How to Help Someone Make Positive Changes

This one is admittedly pretty tricky! It comes way too close to the “pushing them to make positive changes” boundary, which is almost guaranteed to make the person you’re pushing NOT want to make any changes at all.

I wish someone had told my mom about this when I was younger, because she pushed and pushed and PUSHED! Of course, every time she pushed me, I balked like a stubborn donkey and would not make any changes at all.  As easy as it would be to blame my mom for my unhealthy lifestyle lasting as long as it did, I can’t, because she was right that my lifestyle was completely and totally unhealthy but at the same time, it’s the old “lead a horse to water” scenario. The more she kept nagging me about it, the more I tuned her out and just plain got mad about it.  For most people, nagging does not work- it only makes people mad.  It certainly does for just about everyone in my family.  Angry people do not listen- they are too caught up in being angry!

But this also puts family members and friends in a bit of an awkward position.  Someone you care about is trying to make positive health changes, either losing weight or getting fitter (usually both) and you want to be supportive without being a nag.  What the heck do you do?  How does this change your relationship, if it even does?  Do you try to be supportive or do you pretend nothing has changed at all?  If you pretend nothing has changed, does that mean you’re not being supportive and being a bad friend?

I know it’s been a bit of a challenge for my friends, because most of our get-togethers revolve around food, as I’m sure most people’s do.  We get together for lunch, for movies, for festivals that usually have a lot of food involved, and of course they want to be supportive, but at the same time, they don’t want to get stuck eating salad after salad because of where we go to eat.  There are a couple of places that they really love that have absolutely delicious bad-for-you food.  If it’s not beer-battered and deep fried, it’s full of refined carbs and sugar.  There’s very little on those menus that fall in my eating plan.  Our normal plan of action is to choose a place on consensus, so if one of us has had sandwiches or Chinese all week and really wants something else, we figure it out, but sometimes, they really want to go to that Bad-for-You place, so I can either veto it or just lump it and make the best choices I can when I get there.  (It’s a struggle for us too- do we stop eating out with our friends or do we just go off the reservation each time we do? There’s always an adjustment for someone!)

Most of the time with my friends, it’s not a problem, because they are considerate about my eating changes and I’m not a freaked out drill sergeant when it comes to choices. If I know we are going to a place that doesn’t have the best choices, I make some adjustments beforehand, like not eating any carbs or not eating any fat or sometimes just not eating!  I meet my dad for lunch a couple of times a month and the place he likes best has a salad bar, which really works for me, but I also make it a habit not to have breakfast before we go, because I know I’m going to be having more calories than usual for lunch. Most of it is veggies, protein and some fat, which is what my breakfast and lunch would be on a normal day anyway; I just lump it into one meal when I see him.

This weekend is another example of eating out with my friends: we are having a pet play date, which means I drop my dog at their place and we go to lunch (usually after the rugrats are a little worn out and ready for a break).  Lunch can be anything and we usually pick the place when we meet up; it can be sandwiches, Mexican, Italian or Asian.  It usually depends on what they have been having all week, since my eating is pretty standard these days, and this time of year, “lunch” usually includes a run by Starbucks for a Pumpkin Spice Latte.

“We are now entering the ‘Adjustment Zone!'”

This process is really not that different from the way it’s always been: we ask if there’s anything anyone has really been wanting (for example, my friend & I are both big fans of KFC coleslaw, which is not that bad for you- yay!) or if there’s anything anyone really wants to avoid (like having had sandwiches three days in a row), so it’s generally a consensus and most of the places we go, I can choose something healthy or make healthier substitutions.  If it is one of those notoriously bad-for-you places, my choice is either lump it or veto it, and out of consideration, they don’t choose those places very often, and when they do, I usually choose to just lump it!

It’s a whole lot harder when you live with the people who are making healthy changes! I remember times when my mom had the fridge or cabinets full of her “diet food” and I know some of my fitness friends have a really hard time when their kids or their spouse (who are not making healthy changes) bring home things like cupcakes or candy or soda or decide they want pizza or Chinese for dinner. It’s hard to get excited about salad, steamed broccoli or rotisserie chicken when everyone else is having the stuffed crust meat lovers chased down with red velvet cupcakes! “Yay, I’m making a healthy choice” feels a lot more like missing out on those occasions.  This can be a really difficult situation for a lot of families, because you (as the “fitness fan”) can either veto the pizza/ Chinese/ tempting food (if that is an option- might be outvoted!), or you can watch everyone else eat it while you have your own healthy choices, or you can lump it and just eat what everyone else is eating and there goes that day’s healthy choices out the window! (I think a recent pizza commercial calls the vetoing salad lover ‘Sally Soul Smasher’- now that’s complimentary- eye roll!) But the choice is up to you.  There are some things that I am okay with watching everyone else eat because they don’t appeal to me and then there are some things that just sit there sending “I’m so yummy” messages right to my brain! (Ironically, I’m more tempted by yogurt than cake!)

