Your worst weight loss enemy may be sitting at the table with you

Laura Tedesco

What others say about your body and eating habits matters — much more than we thought. (Photo: Getty Images)

Feeling good about your body may be the push you need to slim down. Women whose loved ones reassure them about their size are more likely to lose weight, a new study in the journal Personal Relationships reveals.

By contrast, ladies who feel less accepted by family and friends are more prone to packing on weight on over time.

In the past, scientists had speculated that weight dissatisfaction — that is, feeling uncomfortable in your own skin — was necessary for weight loss. But more recently, research has suggested that a lack of body confidence may just deter people from exercising and encourage them to binge eat — and clearly, neither of those are conducive to cutting back.

University of Waterloo researchers wanted to test a new theory: that feeling accepted may actually promote weight loss. To do so, they recruited more than 100 young women — a population notoriously conscious about weight — and measured their body mass index (BMI), self-esteem, and weight concerns. They also asked the women how loved ones, whether a family member, friend, or romantic partner, responded when they expressed insecurity about their size.

Related: Here’s How Much Weight We Actually Gain Over the Holidays

Over the course of the study, which lasted several months, the average participant gained about two pounds; however, this amount varied according to the types of weight-related messages the women heard from loved ones. Specifically, among weight-conscious gals, those who received few body-positive messages tended to gain more weight. Interestingly, women who didn’t tend to worry about their weight, yet reported feeling pressure to slim down from loved ones, gained weight over time, too. 

Women who worried about their weight, yet reported high levels of acceptance, either maintained their weight or even lost a few pounds over the study period.

What does acceptance sound like? “People were probably hearing their close friends and family say things like, ‘You’re fine just the way you are — you don’t need to lose weight,’” says study author Christine Logel, an assistant professor of social development studies at the University of Waterloo. 

While that might sound like permission to pack it on, these types of body-positive messages may actually encourage overweight people to set weight-loss goals for their own reasons — not because they feel pressured into doing so. “When we’re setting goals because that’s what we want to do, we tend to be more successful than when we’re doing something because other people are putting pressure on us,” explains Logel.

Plus, feeling accepted can alleviate the anxiety associated with poor self-esteem. “We know that stress causes weight gain over time,” Logel says. “Weight-acceptance messages from loved ones just take the pressure off.” That may reduce the desire to stress-eat or provide enough of a confidence boost that you decide to hit the gym.

Related: 9 Secrets to Lasting Weight Loss

Unfortunately, you can’t always stop your family from critiquing your physique, especially during the holidays, when you’re probably allowing yourself to indulge — for all of your loved ones to see. So how can you steel yourself against the negative comments?

Establish your allies before you sit down to dinner. “If your aunt says, ‘Do you really need another helping of mashed potatoes?’ and you lock eyes with your sister, you both roll your eyes, and you go back to eating, that sets a different tone for you,” says Logel. “It reminds you that your aunt may feel that way, but that the people who really matter love you just the way you are.”

Similarly, if you’re really concerned, consider filling in your significant other beforehand — My grandma will probably say something hurtful about my weight — and ask him or her to defend you when you the comments start flying. If he responds to your grandma by saying, “Well, I think she’s beautiful,” you’ll feel supported, and “that can set the tone for the whole family — that that’s just not how we talk to each other,” says Logel. Prefer to set her straight yourself? A simple “Thanks, but that’s not helpful, Grandma” can quickly change the course of the conversation.