The Diet Wreckers in Your Life
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The Diet Wreckers in Your Life

Sure, she looks sweet, but that cookie monster is up to no good. Here's how to cope when friends and loved ones sabotage your weight-loss success.

How to Get Support from Your Partner

Before Allison Orphy, 27, of Iowa, Louisiana, dines out with friends, she checks the restaurant's calorie counts online. She used to look them up at the table, but it drove her pals crazy. It wasn't the phone use that offended them; it was what she was doing. "They'd say, 'Why can't you just order?'" says Orphy, who has dropped 55 pounds in the past two years and wants to lose 60 more. "Most of them think I'm miserable, because I ask for veggies with no butter." But Orphy has quietly persisted, and now her friends are more accepting of her lifestyle change. "Sometimes, one of them will even wave away the breadbasket," she says.

Diet experts say it's not unusual for the people whom you think would support you the most -- BFFs, family members, significant others -- to try to derail your weight-loss goals, especially when you first make changes. You, only thinner, may intimidate them, says psychologist Judith Beck, PhD, president of the Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy in Philadelphia, and author of The Beck Diet Solution. "They may be scared that you won't need them in your life after you drop a dress size." But you don't have to end a relationship to stay on your diet. Understand why people tempt you with diet-breaking treats, and then use these strategies to clear the air and stay on track.

Your Partner

See that sweet guy cuddling on the couch with you? Sure, he loves you, but he's feeling lukewarm about the newly energized eat-right part of you. Jennifer Jacks, 29, of Shreveport, Louisiana, who went from a post-pregnancy weight of 230 pounds to 160, can relate. "My husband says, 'Come on, today can be your cheat day.' That wouldn't be an issue if it weren't every day," she says.

Blame insecurity and even jealousy for driving your guy to shoot down your healthy cooking. "Your lifestyle changes can feel threatening to your spouse," Beck says. "He may feel that if you lose weight, you'll start getting more attention from other people, and maybe you won't find him as attractive."

If you suspect he's intimidated by the new you, Susan Bowerman, RD, assistant director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of California, Los Angeles, suggests that you try this script: "I know my new food plan is a lot for you to handle, because we like to split dishes at restaurants and we have fun eating together. I'm concerned about my health, so I'm working hard to eat better. My commitment to us has not changed, though. Would you support me and consider joining me?" Have this conversation during a casual moment and avoid doing it before a meal, when your guy may be more sensitive to the issue.

Jacks and her husband have talked openly about why he tries to get her to cave. "He admits that it's not as much fun to sit down with a pizza or cookies when accompanied by a healthy eater," she says. "And seeing me lose weight makes him more aware that he should eat less." Their solution: a weekly date night. "We try to play racquetball first, which we enjoy together, and then go out for a cheat meal," she says. "It gives both of us something to look forward to."

How to Get Friends and Family on Board

Your Family

"My sister shows her love through food," says Kristi Houston, 42, of San Diego. "She'll make a huge spread even if there's just one extra person at her house." Houston and her husband often visit, and even though Houston started bringing her own healthy snacks, her sister still pushed treats on her. "Finally I said to her, 'I love you, but would you try and force a glass of wine on me if I were in A.A.?'" Houston says. The direct approach worked, and her sister eased up. "The food is still there," Houston says, "but she doesn't push like she used to."

"For many women, it's not okay to disappoint, which is why family gatherings can be stressful," Beck says. The thinking goes like this: Your mom went to all that trouble to cook for you, so the least you can do is enjoy the meal. The pressure for you to give in can be intense, particularly if you have a make-everyone-happy personality, as many women do. In fact, people pleasers are more likely to eat fatty snacks, even when they're not hungry, if they think doing so will make the person they're with more comfortable, according to a new study. "When a client tells me that's how she feels, I ask her how much her mom will benefit from seeing her eat those scalloped potatoes versus how much will it cost her," Beck says. In addition to the calories, a big helping could trigger a downward spiral by making you feel mentally defeated and less motivated to exercise.

