Alyce Cornyn-Selby vividly remembers her husband’s response when she told him she wanted to lose weight: He brought home a deep-dish pizza. “It is extremely difficult to watch your spouse eat pizza and not have any of it,” says the 64-year-old author from Portland, Ore. “That smell is intoxicating, and pizza—everything, really—was a trigger food for me.” Mr. Helpful soon stepped up his efforts by assuring his wife, who at the time was about 100 pounds overweight, that she was fine the way she was. When she’d make a lean, healthful dinner, he’d tell her she was going to “get sick eating like that.” If she balked, he would say, “You’re so grouchy when you diet!”
It is a tale all too familiar to registered dietitian Jim White, RD, ACSM/HFS, owner of Jim White Fitness and Nutrition Studios in Virginia Beach, who says diet sabotage is a common occurrence for RDs who work with clients who are trying to lose weight. “A client will start seeing results and the partner gets a little insecure,” says White. “I’ve had clients whose partners have said, ‘You look too skinny’ or ‘You need to stop losing weight,’ when in truth, they still have a good amount to lose.”
Why People Who Should Be Supportive May Sabotage Instead
According to Edward Abramson, PhD, professor emeritus of psychology at California State University-Chico and author of Body Intelligence: Lose Weight, Keep It Off and Feel Great About Your Body Without Dieting (McGraw Hill 2006), when one person in a relationship makes a commitment to become healthier and the other does not, the equilibrium changes and this often can lead to conflict or drama.
Particularly in a dynamic that nurtures bad habits, that extra weight serves an emotional function, Abramson explains. For example, take a husband who drinks too much, comes home late one night smelling of alcohol, and his wife, who is overweight, complains. “He can counter with, ‘Who are you to talk? You say you’re on a diet but you ate cake yesterday.’ Now they’re even,” says Abramson. “But if she loses weight, it’s incumbent upon him to stop drinking.”
Guilt about one’s own health can be another issue. “Some people sabotage because they feel badly if they themselves are overweight or unhealthy,” says registered dietitian Lalita Kaul, PhD, RD, LDN, professor of nutrition at Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, D.C. “If one person starts to exercise, then the other one may feel pressured to exercise, too.”
Abramson agrees. “If they don’t feel like exercising, they may decide it would be easier for them to get their partner to stop than for them to start,” he says.
Spouses aren’t the only family members who can wreak havoc on weight loss. Jaye Yaruss, of Orange County, Calif., has to contend with a mother-in-law who lavishes her family with multicourse feasts featuring brisket, chicken, roast beef, starchy side dishes and dessert. Yaruss, who has struggled with obesity for more than three decades, once broke down and begged, “You have to stop stuffing us!” Her mother-in-law’s reply was, “You can never deprive me of the opportunity to show you my love.”
Today Show nutritionist, private practitioner and registered dietitian Joy Bauer, RD, who estimates that more than half her clients have been confronted with saboteur loved ones, says most of the time it is without malice. “To a lot of people, food is love,” says Bauer. “It may not be that they want you to fail or want to jack up your cholesterol. Food is their way of pampering you with love and sunshine.”
But not all saboteurs come from such a well-intentioned place. According to White, the ultimate saboteurs are friends—and women can be much more effective than men. “They’ll make passive-aggressive comments, perhaps out of jealousy, or ask, ‘Why don’t you live a little bit?’ when their weight-conscious friend steers clear of the group’s nacho appetizer,” he says.
Reality TV personality Ruby Gettinger, whose weight-loss journey is the subject of Style Network’s highest-rated show “Ruby,” has faced such “frienemy” tactics. “I’ve had friends say, ‘You look good right now. You should stop losing weight,’” says Gettinger, who shed nearly 400 pounds from a high of 716 pounds. “I don’t get it. It’s almost like misery loves company.”
“It feels less self-destructive when someone else also is participating in a bad habit,” explains Bauer. “If I’m lusting for an ice cream sundae, I’ll feel less guilty if my best friend shares it with me. Plus, it’s more fun!”
Science seems to back this behavior: In a 2007 New England Journal of Medicine study, researchers found having an overweight friend makes an individual 57 percent more likely to pack on pounds, while having an obese spouse increases the odds of being overweight by 37 percent.
So What’s a Dieter To Do?
When it comes to avoiding would-be saboteurs, Kaul advises clients to begin by keeping their weight loss intentions under wraps. “You don’t need to announce, ‘I’m on a diet!’ The moment you do, it sets you up for failure.” Besides giving food pushers a signal to sabotage, says Kaul, such a proclamation can be misconstrued as a holier-than-thou attitude or arouse guilty feelings in others if they, too, should be improving their health—all of which can challenge a saboteur to seduce even harder.
For handling an individual who’s pushing tempting treats, Kaul recommends a friendly but firm, No, thank you. But in the case of a particularly relentless saboteur, a client may need to speak up.
“When they’re in the midst of a situation in which everyone is pushing them to eat, that is when they have to lay it on the table,” says Bauer, recalling a client whose circle of girlfriends had well-established traditions like splitting giant brownie sundaes or meeting for drinks during Happy Hour after work.