As the Supportive Family Member (SFM), you really have a lot more options than the “fitness fan.”  The Fitness Fan (FF) can either eat it or not eat it (or veto it) and they have to make that internal struggle.  The SFM can always choose to eat the foods they love outside the house, not to eat it at all or to eat it all so there’s none left to tempt anyone else.  If you know there is something your FF really loves and struggles to avoid (like chocolate), then bringing home a box of chocolate bars can really be mean.  Admittedly, most people just do it without thinking- it never crosses their minds that what they are bringing home could present a temptation to the FF! And of course, this is where the problems start! For the FF, it could feel like an attack or like the rest of the family doesn’t care or “they want me to be fat!” and this is usually not the case. For kids especially, the whole issue of “is this something I shouldn’t bring home?” never comes into their heads unless someone has a severe allergy in their family, and even then they probably only think in terms of the allergy.  When someone has never tried to make concerted efforts to change their eating habits, the idea of “good food, bad food” is really the last thing they think about.  The store had a sale on their favorite ice cream so they brought it home.  They went by the market and brought home holiday cookies, or there were boy scouts selling caramel corn outside the post office so they bought a couple of bags.  For someone who is trying to eat better, all of these foods are possible trouble, but for everyone else, it’s not a big deal.  It’s easy for us FFs to roll our eyes and say, “yeah- YOU don’t have to worry about eating the whole box/ bag/ carton!” But to paraphrase a snarky comment, “since when does YOUR lack of willpower create a problem for me?” I remember a patient on My 600 lb Life saying she wished they could just close down all the bakeries so that way she couldn’t “hit them up,” and yeah, it would be nice if all the bad-for-you food were banned or rationed by the “Food Police,” but we all know that’s not an option!  So this is where the FF has to learn to bite the bullet instead of  the cupcakes. It really is their fight and as the SFM, all you can do is offer that help and support and try not to put too much temptation in their path, especially at first.  Ultimately, the FF has to learn to say no to things that aren’t in line with their goals, but like any habit, they get better with practice.  Once they start seeing results and the cravings go away (or become more manageable at least!), then they probably won’t freak out if you bring home the Costco gallon jug of Red Vines, but the first few weeks, that would probably cause a meltdown.

Now for a few words on keeping your mouth shut and FYI:  this goes for the FF and the SFM.  As I said at the beginning of this post, nagging and pushing are not conducive to cooperation.  As the FF, keep your mouth shut about whatever anyone else is eating and/ or doing!  Telling your loved ones that eating processed foods or using Splenda or binge-watching House of Cards while sprawled on the sofa for six hours is going to kill them is guaranteed to p*ss them off!  It does not promote positive change in the slightest! (My mom still nags about Splenda! eye roll!) IF they ask you about the changes you’re making, feel free to share it, but until they do, don’t push your new habits on them!  As for the SFM, keep your mouth shut whenever the FF goes off track.  If there are donuts in the house because of company and the FF indulges, remarking “I didn’t know donuts are on your diet!” is just going to encourage failure, not success.  It creates a sense of embarrassment, failure and defeat, and hopelessness.  If the FF asks “who wants to split a donut?” please volunteer!  If they are doing great and looking healthier or any other positive changes, please tell them how proud you are of their success! Nitpicking on how much they are eating or not eating, working out or not working out, falling off the wagon occasionally: these are more likely to be interpreted as criticism, not advice or encouragement.  IF the FF is acting in a manner you really think is unhealthy (ie starving themselves, or exercising way too much so they get sick) speaking up is most definitely warranted, but other than offering encouragement and helpful supportive suggestions (ie how about broccoli instead of salad today? you had salad all week!), the fewer comments the better.

It doesn’t have to be a difficult adjustment for everyone involved when someone in the family decides to make healthier choices.  Most difficulties come in the initial transition period but once it becomes a regular routine, things usually settle down.  For the SFMs, it means being a little more considerate about bringing the Halloween candy or other treats into the house and for the FFs, it means not freaking out when faced with temptation.  There is always the option to join them in making the healthy choices.  Being a diet or workout buddy can not only help both of you improve your health, but it can also be a fun way to strengthen the relationship.  It’s an extra step that is definitely not required! One of the common mistakes the FF often makes (especially as a parent or spouse) is to try to force everyone else to join them on the fitness bandwagon.  This is pretty much a guaranteed ‘epic fail’! (See above re: ‘nagging!’) Most of the heavy lifting falls on the Fitness Fan’s shoulders; your job as a Supportive Family Member is just to lend a hand when needed!

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