- New research has highlighted how negative social support can hinder weight loss journeys.
- Acts including sabotage, feeding, and collusion can play a detrimental role.
- Social support can contribute to positive weight loss outcomes.
Many people on a weight loss journey rely on their partner, family, and friends for encouragement. Previous studies have highlighted how “positive” support — such as a partner also adopting a healthier diet — can influence weight loss outcomes.
Unfortunately, not all support and input from loved ones is beneficial.
New research from the University of Surrey, UK, published in Current Obesity Reports, found that friends and family can purposefully engage in behaviors to sabotage weight loss attempts among individuals living with obesity.
To understand the role loved ones can play in others’ weight loss journies, the researchers reviewed various existing study findings relating to the topic.
They saw that positive weight loss results could arise from strong social support. For instance, self-esteem boosting, giving advice, and accompanying individuals to doctor’s appointments all lead to more significant and sustained outcomes.
However, they also recognized that family and friends might (albeit sometimes unintentionally) engage in behaviors that derail a person’s attempts to lead a healthier lifestyle.
The researchers categorized actions into three groups, which they termed “a new model of negative social support”.
Sabotage involves intentionally putting up barriers to prevent healthy behaviors. Previous studies, for example, have highlighted actions such as refusing to drive the individual to weight loss support groups, discouraging healthy eating, or pointing out the high cost of gym memberships to deter exercise.
The researchers noted that sabotage can also occur through critical or hurtful remarks. In turn, these negatively influence mood and self-esteem — low levels of which are more likely to lead to “comfort” behaviors, such as eating unhealthy food.
Being a feeder
Many people have encountered at least one person who continues to pile food on your plate, even after you’ve told them you’re full or trying to cut back on calories.
The analysis referenced a previous study that categorized the motivations behind feeders “feeding.” These were: out of love; to avoid food waste; to demonstrate money and status; to avoid feelings of hunger; and because they can’t finish the food themselves.
In intimate relationships, the analysis revealed feeding could arise in two ways: reciprocally, whereby each partner “feeds” the other, and more linearly, with one partner’s behaviors directly affecting the other.
Losing weight is challenging, and it’s easy to make excuses. For instance, an individual may say, “I’ll have some ice cream today, it won’t hurt.”
When friends or family go along with such concessions to avoid conflict, this is termed “collusion”.
It was also noted that loved ones might engage in collusion because they’re aware of negative connotations related to obesity, and don’t know how to address the issue.
The researchers said collusion is the “less intentional” of the three behaviors.
There’s no one reason why friends and family might purposefully try to derail an obese individual’s weight loss attempts.
Jane Ogden, a professor of Health Psychology at the University of Surrey and lead author of the study, said in a statement: “Weight loss often results in change, from giving a person more confidence to a change in social dynamics in their relationships.”
“Many do not welcome such changes,” she continued, “and may, consciously or subconsciously, try to derail a person’s attempts to lose weight in order to keep things the way they are.”
According to this theory, “every family or friend group has a specific balance that the system maintains for it to work,” Bostan shared with Healthline.
“When someone tries to lose weight, they are departing from their usual health behaviors, which disrupts the system and can lead others to do behaviors to try to regain control of ‘the norm,’” she said.
But there are likely other reasons behind the sabotage, too.
These may be related to “their own eating habits, body image, and weight,” she continued. For instance, if they’re struggling to lose weight or engage in healthier habits, they might feel envious when seeing a loved one successfully doing so.
Dr. Faye Borja, a licensed professional counselor and clinical manager at The Hardy Clinic, concurred.
“They may experience guilt over their [own unhealthy] decisions and project that guilt onto their friend or family member actively trying to lose weight,” she shared.
As noted earlier, some behaviors — such as collusion and feeding — are conducted to show love and care. For instance, a “feeder” may not even realize or consider that they’re doing anything wrong.
“In these situations, the person trying to lose weight may be perceived as rude or ungrateful, and accept [food] in an effort to maintain peace while ignoring their own physical needs,” explained Bostan.
Finally, added Bostan, “Many people still don’t recognize weight as a legitimate medical concern despite its documented association with long-term health consequences.”
As a result, they “may implicitly or explicitly dismiss someone’s weight loss goals, which makes the person trying to lose weight feel stigmatized and less likely to do the behaviors they committed to.”
Receiving social support based on positive behaviors is critical for several reasons.
Humans are easily influenced — so we’re likely to engage in behaviors that will help us fit in. If responses from family and friends to healthy behaviors are negative, we’re more likely to drop them.
“Everybody has an innate desire to belong and fit in,” said Lev. “There have been numerous conformity studies, and people are likely to conform in group settings to avoid feeling isolated, alienated, or extricated from the group.”
Positive reactions and attitudes from loved ones will aid in boosting self-esteem and confidence, which assist in keeping us on track with goals.
Conversely, “a lack of positive social support can result in decreased self-worth, a defeatist attitude, and less appreciation to complete even the simplest of tasks,” Borja shared.
Bostan also noted that “social support can be indirectly beneficial by acting as a buffer against negative external stressors.”
For instance, experiencing work difficulties might make you feel overwhelmed and tempted to slip into bad habits. But having a supportive social circle to talk with and cheer you on can help alleviate some of that extra pressure.
If friends and family engage in sabotage, feeding, or collusive behaviors, taking some of the following actions can help you successfully stick to your weight loss path.
Surround yourself with like-minded folk
Talking to others in the same situation as you can provide much-needed support, motivation, perspective, and accountability. “We are at our best when we are able to build relationships in ways that establish and foster trust,” noted Borja.
This is even more critical “if someone isn’t receiving positive support from friends and family,” said Bostan. Consider going to a weight loss group — either online or in-person — or joining gym classes to help you stick with a regular workout routine.
“Clearly communicate your needs and limits to others, including saying no to activities or situations that might hinder your weight loss goals,” said Lev.
Especially in feeder situations, this can be difficult and uncomfortable, Borja added, and “the loved one who takes joy in feeding their friend or family member may become offended.”
However, she continued, “Communicating from a place of kindness and honesty is better than suffering in silence or building resentment.”
Use “I’ language
Lev said that making a few tweaks to your language can help you assert yourself without coming across as attacking or blaming.
For instance, she suggested considering saying, “I would prefer a healthier option for dinner,” instead of “You always serve unhealthy food.”
Reframe your thoughts
Turn negative thoughts about your weight and weight loss achievements into positive ones, Borja recommended. “Remind yourself daily of your positive attributes.”
Advocate for yourself
Don’t be afraid to speak up and communicate your needs, desires, and concerns about your weight loss journey, Lev stated. As well as family and friends, this also includes healthcare professionals, support groups, and trainers.
Keep yourself accountable
Having a checklist of goals can aid in keeping you accountable, Borja said. Think of your list as a “roadmap” towards your final destination: as you tick each one off, the closer you are to success!
Consider visiting a behavioral therapist
“Behavioral therapy can offer a nonjudgmental space to help set weight loss goals, reflect on progress, and problem solve barriers with a trained provider,” said Bostan.
Therapy is also a safe space to “address thoughts, emotions, and physical responses that arise due to a lack of social support.”