When a friend or family member tells you about a new weight loss goal, your first impulse may be to offer up advice. Not so fast! Helping someone lose weight without hurting their feelings (or your relationship with them) can be tricky. And if your words are misinterpreted—even if you go into the conversation with the best intentions—you could end up discouraging them.
That said, when you use helpful tactics, you can play an important role in your friend’s success. After all, science suggests there may be an association between social support and weight loss—even online: In a 2018 study published in the Journal of Internal Medicine, researchers found that when people working toward a weight loss goal had an internet-based support system, they lost an average of 3.4 percent of their weight after 24 months while those without the online group counseling lost just 1.6 percent.
Whether you’re hoping to stand by someone who’s embarking on a brand new weight loss journey or reinvigorate a friend who’s working through another challenging setback, here’s how to pump up the encouragement and exercise compassion every step of the way:
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When they’re *thinking* about losing weight…
- Let them make their own weight loss decisions. Have a few thoughts about the best way for your friend to lose weight or how many pounds they should drop? Here’s what to do with those opinions: Keep ‘em to yourself! “Even comments with the best intentions can be skewed because of the shame surrounding excess weight,” says Elizabeth Lowden, MD, a bariatric endocrinologist at Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital’s Metabolic Health and Surgical Weight Loss Center. Instead, you could give them a gentle nudge to join you with the WW Invite a Friend offer.
- Avoid a lecture. When you want someone you care about to get healthier, you might be inclined to express concern that they may have an increased risk for, say, heart disease. But tread carefully. While some people respond to concerns about their wellbeing, especially when delivered thoughtfully, not everyone will. “Unless there’s a very dramatic instance where their life is threatened, such as a heart attack, some people aren’t motivated by an authoritative tone telling them what they have to do,” Dr. Lowden says.
- Watch your words. If weight loss comes up in a convo with a loved one, be clear that the person doesn’t need to lose weight in order for you to love him or her. The message should be: “You don’t need to lose weight for me. Do it for yourself.”
When they start their weight loss journey…
- Give the gift of time. Losing weight takes effort and preparation, and many people feel they lack the time to devote to their health. Offering to babysit a friend’s kids so they can get to the gym, or packing an extra apple for a crazed co-worker, for example, can be just as important as providing emotional support, says Deborah Tate, PhD, a professor in the department of health behavior at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health.
- Skip the drill sergeant behavior. Getting peppered with questions about what you’re eating or whether you’ve worked out today is zero fun. You might think you’re helping by holding your loved one accountable, but the interrogation can cause the person to feel overly stressed, Tate says. Your job is to be their friend, not their patroller.
- Realize they aren’t you. Everyone’s weight loss journey is different, so keep in mind that what worked for you won’t necessarily be effective for your friend. That said, you can still share aspects of your experience. If your friend is looking for low SmartPoints® value dinner ideas, for example, she’d probably be excited if you sent her the recipes you love to whip up.
When they’re on their way to (or have reached) their weight loss goal…
- Don’t focus on the digits. The path to better health is about more than just the number on the scale, so instead of complimenting weight loss, heap praise on other accomplishments. Lowden suggests using phrases like, “You look stronger!”; “Wow, you seem to be taking such good care of yourself!”; and “I like that you’re making yourself a priority.”
- Celebrate non-scale victories. Ask your pal what she’s most proud or excited about—maybe it’s having the energy to get active or being more adventurous in the kitchen. Then, schedule a celebratory activity around that activity—going on a hike or taking a cooking class together, for example.
- Keep it up. Aim to carry on supporting your friend as she works to keep the weight off. Maintenance takes effort, too, and it’s nice to be reminded of your victories even when the balloons-and-confetti moment of hitting your goal weight is behind you.
At the end of the day, if you’re not sure about the best way to help a loved one, just ask! Instead of assuming you know the answer, “let them tell you what works,” Tate says. And remember: Even if your friend or family member doesn’t voice their appreciation right away, your support is invaluable—so keep it up!