After dodging her bathroom scale for years, Erica Lugo, a mom in Centerville, OH, finally made herself hop on and was shocked to see the needle fly past 300 pounds. "I knew I was eating and sitting too much, but I had no idea it had gone that far," she says. So she got serious, following a lean-protein diet and lacing up her sneakers day after day. About six months in, she had lost 60 pounds — plus a few other things she hadn't banked on. Gone were a handful of friends and any hope of peaceful family gatherings.
Before, when she would attempt — and quickly abandon — new diets, her buddies were full of encouragement. Yet the second she became disciplined, skipping the long nights out eating and drinking with pals, she got pushback. "My friends would pressure me: 'Just one bad weekend isn't going to hurt you!' 'A few drinks won't do any harm!' They couldn't seem to understand that my priorities had changed, so I had to stop hanging out with some of them."
Her family's attitude wasn't much better. "I'd go over to my mother's house for dinner and everyone would be eating pizza and brownies, so I'd bring chicken and brown rice. I'd get stares and pointed comments, and my mom said I made the others feel uncomfortable. I couldn't believe it. I'm saving my own life — why would anyone make that harder for me?"
That's a question many people find themselves asking when they try to pull off a major health improvement. Decide to eat better, work out more, cut down on drinking, or quit smoking and you'd think a cheering squad would be there to boost you up. It might, but odds are that you'll also bump into underminers — people who undercut your efforts to reach a goal, like the sister who piles your plate with ribs after you tell her you're giving up meat, or the work bestie who keeps inviting you on smoke breaks when you're finally hell-bent on quitting.
Human nature is partly to blame for the sabotage we sometimes experience. We're social creatures, and when it comes to our health, we tend to hang out with others who are just as fit or slothful as we are. Not only that, but experts believe we work to keep those relationship ecologies in check, whether we're conscious of it or not. So when you're trying to lose weight, for example, your friends are invested in keeping you at the table, eating along with them. The tighter your bond, the more determined the underminer.
Minnesota realtor Joslyn Solomon would agree, because she once crossed over to the underminers' side. She and her husband had both packed on some serious pounds, juggling work demands and two young kids. "Then one day, it was as if a lightbulb came on for him, and he was like, 'I don't want to do this anymore,' " she recalls. Companionable evenings together disappeared as he started hitting the gym and gave up foods they'd both enjoyed. Solomon found herself objecting to his workouts, complaining that they cut into family time and demanding to know why he was so eager to get in shape in the first place. "I would ask him, who was he trying to impress?" she recalls. "I knew I was being irrational, but change can be hard."
The pop psych approach to dealing with underminers is pretty brutal: Just ditch 'em. But our social circles tend to include family members and other undumpable loved ones. The real-world solution, then, is to make like a Boy Scout and be prepared. The pros we spoke to — from MD's to personal trainers and nutritionists — will get you ready to handle health haters with grace and resolve, never forgetting that they actually love you. First, let's review some of their top tactics.
1. They Make Snarky Comments
We all know snide when we hear it: the immature boyfriend who says you're looking a little too muscly now that you've been working out or the "straight-talking" aunt who tells you you're way too out of shape to run a marathon. Don't let these comments fly. That passive aggression could take a toll on your new habit and your general well-being. Studies suggest that when people attempt a health shift but don't get support from their personal networks, they have a harder time making the changes stick. And the stress of dealing with your blockhead boyfriend or mean-girl aunt is real. When researchers suited up 100 test subjects with blood pressure monitors and tracked their daily interactions, they found that the most negative spikes weren't during participants' encounters with people they didn't like but with their sharp-edged friends, whose catty wisecracks made them feel defensive.
How to handle it: If you haven't already, take the underminer aside and let her know that her comments are hurtful — but don't be surprised if it takes a while to sink in. A long-term study of couples showed that when people brought up thorny relationship issues with their partners, they often felt it didn't work right away. But over time, those heart-to-hearts effectively changed behavior. After Lugo talked to her mother about why sticking to her meal plan mattered, Mom came around. And gradually, Solomon not only accepted her husband's fitness routine, she started joining him at the gym. But let's say you've been trying to stop the undercutting for 20 years and it hasn't worked yet. In that case, New York-based nutritionist Amy Stephens tells her clients to focus on their own intentions instead. Why is jogging three days a week important to you? Get clear on that and it'll be easier to let little comments roll off you — just like those bad habits you're trying to shed.
