When Others Sabotage Our Intentions for Healthy Eating and Exercise

mohd izzuan | iStock

mohd izzuan | iStock

The research is clear. When someone is trying to make some healthy changes to manage their weight, the role of social support for the effort is critical. Changing habits and behaviors around food consumption and exercise to make long-term health gains is not easy. Many begin the process with trepidation, often wondering if they can really pull it off.

Having a social network that offers caring, reinforcement of self-esteem, and a buffer to potential surrounding stressors or negativity is so important. When possible, so is material support, such as helping with shopping, cooking, or even child care (so the person can find time to exercise and do food planning).

Ways that support can fail

But such is very often not the case. Even if some of our friends or family are on our side, chances are very high that many of the people around us will not be supportive. There could be a number of reasons for this.

In broad terms, people like the status quo. They like to know what to expect and how things roll. They may like the idea of doing get-togethers a certain way. It may also be that some feel guilty about not making the effort themselves, and so may choose to throw verbal bombs that do not support the person’s new choices. Or, they may feel that their way of doing things is being threatened, and continue to push those old ways.

A recent review article (April 2023) in Current Obesity Reports proposed a new model that describes how negative support can be categorized, and therefore recognized for what it is.

The article separates out three ways that negative support can play out.

  1. The act of sabotage. This can show up as being discouraging of healthy eating, being critical, or not supporting new efforts to exercise. This can show up in comments like, “What are you trying to do THIS time?” “I hope you don’t expect ME to eat like that!” or “The gym is too expensive.”
  2. Being a feeder. Some people who provide food for others see it as a sign of love, being a good provider or gracious host, or a sign of plenty that should not go to waste. This can encourage eating in response to external cues, or setting up a habit of emotional eating. Communications can look like: “Don’t waste food/clean your plate.” “We love this restaurant because we can gorge; it’s all you can eat!” or “I’m sorry you feel bad. Let’s go out for ice cream.”
  3. Collusion. This is when those around the person making changes try to avoid conflict. When the person trying to make changes is doing things that are not in line with their new goals, there is silence, which can be taken for approval. The person keeping silent may feel they are being kind and supportive, but it is really an avoidance of the topic. A bit of denial may also be going on here. Or the person doesn’t know how to point out a “backsliding” behavior without seeming like they are nagging.

With all these potential ways that social support can be eroded, little wonder that changing some behaviors to lose weight and be healthier can be like walking through a minefield.

Dealing with a lack of support

A study published in 2017 explored how people who had lost, on average, 76.9 pounds, had dealt with the lack of support around them. Interestingly, the tactics used fell into two categories.

One was designed to help the people around them “save face” or not feel uncomfortable with the new lifestyle choices. In this case, those making healthier changes would explain their new behaviors, and make it clear that they were not judging anyone for not doing the same.

The other was to do “damage control” in a variety of situations. This took the form of going under the radar by eating smaller portions of unhealthy foods being offered, accepting food but not eating it, or calling an evening out with friends their “cheat day” so they could go along with the crowd.

It’s not clear how often these particular tactics were employed, but what is clear is that both were widely used.

Sorting it out

I would have to venture that the first tactic, that of declaring their intentions, is the most active, upfront, approach. The other, doing “damage control” so that the person appears to be going along with the crowd, is obviously more covert. In this case, those in the vicinity may never be aware of what lifestyle changes the person is making. In addition, the second approach, while partially effective, may be more damaging to the person’s self-esteem since it is a more passive way to go.

Perhaps there is one more way to deal with a possible negative environment, or even an indifferent one. That would be for the person making changes to declare and describe what will be their “new normal.” This gives the people around them a heads up so they can set expectations. Further explanation could entail what changes are going to be made, and why it is important to them.

This approach has the added advantage of reinforcing the focus and resolve of the one making changes. Becoming comfortable with a “new normal” is a vital step in the process, and puts changes in the category of lifestyle adjustments rather than a temporary fix.

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