Dieters’ dilemma: How do you handle the peer pressure to eat poorly?

One thing I’ve noticed over the years of being a Nutritional Advisor is that people’s comments can have a tremendous impact on a client’s confidence, focus, and ultimately, their level of success in achieving their health and wellness goals. This scene was particularly evident in the following email from a client: Any advice on how to deal with the relentless pressure to eat unhealthily? I get a staggering amount of ridicule, cajoling, guilting, eye-rolling, and outright hostility from people like my friends, family, co-workers, and strangers when I dare to try to make healthy choices at mealtime. Oh, come on, one piece of fried chicken won’t kill you. You only live once! Don’t be such a killjoy. Do you actually like that? I’d rather die young than eat that. Etc…, etc.., etc. I don’t think I’ve ever realized how little support there is for making a healthy lifestyle change. Not only is there little support, but there’s also open hostility toward it. The irony is that the comments often come from the very people who are putting the most pressure on the client to be more health-conscious. There’s the well-meaning mom who encourages her daughter to shed those 10 extra pounds, yet suggests splitting the ginormous dessert at dinner. Or the otherwise supportive spouse who brings my client’s favorite treat into the home and leaves the bag open on the kitchen counter. And then there are comments like you’re wasting away, or surely you don’t want to lose any more weight when you’re only halfway to your goal. So, how should you handle weight-loss saboteurs? Remember their frame of reference. If a person has only known you as very overweight, then to them you’ll seem to be disappearing as you lose weight. Try to remain neutral and non-defensive. If you sense any hostility or negativity from others, remind yourself that it’s their stuff, not yours. Don’t defend your choices. Instead, focus on strengthening your inner resolve. Keep a sense of humor. As long as you’re happy with your physical, emotional, and spiritual progress, passing comments by others are inconsequential. Since this is clearly an issue that many struggles with, I’ve turned to a few local therapists to shed some light on why this happens and the strategies for dealing with it. It can be very difficult for someone to achieve success without the unconditional support of friends and family. Nothing ruins motivation more than when success is not rewarded. I believe some people are genuinely concerned that a person might be getting unhealthily thin, but it’s also true that people often don’t like it when the status quo is upset. They want the old person and relationship back. When a person makes the necessary changes to lose a significant amount of weight, it can mean a change in how friends, family, and co-workers spend time with this person. They may be accustomed to a social life that is largely inactive and sedentary. Now, not only is that time spent differently, the bond that connected them may also be different or even gone. Food may no longer be the commonality they share. People may also feel threatened by another’s weight loss. Even when others don’t need to lose weight, I think they can still feel threatened if they don’t feel like they’re making the desired important life changes as the person has who achieved their weight or health goals. The saboteur may be struggling with guilt, envy, shame, even anger and is trying to rid themselves of these unpleasant feelings by depositing them in the healthy-striving person. When the healthy-striving person does succumb, the saboteur gets temporary relief and validation. Rather than focusing on what others say, it’s important for people to continue reinforcing their own inner convictions about their personal health or ideal weight. A core aspect of one’s weight-loss journey is self-empowerment and conviction in one’s self instead of seeking approval from others. Focusing on others’ opinions can continue to reinforce the destructive patterns that led to weight gain and unhealthy habits in the first place.