Just as with the first tip, this tip also is about asking.  “What can I do or what can I say that encourages you and makes you feel good?”  Typically, encouragement is positive, and yet, some people think that they are encouraging when they say something like, “You are doing so well; are you sure you need seconds?”  Or, “you don’t want to end up looking like Joe, do you?”  Or, “You are looking so good now; don’t blow it by eating that piece of cake.” This is controlling rather than encouraging; not helpful, and can lead to the person you are supporting sneak eating when you aren’t around.   

Although most people want to hear that they are “looking good” or “looking better” can you think of other ways to encourage the person making the changes? If the person making the change relies on hearing about how he or she looks, this compliment will likely fade over time.   How about reinforcing the qualities of the person along with the changes you are noticing such as, “Joe, you sure are smiling a lot lately. I’ve noticed how you aren’t out of breath when taking the stairs.”  

Finally, a word of caution.  Be mindful that the person changing his or her lifestyle may choose to change his definition of fun.  Fun may no longer mean wings and beer on Friday night or eating a plate of brownies.  Because of this change, the relationship you have with the person may change.  Don’t take it personal.  You are supporting because you care. You may hear “no thank you” when you offer your homemade granola, or when you ask if he or she is going out for wings and beer with you on Friday night.  When someone in your life makes a change, even though it is for the better, you might feel a loss.  Will you adjust or will you sabotage efforts and say, “you are just not fun anymore.” Think about it.

It may be that you are making changes and need support.  You can use these same tips by letting people know how they can help you. And when they come through for you and support you, say thank you.  Thank you and signs of appreciation will go a long way to keep the support coming your way.  

Eileen Myers
Eileen Myers

Nutrition Expert, MPH, RDN, LDN, CEDRD, FAND

Eileen is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with a BS from Penn State and a Master’s in Public Health from the University of North Carolina. She has received numerous awards for her work and has several publications including a book, “Winning the War Within: Nutrition Therapy for Clients with Eating Disorder.”

3 Comments
  1. Eileen has once again succinctly “hit the nail on the head”. Whether its trying to manage weight, cholesterol, or blood pressure with diet, or get control of a drinking or smoking problem, or maintain a regular exercise program, its always easier with a “good” support system (i.e. friends and family). Sometimes the path to failure is paved with “good intentions” by those trying to be supportive. Eileen paints a clear picture of this issue and how to remedy it.
    Sometimes the path to failure is also paved by the desire of those who should be supportive by their own need for nothing to change (the so called “co-dependent relationship” is the prime example). In these latter cases, the person trying to change may need to consider a confrontation intervention (best done with an experienced counselor) or even consider severing the relationship (which may also be accomplished better with a counselor).
    Keep them coming Eileen!

  2. What a wonderful article. Eileen has really hit the nail on the head. So many times, people, and especially parents, are so negative when it comes to food and eating. I know many adults who are still dealing with food issues, as a result of parents who constantly expressed so many negative comments and practices, during childhood. Than you again for putting everything into perspective. A wonderful job Eileen.

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