So they want to lose weight and you want to help. Motivating our loved ones to achieve their health goals is often on our minds, but to be effective, we need to be careful about how we put it. You might think you’re being helpful with the following approaches, but they usually backfire. Let’s explore what NOT to say to someone who’s overweight:
“Are you really going to eat that?”
A few weeks ago, I noticed my brother slathering a mammoth scoop of butter onto a piece of bread. “Ew,” I said. “That’s SO much butter.” Next thing I knew, that well-buttered bread was smooshed into my face. After wiping the butter off my glasses, I realized there were probably better ways of helping him to go lighter on the saturated fat source; my disdainful approach only served to start a food war.
“Do you know what’s in that?!”
“Did you know that butter contains tons of saturated fat?” This might seem like a better approach, but it’s actually still a lose-lose. If he did know, he’d feel judged for eating it anyway. If he didn’t know, he’d feel judged for not knowing. No one likes to feel dumb, so defensiveness will again rise to the occasion—because protecting the ego is a higher priority than protecting our health. Better to shine the spotlight toward the general public or even yourself. For example: “I always thought butter was a source of healthy fat, but I guess it has more fat than I realized. Have you noticed that the amount you eat affects you at all? I’m wondering if I should cut back.”
“If you don’t stop doing X, you’ll kill yourself off”
Repeating scare-statistics (even when they’re true) would totally work… if people were 100% rational beings. But we aren’t. When we hear that “if we don’t lose weight/exercise/eat healthy, we’re sealing our own coffin,” it just makes us feel worse. And when we feel bad emotionally, we’re likely to turn toward the things that exacerbate the problem. Besides, weight challenges aren’t brought on by rational choice, so they aren’t going to be corrected that way. It’s important for people to know the health facts about obesity and being overweight, but your primary approach shouldn’t be to scare them into being healthy. Especially if you’re talking to your kids.
“You need to take more responsibility”
No one likes to feel lectured. And no one likes it when their weight challenge is oversimplified. Being overweight or obese isn’t a personal choice—it’s not that our generation is lazy or lacks willpower more than any other generation before; it’s that our world has changed. And depression, low self-esteem and other emotional issues complicate our ability to navigate all these changes. Putting the blame on someone for their weight challenges again creates feelings of frustration and shame that are likely to backfire.
Health experts say the best approach to helping people (including ourselves) change health habits is to be more patient, caring and loving. Use positive reinforcement: praise the good choices and give an ‘A’ for effort. This allows people a sense of ownership over their positive changes and it lowers their defenses—which is especially important for kids, who are innately rebellious and don’t yet understand health and nutrition. (You’re up against Count Chocula and Ronald McDonald, after all.)
Finally, to a degree, it’s not even about what you say. The best way to inspire healthy behavior is to be a model for that behavior and to help create an environment favorable to making healthy choices.
Teaching by example seems to win every time.
By Chelsea Bush