Weekly Column_120 / August 16, 2012

Lose Weight with a Little Help From Your Friends

By Charles Platkin, PhD

In actuality, social support means the opposite. It’s having your family, friends and/or community facilitate you — to help yourself lose weight.

Essentially, there are two types of group support. Research has shown that we can benefit from participating in an organized social support group (i.e., self-help groups such as meetings at churches, community halls, or even commercial weight loss centers), and by having the support of family and friends.

In fact, the city of Philadelphia is a great example of how providing social support led to weight loss for participating citizens. About 3 years ago, Mayor John Street set up a health and fitness initiative in response to Philadelphia being named “America’s Fattest City” by a national magazine.

Philadelphia’s “Health and Fitness Czar,” Gwen Foster, M.P.H., created “Fun, Fit, and Free,” a citywide program focusing on group support as its primary mission. Her concept, “We are all stronger, smarter, and richer than one of us,” was the driving force behind the program. With the backing of Mayor Street (who at one time weighed in at 300 pounds), Foster’s office set up more than 200 social support group centers in hospitals, churches, synagogues, and even at City Hall. According to Foster, the average participant successfully lost 5.3 pounds.

Timothy Patton, R.D., M.P.H., professor of public health at Florida International University, reports that support from a community can provide many psychosocial advantages including:

  • Emotional sharing: It provides a shoulder to lean on and an ear to listen.
  • Empowerment, encouragement and motivation: A group is more than just the sum of its parts — 1 plus 1 equals 3. Group members can be more successful together than any of them would be on their own.
  • Mentoring, problem solving and coaching: It helps to talk to people who have been through a similar experience.
  • Networking and sharing of information: People in a support system can tell each other about the latest and greatest information — a new diet book, a healthy recipe, etc.

Now what about support from family and friends?

Well, imagine trying to lose weight while your husband, wife, family or friends are constantly trying to get you to eat fattening things. They may try to convince you, “It’s okay to eat that — it’s your birthday, anniversary, the weekend (or any excuse).”

Or perhaps they keep telling you, “You’re fine just the way you are,” and don’t need to lose weight. Your so-called “support group” may not want to see you “suffer” through yet another diet. They may even be trying to sabotage your efforts because they are jealous of your newfound goals, or feel guilty because they have not made the same choice towards a healthier lifestyle that you have.

On the other hand, study after study has shown how solid family and social networks can positively influence your health. It’s not a leap of faith to infer that strong support from family and friends brings “an increase in self-confidence by validating the individual’s choice to lose weight, a reduction in overall stress, and increased attention to achieving the overall goal,” says New York City Nutritionist Shira Isenberg, R.D.

In fact, having a weight loss “buddy” can help in the battle of the bulge. A study authored by Rena R. Wing, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University, found that friends who followed a weight loss program together lost more weight and were more likely to complete their diet program and maintain their weight loss.

Among those in the study who dieted alone, 76% completed their program and 24% maintained their weight loss during the 4 to 10 month study period. However, of the group that dieted with the social support of friends (which included group cooperation as well as having team competition between other groups in the program), 95% completed their program and 66% maintained their weight loss in full.

So what should you do to improve your social network for maximum weight loss?

Look for organized meetings in your area that discuss and share weight loss issues. See if your community has any type of organized event. If not, maybe you should start one.

Try to encourage friends and family to eat healthier without being a “nag.” Come up with creative ideas, possibly even having different “weight-loss” teams competing for some big prize for the group that loses the most weight. If you can manage to change your environment, meaning get your spouse, family and friends to change their habits, this can have a positive impact on your health behavior. Think about it — if you don’t have bags of cookies lying around the house, fast food meals being waved in front of you, or large-scale Italian dinners tempting you to move off your newfound healthy behaviors — oh, how much easier it would be to shed those unwanted pounds.

If you’re not the primary food preparer in your household, offer to help out with shopping for healthier foods and planning lower calorie menus. If you dine out frequently, do some research on your favorite restaurants and try some lower calorie menu alternatives.

It wouldn’t hurt to make a few new friends that are health and fitness conscious. Mind you, I’m not saying replace your old friends — just find a few that don’t carry that extra doughnut in their briefcase or purse. A critical factor in your potential for successful weight loss is the company you keep — that is, other people within your social environment. You need to examine whether your spouse, family, partner, friends, and colleagues eat poorly and/or are sedentary. If they do, you might want to widen (no pun intended) your social circle.

Look on the Internet — there are many organized, quality message boards with free group support.

Try to find your own weight loss buddy at a gym, community, or church group, someone in a similar situation that is attempting to lose weight. Or look for websites that offer secure “buddy boards.”

If your friends and family are “poor eaters” and don’t exercise, be prepared. Think about your behaviors in advance. For example, if they typically recommend eating at fast food restaurants, you should become familiar with the healthier options these places offer — and mentally prepare yourself to order from that side of the menu.

Sit down with your family and discuss with them, using reason, why it’s critical for you to lose weight. Explain that they don’t have to modify their way of life, but they should at least support your objective. Just make sure it’s clear you don’t want them watching all your food choices like a hawk. I don’t know about your family, but that could start an all out war in mine.

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