2. They Shove Temptation Under Your Nose
After being diagnosed with high blood pressure, Atlanta writer TaLynn Kel started watching her calories. So when a friend, who'd been clued in to Kel's new regimen, surprised her with her favorite chocolate cake, Kel wasn't delighted; she was incensed. It's easy to fly off the handle in situations like this, but when food is involved, there might be more at play than just tone deafness. Research shows that changes in diet are more likely to create friction than changes in activity, and there's a reason for that: Food is woven into our culture and our relationships. "Eating is how we socialize, how we celebrate, how we comfort ourselves and each other," says Krista Ranby, PhD, the head of the Healthy Couples Lab at the University of Colorado Denver. A 2016 study even found that strangers who ate the same types of snacks trusted and cooperated with each other more. Which is great if you've fallen in with a crew of quinoa fans but less so if the folks you love do all their bonding over pepperoni pies and $10 pitchers.
How to handle it: While Kel and her bud were able to talk things out, it's preferable to head off moments like this before they happen. Cardiologist Malissa Wood, MD, coauthor of Thinfluence: Thin-flu-ence (noun) the Powerful and Surprising Effect Friends, Family, Work, and Environment Have on Weight, suggests something she calls "clearing yourself for takeoff." Essentially, you sidestep temptation for the first few months while you're forming new habits. "That could mean not going out as much or seeing your friends less often — but just until all the changes you've made are fully rooted," she explains. Once that happens, you'll find it easier to (calmly) reject the cupcake but not the friend who proffers it.
3. They Isolate You
It's especially jarring when an underminer freezes you out after you take the healthier route. Suddenly, there's a family barbecue no one invited you to or a friend's brunch you weren't told about. ("We figured you'd be working out," they say.) Why the radio silence? According to behavioral scientists' social comparison theory, we tend to measure ourselves against others, and seeing someone else do the health-conscious thing while we don't can make us feel bad. "Someone else's 'right' choice can feel like a judgment of your 'wrong' one," says Rebecca Reczek, PhD, a consumer psychologist at the Ohio State University. So a brother who hasn't been able to quit smoking may struggle with your success — and feel awful about his disgruntlement, too.
How to handle it: Be careful not to evangelize too loudly about your new lifestyle — other people may not be ready to hear about it. Kel admits that once she began losing weight, it was her favorite topic of conversation. "Worse, I became the calorie and exercise police, criticizing other people's choices," she says. "I just wanted to pass on these wonderful discoveries I had made. But actually, I was kind of a jerk."
A better idea? Share your epiphanies with a crowd that will appreciate them, even if it's online. When Gigi Ghobrial, a web graphic designer in La Mirada, CA, started getting fit, strangers following her Instagram account gave her kudos that helped her keep going. In scenarios involving less health-inspired friends, you can play up what researchers call mirroring — basically, a kind of mimicry that makes eating companions feel closer. "At the barbecue joint, you can order a double portion of salad," Wood suggests. "Then you'll be eating the whole time, just as they are, and your friends will feel that you're a part of things."
Nancy Korf, a fitness trainer in Portland, OR, figured out her own work-around for when she visits her Italian grandmother-in-law. She takes a small piece of lasagna and makes a big show of eating it. "For her, food is love," Korf says. "So with every bite I take, I tell her how much I love it, and that gives her what she needs." Korf isn't beyond a little stagecraft, either. "I spread sauce around the plate to make it look like I ate more than I actually did," she says. "It's sneaky, but it works!"
Get Ready to Bob and Weave
Accommodate: When Erica Lugo's mom told her she was making everyone else feel awkward by bringing her own food to family dinners, Lugo went into defensive mode. "I told her I was doing what was right for my health," she says. For a while she bowed out of family gatherings altogether, but as time went on and she started feeling more secure in her new routine, she learned to be more flexible. "Now when I'm invited to a cookout, I'll make the host's favorite dish — only healthier and with fewer calories. So she's comfortable, and I'm showing her that she can eat delicious food and be healthy."
Outsmart 'Em: Your husband tells you in no uncertain terms that just because you want to eat healthier doesn't mean he's going to, and insists on loading the freezer with ice cream. Instead of begging him to give up the sweet stuff, ask him to buy single portions, or proactively buy him ice cream in flavors that don't appeal to you. You hate coconut but he doesn't? Perfect.
Look Ahead: One of Nancy Korf's fitness clients was a saleswoman whose work involved lots of nighttime socializing. "It wasn't that easy for her to turn down drinks or appetizers," she says. So Korf showed her how to preplan those evenings. "I'd have her look at the menu before going, and tell her to make sure she always had seltzer with lemon in her hand. That way, when someone said, 'Can I get you something from the bar?' she could lift it and say, 'All set!'"
This story originally appeared in the January/February 2017 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.
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