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Are your friends and family making you fat?

We look at a tricky issue: when family and friends, purposefully or not, get in the way of your weight-loss plans.

Just as your skirt starts to swing rather than stretch across your hips and your jeans no longer feel like a tourniquet, the weight-loss ‘saboteurs’ step into action. Amazingly, it’s those closest to you – your family and friends – who are most likely to thwart your weight-loss attempts.

Do any of these situations seem familiar?

  • Your mother says, “Darling, you’re fading away. Have another piece of cake.”
  • Your husband brings home ice cream when he knows you’re trying to lose weight.
  • You are at a friend’s for dinner and they serve you an enormous slice of your favourite dessert with cream.
  • Your mates cajole you, “Come on, have another beer.”
  • You meet friends for coffee and they all order cake.
  • “Come on, a small piece won’t hurt you. You deserve a treat.”
  • Your children give you chocolates for your birthday.
  • You buy treats for the children and then eat them yourself.
  • Your children want to bake biscuits. Guess who eats the most?
  • You nibble while feeding the children, finish their leftovers, then eat dinner with your husband.
  • You’ve just put the kids to bed and slump into the lounge chair. Your husband brings out a cup of tea – with the biscuit tin.
  • You serve up one of your healthy low-fat meals and the teenagers complain, “Yuk, I’m not eating that rabbit food.”

Family routine

When I was single, my flatmate and I were obsessed with keeping our weights down so we lived on a spartan diet of tuna, spinach, pasta, low-fat smoothies and GSTs – gin with slimline tonic!

When I became a DINK (double income, no kids) my diet and waistline expanded to accommodate another’s tastes – more meat, more sweets, more wine before and during dinner. But we could still eat breakfast cereal and fruit for dinner if we felt like it.

Once children arrive the routine changes again. Now it’s breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea and a ‘proper’ dinner. Full cream milk sits next to skim and it sure tastes better than the watery stuff. Kindy and school lunches, friends for morning tea – they all need something to nibble – usually made with sugar and butter. Then the leftovers sit around tempting you at your weakest moments – usually the evening. As your grocery bill sky-rockets with hungry teenagers, so do the temptations. They are constantly eating – and you are constantly shopping and cooking to keep up. It’s hard not to snack when you are surrounded by food!

Children don’t intentionally sabotage your weight-loss. But they do try to get more sweet stuff into the house any way they can. When your children ask if they can make biscuits or fudge, it’s so they can eat it. When your children give you chocolates, they are expecting you to share.

“You look fine to me”

Observations on how men and women perceive the ideal body shape note that women are a lot harder on themselves – and each other – than men. Men generally prefer a considerably curvier female shape than women think is ideal. It seems that the very bulges we hate may be the curves he loves! So while you are desperately trying to slim down your hips and thighs, he may be thinking you look fine. Subconsciously deciding that you are needlessly restricting your diet (and his) he brings home a special treat – gourmet ice cream!

“Don’t go changing”

Not many of us like change. We get comfortable where we are and with the people around us. When someone decides to change, it can be threatening. Will he or she be the same person if they lose all that weight? Will they succumb to the inevitable admiring glances and advances that their newly-svelte figure will attract?

Friends also often resist someone in their circle changing – they feel uncomfortable, the routine isn’t the same. It’s a sort of pack mentality. To make themselves feel better they try to pull back into conformity anyone trying to break out of the pack rules.

