How Do I Help a Loved One Lose Weight?

Sherry Pagoto

You've embraced a healthy diet and physically active lifestyle -- but feel concerned that a loved one has not. You want to help but fear it's a sore subject. Is it worth bringing up or shutting up? The answer is: It depends. Check out these 10 suggestions for how to address a loved one's weight issue.

1. Does this person actually have a health issue? Just because a loved one seems overweight to you or you see him or her eating certain foods doesn't mean they have a health issue. Before expressing concern, find out more about his or her health by asking questions like, "How did it go with the doctor? How did your labs turn out?" People may become defensive (and rightly so!) if you assume they're unhealthy just by looking at them or their dinner order.

2. Speak for yourself. Instead of pointing out his or her "problem," tell your loved one you're worried, and be specific. One good habit is to always start sentences with "I", not "you." Try this: "I am so worried that the doctor said you have prediabetes. What can I do to help?" Not this: "You've gained a lot of weight. More exercise would help a lot." Concern should be conveyed with love, not criticism or demands.

3. Be a positive consequence. Behavior is strongly affected by consequences. Our only real power to affect others' behavior is via our reactions to them, because our reactions are their consequences. Provide genuine positive feedback when your loved one has a healthy accomplishment, no matter how small. "Wow, mom, you've been walking a ton this week!" Your loved one could probably use a cheerleader, and that should be you.

4. "You should so come with!" Invite your loved one to join you in a healthy activity. Ask your sister to sign up for a 5K walk with you, or suggest bowling on a night when you would normally watch movies. Be thoughtful about your loved one's activity level, though -- don't invite a sedentary loved one to sign up for a triathlon. Being active together is a great way to enjoy the time you spend together.

5. Give healthy gifts. When it comes time for a birthday or other holiday, buy your loved one a healthy gift that he or she would enjoy. For example, instead of flowers, go with a fruit basket. Instead of a gift card to a high-calorie restaurant, buy one for a healthy grocery store. If mom loves to dance, buy her a free private lesson. The gift should resonate with your loved one's interests. For example, a set of exercise DVDs might feel more like a hint than a gift.

6. Be careful about mixed messages. Be sure not to express concern about a loved one's health and then take her out to a buffet dinner, bring junk food over or complain about watching the kids when she's at the gym. This will passively undermine your efforts.

7. Understand the challenges. Even though you conquered your challenges, your loved one may have different challenges and hasn't quite conquered them yet. When someone isn't making healthy changes, we often assume he's just choosing not to, but his experience might be more difficult than you think. Offer to listen, empathize with the challenges and only provide input if requested.

8. Go the other way. Most people who would like to live a healthier lifestyle but don't follow through have had a hard time getting started. This state of wanting but not doing is ambivalence. Trying to convince an ambivalent person to "just do it!" may just push him or her further away from doing it. If they're of the mind, "I know exercise is good for me, but it's hard to make time," then you saying, "But you really should be exercising!" may push them to explain further why it is so hard. Instead, shift your perspective. Try showing understanding for their ambivalence by saying, "Sounds like you're pretty busy, and it's going to be tough to fit it in. Maybe now is not a good time?" An ambivalent person will likely come back with reasons why they can do it, "No, I'm just making excuses I can make the time. I need to stop staying so late at work."

9. Cease and desist counterproductive efforts. Nagging ("Have you exercised yet today?), passive aggression ("Are you going to eat that?!"), lectures ("Exercise is important because...") and scare tactics ("Do you know how awful diabetes is?") are not only ineffective, but they typically result in resentment. You may even trigger defiant behavior such that the person will be more resistant to change or intentionally go against your wishes to spite you.

10. Let it go. If the conversation is causing you or your loved one stress, it isn't healthy. Showing concern and support is great, but know when to let it go. Nothing is worth destroying the time you have together.

Dr. Sherry Pagoto is an Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and co-founder of the UMass Center for mHealth and Social Media. Her research, which has been federally funded for 13 years, is focused on obesity treatment, diabetes prevention and cancer prevention. She has published 119 papers in peer-reviewed journals and a book on the intersection between physical and mental health. Her research has been featured in major media outlets including CNN, Good Morning America, NBC News, ABC News, Time Magazine and National Public Radio. She is also on the board of directors of the Society of Behavioral Medicine. She is actively involved in social media, having started the #plankaday community on Twitter. Get fit and healthy by following her at @DrSherryPagoto.