Most people who feel their weight is unhealthy have already unsuccessfully tried to diet
Offer to help a loved one struggling with their weight: a plan of action to be done together.
What are the magic words to use when a loved one’s weight is rising dangerously high? Unfortunately, there are none.
“You’re not telling anyone something they don’t know,” warned Ed Abramson, a psychologist and professor at California State University.
Most people are undoubtedly aware of their own appearance and have also read at least one of the many reports about the dangers of excess weight, he added. After all, it’s no longer news that more than one-third of adults in the United States are obese – meaning a body mass index of 30 or more. And plenty of research shows the negative health effects of excess weight, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, some cancers and difficult physical functioning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Most people who feel that their weight is unhealthy have already tried to diet, said Abramson, so any conversation about their weight will probably come across as nagging, and this will just increase their shame, defensiveness and even secretiveness. Talking about it, you might worsen the problem, he explained.
Still, the problem remains: You’re worried. So, do you say something or say nothing?
According to Dr. Barbara Berkeley, a board-certified physician in both internal and obesity medicine, it’s impossible to not intervene in other people’s lives. “Everybody does it, so the question is how to do it effectively,” she said.
Since people don’t lose weight or change their habits unless they want to, you must first recognize that you can only inspire them so much. Really, it’s up to them.
Present the evidence
A variety of factors contribute to gaining weight these days, Abramson explained. We eat bigger portions of calorie-dense foods and we eat out at restaurants serving too-salty meals. Meanwhile, many of us work jobs that do not involve any real physical effort and drive cars instead of walking. There’s also the issue of the food itself.
“So we’ve been doing research on the overlap of food and drug addiction,” said Nicole Avena, a research neuroscientist, explaining how recent studies have shown similar addiction-like responses to food – bingeing, tolerance, craving, withdrawal – and similar changes occurring in the brain within the dopamine system (pleasure center) in the brain.
Here’s the catch: These “junky” responses do not occur with just any food – you’re not likely to binge on, say, grilled salmon. It’s only highly processed foods that inspire this reaction.
“The level of processing was the highest indicator of whether or not the food was addictive,” said Avena, author of “Why Diets Fail.” She believes that simply “hearing this information” could change the conversation and even be empowering for some people, helping them to avoid potentially “addictive” foods altogether.
However, not everyone is convinced by the evidence, noted Abramson. While many scientists support Avena’s view that certain foods can inspire addiction, other scientists acknowledge that certain foods may result in atypical physiological changes but that doesn’t equate to the dependence and cravings aroused by drugs.
Model behavior and tread lightly
Before you start a conversation about someone else’s presumably “unhealthy” food habits, you need to understand what a too-high number on the scale means to the other person — and also to you, said Bryan Karazsia, an assistant professor of psychology at the College of Wooster. The focus needs to be about health and behavior, not weight, and definitely never about appearance.
You also need to reflect on how weight and food have been talked about over the years.
“It’s not all about that one conversation,” said Karazsia.
So, if you’re a parent who wants to help a child – even a young adult child, but especially teens – Berkeley suggests modeling the behavior you want to see. You, yourself, must walk the walk by cutting sugar and processed foods out of your diet while taking up exercise. This is based on the “very obvious generalization” that children accept the values of the family, said Berkeley. Most of us become like our parents.