Sometimes we make hurtful comments to our friends without realizing it — even when it comes to dieting and weight. Being overweight increases a person’s risk for multiple diseases and often negatively impacts their quality of life. However, though you might mean well, your words can do just as much damage.
Here’s what you shouldn’t say to anyone who is overweight — and what you can actually do instead to help.
‘You’re putting your health at risk …’
What you’re assuming: Their doctor, mother, and closest friend hasn’t already told them the same thing 400 times.
Being overweight is risky. The National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute says being overweight or obese puts you at risk for metabolic syndrome, diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer. But most people aren’t unaware of the consequences of their weight. Reminding them they’re at risk for disease doesn’t usually help them change their minds, though. It’s likely they’ve heard the same thing many times before, and have long since stopped listening.
‘If you just ate right and worked out more …’
What you’re assuming: Their eating/fitness habits are their only barriers to maintaining a healthy weight.
What someone eats and how active they are (or aren’t) only partially contributes to their weight. Someone could have an invisible health condition, like PCOS or irritable bowel syndrome, that’s making them gain weight uncontrollably. Also keep in mind that not everyone who eats healthy and exercises loses weight — these solutions might not work for your friend, family member, or the stranger next to you in line.
‘Have you tried … ?’
What you’re assuming: They haven’t tried to change their behavior — or that they want to.
Chances are, yes — they have. And if they haven’t, they probably have a reason for avoiding it. Many diet plans — especially fad diets — just don’t work. Trying a new trend that’s guaranteed to fail can be discouraging, especially if someone has tried many before your new suggestion. Plus, someone who is overweight might not be interested in losing weight, even if you think they should be.
‘Are you sure you want to eat that?’
What you’re assuming: They aren’t aware the foods they’re eating are unhealthy.
Most people aren’t completely oblivious to the quality of their food. Pointing out others’ “unhealthy” food choices doesn’t make them any less likely to eat what makes them feel comfortable. You’re likely hurting more than you’re helping, and that’s not OK. Judging someone else’s food choices, especially when they’re trying to eat healthier, can ruin their diet — and self-esteem. It’s not your choice — it’s theirs.
‘You’d look so good if you lost a few pounds.’
What you’re assuming: Being overweight defines a person’s beauty or worth.
Yes, being overweight can be dangerous. No, it’s not OK to ignore the health risks. But it’s also unacceptable to criticize the way someone looks because of their weight, no matter how indirect. Eating disorder specialist, Jennifer Rollin, reminds us that you don’t know how comments like these can impact a person psychologically — you don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes. Echoing the negative things a person might already be thinking about themselves doesn’t encourage them to make healthy choices. It can make it even harder to do so.
‘You just need willpower to get healthy.’
What you’re assuming: Willpower is all a person needs to completely change their life.
According to the American Psychological Association, for many, willpower simply isn’t enough to promote long-lasting behavior change. Beliefs and attitudes play major roles in adopting healthier habits, but there are external factors that can stand in the way. It can take a long time to develop self-control and change behaviors, and some people just can’t do this without professional help.
Here’s how you can actually help
If you genuinely want to support someone trying to lose weight, take on the role of a cheerleader, not a coach. WebMD suggests cheering them on when they’re succeeding or feeling discouraged — not criticizing what they’re doing wrong. It also helps to actively participate in their journey, offering to try new foods with them, head to the gym a few times a week, and actively listen — but never judge. Offer your support and make yourself available, but don’t push them when they aren’t ready for change.