To soften the blow, tell your mom, sis, or aunt about your new goals in advance of when you typically get together. Give her a call and say, "I know you enjoy cooking for me, but I'm trying to lose weight and I need your support. When I come over, I want to be able to say 'No, thanks' to some dishes and for you to be okay with that," Beck suggests. It may take time for this reality to set in with your loved one, especially because, depending on the culture you grew up in, your extra pounds may look beautifully curvy to your family member. On the day of the gathering, be nonchalant if someone challenges your food choices. Try "You know, this is just what I feel like eating today," Bowerman says.

Outsmart Office Fat Traps

Birthday cupcakes at 3 p.m. That leftover crumb cake your colleague brings in on Mondays. The biggest nine-to-five diet problem is typically not a diet saboteur but learning to avoid the calorie bombs at work. Think of the office as a good place to practice saying no, because dealing with coworkers is less emotional than dealing with family and friends, says Beck. "At work, every time you pass up a treat, you're strengthening your mental resistance muscle," she adds. The more you practice, the easier it gets to turn down your pizza-loving pal or cookie-pushing spouse.

Your Friends

Think of the restaurant table you and your friends are dining at as an ocean liner at sea. Onboard, all is smooth sailing -- plenty of gab about what's going on with boyfriends, babies, and bosses. But underneath, the currents are wild. Will anyone touch the breadbasket? Who will order the salad or stick their neck out for the juicy burger? What about dessert?

When you deviate from your typical order -- say, by adding a side of fries -- your friends will automatically notice, says Patricia Pliner, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. "In our studies, women, without being asked to keep track, could recount after a meal how much up to three other people at the table had eaten," she says. Why? When it comes to food, women have a competitive streak. Many use controlling what they eat as a status symbol, watching what others order to see how much they themselves can consume and still hold the prize as the healthiest eater. In similar studies, men have no idea how much people with them eat. That's not to say that men don't compete with one another. They just do it in other ways -- the powerful job, the fast car, or the big TV.

Being trim is highly valued in our culture -- pick up any celeb tabloid for proof -- and food-competitive friends are especially aware of this; they may use their looks as a way of compensating for their insecurities. For instance, if you're succeeding in your career and your friend is not, she may strike back by showing off her strong willpower when dining with you, Pliner says. "In a study, we paired up women to compete on a mental task, and those who thought they were losing chose the healthier entrée for lunch," she explains. Eating less is a sneaky yet socially acceptable way for women to one-up one another.

So if you threaten a friend's position as the most virtuous eater, she might push back. She may ask you what's wrong or even make snide remarks. Shrug her comments off and change the subject: "I'm just trying to make changes to be healthier. Now tell me what's up with your job hunt."

Another pal may notice your diet because she feels abandoned, says Lisa Young, PhD, RD, a FITNESS advisory board member and the author of The Portion Teller Plan: "It's the concept of misery loving company." You were the one she could count on after a rough day to meet her at happy hour for nachos and a margarita. But now your diet is making her feel guilty about her own food choices. Nachos for one? That's no fun.

Cierra Latrice, 21, of Lawrence, Kansas, is familiar with that pressure. "Of all the struggles I face when eating healthfully and working out, the hardest is dining with my BFF," Latrice says. "At restaurants she sometimes says I've become picky, because I order a salad or ask the waiter to modify a dish." Her underlying concern may be that she doesn't want your relationship to change, Beck says. "She may fear that there won't be a place for her in your life anymore." Make plans for activities like browsing for shoes, taking a walk, or meeting up for a lower-calorie coffee date. These get-togethers will help your friend feel more secure and take the pressure off you to eat.

If you do end up overeating with your friends, family, or spouse, remember that one slipup is no big deal. Tell yourself, If I get back on track right now, this mistake won't even show up on the scale at the end of the week, Beck says. Stay strong and view any negative comments as a sure sign that what you're doing is working.

Originally published in FITNESS magazine, May 2012.