  1. Diet is a four-letter word: don’t go on a diet. Don’t tell anyone that you are on a diet. You’ll only get caught in the DIG cycle – deprivation, indulgence, guilt. If you think you can’t have something, you will want it more. Allow yourself to eat everything, but less of it and less often.
  2. Give reasons that your friends will accept. Instead of saying “no” to cake because it’s fattening try, “No thanks, I’m full.” Instead of refusing that last beer because you are trying to lose weight, say “I’ve got to be up at 6am for a run/cycle/triathlon/ marathon” – whatever will impress them, and preferably is the truth!”
  3. Wear jeans a size too small and mislead your friends into thinking you’ve recently put on weight.
  4. Get to know your body and listen to it before listening to someone else. If you feel tired, have a headache or black rings round your eyes, perhaps your body is pleading for water – not that extra glass of wine or coffee. When you reach for that biscuit to go with tea or coffee, stop for a moment and check if it is really what your body feels like at that moment. Sometimes it is but other times you may only be eating out of habit, to be social or to treat sadness, tiredness, boredom or depression.
  5. Find a support person – someone to be accountable to. Changing any habit is easier with support than going it alone.
  6. Reassure your mum that you are being sensible, that you are eating from the five food groups and have never felt better. Tell her that you would prefer fruit to cake because it has so many health benefits (not because it has fewer kilojoules). She surely can’t argue with her precious child wanting to be healthy!
  7. When your birthday or other anniversary is imminent, announce that instead of chocolates you would like flowers, books, a massage, a beauty voucher or perhaps a holiday!
  8. Become known as the person who ‘loves fruit’. Instead of serving decadent sugar-laden desserts, serve fruit. Try a platter of sliced fruit (with chocolate on the side for others to indulge in); fruit salad with sorbet; or a fruit crumble (try our delicious Light summer crumble). Tell them you serve fruit because you love it and you love serving healthy foods to your friends and family that taste great too. (Don’t mention the lower kilojoules.)
  9. Before going out to a work shout or party with high-fat nibbles, have a filling snack and a glass of water to make sure you are not hungry.
  10. Don’t be afraid to share at cafés, too. The portions in a lot of cafés are way too big for many people. It’s most noticeable in muffins and cakes, but can include the paninis and sandwiches as well. You might be tempted by someone saying “Let’s do it, it’s a treat”, but if you’re buying food at cafés quite often it’s not a treat – it’s food – and you don’t want to overdo it.
  11. When you get to the party, stand well away from the snack buffet and do more talking: less eating!
  12. At dinner, drink lots of water, eat slowly, put your knife and fork down between mouthfuls, chat lots so there is less time for eating. If your plate or glass is still quite full, they are less likely to persuade you to have seconds.
  13. Use the five bite rule: if someone insists you try a food, take five bites – enough to enjoy it – then put it down.
  14. At home, brush your teeth after dinner. It won’t stop you eating but it helps.
  15. Learn to share. Instead of having a whole dessert at a restaurant, say “I don’t think I could squeeze that in – but it is tempting. Will you share one with me?” You friend/partner may not even notice that they eat most of it themselves.
  16. Instead of a dinner date, try a romantic walk along the beach or through the park, or meet for a game of tennis or at the ten-pin bowling ally.
  17. If someone offers to buy you an ice cream, choose the fruity, ice-based ones rather than the triple decker chocolate-covered super cone.
  18. Make salads your signature dish. Learn to make a variety of interesting salads that you and others can enjoy. We’re talking low-energy high-vegetable dishes here – not your standard Caesar salad.
  19. Be helpful. Offer to pass around the food at a friend’s party. It’s hard to eat with your hands full, and it’s a great way to meet people too.
  20. At the barbecue or smorgasbord, start with the salads and (non-starchy) veges and fill most of your plate with these lower kilojoule foods. Then go to the meat and carbs and select smaller portions of something really tasty. You don’t have to try everything.
  21. Don’t let others serve your food. People like to be generous and will often unconsciously give you too much. Serve your own food so you control the portion size.
  22. If you have friends who always overdo the ‘nibbles’ before dinner, or you find it hard to say no, or they don’t accept your polite refusals, more desperate measures may be called for. So if all else fails: arrive really late! So what if you’ve messed up their timings for dinner? Hopefully you’ve avoided the starters, which could have been a whole meal in themselves.
  23. If someone comments that your plate isn’t very full, reply as heartily as you can manage “Don’t worry about me, I’ll be back for seconds”. Hopefully you can then avoid that person or your scintillating conversation will distract them enough not to notice you don’t do seconds.
  24. Learn to cook with herbs and spices that add flavour to dishes, so your family are not yearning for foods that are flavoursome solely because of their high fat or sugar content.
  25. Make a game of eating slowly. Pick on someone as your target and see if you can have one mouthful of food for every two (or even three) they take. You’ll probably enjoy your food more as well.
  26. Pack a small healthy snack such as unsalted nuts and seeds as an emergency snack during a busy day.
  27. Take advantage of small or large changes of any sort to make a dietary change. People are less likely to notice or question it, eg. your GP gives you a new prescription: “Since I’ve been on that I find ice cream doesn’t taste the same.”  Or you move house and start shopping at a new store. This gives you the opportunity to change many of the regular items that come into the household (see The secrets of shopping smarter).
  28. Suggest you cook (a healthy) brunch for yourself and your loved one/s on Sunday morning, instead of going out for eggs benedict. Better still, make it a joint effort: send someone out to get take-out coffees and newspapers for a nice slow start to the day.
  29. Complement your friends about their ability to stay the same weight while mentioning you find it a struggle. Your aim is to make them feel good about themselves and sorry for you, so they’ll stop trying to force feed you. Flattery can be a useful strategy for male partners as well.
  30. Look good: dress with care; get a nice haircut; put on some slap. If you look good as you are, they’ll be less afraid that if you lose weight you will suddenly become more attractive to others. You are attractive! You’re just interested in being healthier.
  31. Be attentive to your friends, family or partner. Don’t let them feel you’re drifting away from them and becoming a different person.
  32. Tell people you’re trying to improve your fertility by eating a healthier diet. They might be more understanding. (Who cares if you’re still taking precautions?! You may want to get pregnant one day.)
  33. Make sure others in the household are not feeling like they are on a diet. If dessert is normal, keep serving it in the meantime. Your portions can be smaller; they are probably more concerned about their own plates than yours. Over time you could change the regularity of it and what it is, but small steps make it easier to keep everyone on side.
  34. If all else fails, it might be time to have a serious conversation with your friends or family about why they are undermining your efforts to eat more healthily. They may just need reassurance: that you are happy with them the way they are; that you are not going to change as a person; that you won’t expect them to eat the same foods you do… Some of these may not be true for you, so it is important to think it through and be honest with yourself and others.
  35. Complement your mother on her cooking. Make sure the amount you eat is not the only way she has to measure your enjoyment.
(Tips: Rose Carr and Cindy Williams)

Date modified: 5 April 2017
First published: Apr 2008


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