Bauer’s advice: Confront, but don’t be confrontational. “Instead,” she says, “say something like, ‘Trust me, I would love to eat that, but it’s only been a few weeks into my plan and I’m trying so hard. I’m begging you, please don’t egg me on because you know I will cave!’ ”
Within the delicate dynamic of a marriage, Abramson says it is essential to separate weight issues from marital issues: “They’ll need to say in a calm, non-confrontational way, ‘I’m confused. You tell me you support me, but then you bring home chocolate’ or ‘If you don’t want to exercise, that’s your business, but it is necessary for me to lose weight to improve my health. I need you to be supportive, or at least I ask that you not try to undermine my efforts.’ ”
Dieters are not the only ones who need positive reinforcement, according to registered dietitian Katherine Tallmadge, MS, RD, LD, owner of Personalized Nutrition in Washington, D.C., and author of Diet Simple (LifeLine Press 2002). She suggests praising healthier options being served by family and friends. Instead of bemoaning the fat content of the fried calamari, fawn over the grilled fish. Rather than groan, “No dessert for me... I’ve already gained five pounds from this meal,” try saying, “Dinner was so delicious, I can’t have another bite!”
Avoiding the Scope-Creep into Mental Health Services
While registered dietitians are experts in food, nutrition and health, and many of the psychological motivators behind sabotage may seem obvious, it is crucial to stay within your scope of practice, says the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ director of quality management Sharon McCauley, MS, MBA, RD, LDN, FADA.
“An RD should take an integrative approach and can suggest effective behavioral modifications for managing diet sabotage, but you need to make sure your advice doesn’t wander into the realms of psychotherapy or clinical social work,” says McCauley. For example, it might be acceptable to suggest a client surrounds himself or herself with more positive role models, but offering marital advice or trying to solely manage a dangerously detrimental situation crosses into the territory of another kind of therapy.
The most extreme cases seem the stuff of urban legend, such as the March 31 death of a morbidly obese man in Bellaire, Ohio, who had to be cut out of his home after he was found unconscious. According to local news outlets, the man—whose skin reportedly had fused to the fabric of a chair he had not left in two years—had roommates, including a girlfriend who had been feeding him.
However, the line in the sand between nutrition intervention and psychotherapy may not always be crystal clear. In those cases, there are a number of resources available to RDs.
“Scope of practice has two components: legal and individual,” says McCauley. “The first step is to check your state licensure laws, which should have pretty well-defined guidelines. In the second step, which deals with individual scope, RDs must determine their own level of practice whether it be ‘competent,’ ‘proficient’ or ‘expert.’ Refer to your standards of practice and standards of professional performance for registered dietitians, which are available for various areas of practice.”
ADA’s Code of Ethics also features a number of case studies to help determine when a client’s challenges may require expertise of another discipline. If your client’s saboteur persists despite several level-headed attempts to communicate, there are likely underlying issues which need to be addressed and the best move is to refer them to psychologists or family therapists—professionals licensed to provide mental health services in 50 states and the District of Columbia.
“It’s hard to pinpoint because each state is going to have its own statute,” says Lee Greenwood, JD, attorney for the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, “but what I tell our members is that if you feel like [the conversation] is moving beyond your area of expertise or what you are trained for, it is probably time to refer the client to another professional.”
McCauley agrees. “Ask yourself, ‘Am I qualified to provide this level of service?’ ” she says. “Because you do not want to inadvertently creep into another professional’s scope of practice and risk your license, certification, registration—or worse.”
“It’s a very fine line when it comes to us RDs. We’re life coaches in a way, building client confidence and both physical and emotional strength,” says White. “If we think they need psychological help or counseling, we have to refer them out to mental health or relationship specialists. But for more typical threats to their weight loss, such as an unsupportive spouse or peer, we can offer suggestions to help them navigate through it.”
White begins each new client relationship by asking about people in the support network and makes a point during initial consultation to discuss that, in addition to the many positive experiences that comes with improving health, there is a potential for negative reactions in some relationships.
“We have some clients going through divorces right now and it’s horrible to see happening, but there are a lot of factors and it’s important to remember that improving health does not break up marriages,” says White. “Usually it’s that the clients gain enough confidence in themselves to either address issues that were there all along or leave a relationship if it is not healthy for them.”
As for Cornyn-Selby and her pizza-wielding saboteur husband, she has maintained her 100-pound weight loss for 30 years and recently was featured in AARP.com’s Six Word Memoir section (“husband’s pizza sabotage; lost weight anyway”). But her success came at a price: they eventually divorced.
“Looking back, he was afraid I would lose weight and become a threat, but I didn’t have enough knowledge at the time to sit down and say to him, ‘Look, you are sabotaging me because you are afraid,’ ”says Cornyn-Selby, who has since written What’s Your Sabotage? The Last Word in Overcoming Self Sabotage (Beynch Press 1999).
But plenty of saboteur situations that may start out shaky have happy endings. Take the young lady whose best friends enjoyed living it up together over Happy Hour cocktails and nacho platters: With some coaching from Bauer, she asked for her comrades’ support—and went on to lose 25 pounds.
“They still stayed party girls and went out and had fun, and she was able to go along, too,” says Bauer. “She never asked them to join her in trying to get healthy. It wasn’t until a year later that one of those girlfriends, after seeing her succeed, asked her how she could get started in losing weight herself.”
“When you decide to take on something like losing weight and getting healthy, you have to do it within your life,” says Bauer. “This was her life. They were all best friends and they still are best friends!”