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When dieting, “friends and family can get in the way” and “can be another barrier,” says Lynsey Romo, an assistant professor at North Carolina State University.

Losing weight and keeping it off is a challenge, and a new study has turned up an unexpected obstacle.

“Friends and family can get in the way of successful dieting. They can be another barrier, especially if they feel threatened or jealous,” said Lynsey Romo, an assistant professor of communication at North Carolina State University.

Romo is the lead author of a new paper that examined how the people around you may consciously or subconsciously sabotage your healthy eating efforts.

“Many times, when someone loses weight, that person’s efforts are undermined by friends, family or co-workers. This study found that people experience a ‘lean stigma’ after losing weight, such as receiving snide remarks about healthy eating habits or having people tell them that they’re going to gain all of the weight back,” Romo said.

About the study

For the study, Romo conducted 40 in-depth interviews with people who reported themselves as having been overweight or obese but considered themselves thin at the time of the interview. Twenty-one of the study participants were women, 19 were men, and the participants reported an average weight loss of 76.9 pounds.

Surprisingly, every study participant encountered similar issues.

“All 40 of the study participants reported having people in their lives try to belittle or undermine their weight-loss efforts,” Romo said.

The study also revealed that dieters were able to use specific communication strategies to cope with these outside pressures and maintain both their weight loss and their personal relationships, Romo said.

The communication strategies fell into two different categories. The first category focused on study participants helping other people “save face,” or not feel uncomfortable about the study participant’s weight loss and healthy eating habits. The second category focused on damage control: participants finding ways to mitigate discomfort people felt about an individual’s weight loss and related lifestyle changes.

For example, when confronted with birthday cake in the workplace, a successful dieter may accept the treat then announce the intention to take it back to his office to eat or save it for later, but really not consume it. The goal is to be a part of the group rather than stand out, Romo said.

Other techniques used to avoid discomfort included telling other people about one’s intentions and rationale before losing weight. Study participants also reported taking steps to conceal the scope of their lifestyle changes, such as eating smaller portions of unhealthy foods at family gatherings or saving their “cheat day” for a night out with friends.

Importance of communication

People often made excuses for changes in behavior.

“Study participants would go out of their way to make clear that they were not judging other people’s choices,” Romo says. “For example, participants would stress that they had changed their eating habits for health reasons, or in order to have more energy.

“Overall, the study highlights how important relationships are to making sustainable lifestyle changes — and the importance of communication in how we navigate those relationships.”

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