Can you help an overweight friend?

Be careful before bringing up a weighty issue. CreditL: Getty Images
Be careful before bringing up a weighty issue.
CreditL: Getty Images

The question:
One of my friends is significantly overweight. Am I ever allowed to step in and encourage her to be healthier?

There is no simple answer to your question. It’s hard to sit passively by while people we care about engage in self-destructive behaviors like overeating. Obesity is a serious health concern. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, more than a third of Americans are obese. Considered the leading cause of preventable death, being significantly overweight increases the risk for heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer.

Yet, whether or not you say something to your friend depends on two factors:

1) The quality of your friendship: How close is this friend? Is there an established level of trust? Do you have a history of speaking intimately with this person? These are the questions you need to ask yourself before proceeding. If the answer is anything other than “yes,” your well-meaning suggestions will not only be ineffective and hurtful, they may evoke shameful feelings that perpetuate overeating.

2) What you say and how you say it: Sometimes, people who are obese are in denial. But usually, they know they have a problem, and what they need to do help themselves. Whether they are motivated to do something about it often depends on many factors, including their self-esteem and the degree to which it’s impacting their lives. Overeating often has a strong emotional component. For some individuals, especially victims of sexual abuse, weight can often serve as a barrier of emotional protection. So if you’re going to say something, tread gently and lovingly. You might begin by saying, “I care about you and I want you to be around for a long time,” or “I’m worried about your health. Is there anything I can do to support you?”

You need to also understand that even if you choose exactly the right words from the deepest place in your heart, he or she may not be ready to hear you. No matter how good intentioned you are, if this is an especially sensitive area for your friend, one in which she feels powerless and ashamed, she may still be hurt and unready to make serious life adjustments. Sure, you can role model healthy eating and exercising habits. You can even invite your friend to take advantage of a free weekly guest pass at your gym. But unless your friend is motivated to change, she probably won’t. If you’ve ever struggled with changing a bad habit yourself – for example, smoking or losing your temper– then you’ll understand how hard changing an ingrained behavior can be.

If you do say something and your friend is receptive to losing weight, you might suggest that she speak with her doctor, You can also refer her to the Renfrew Center and/or Overeaters Anonymous (OA), both of which offer excellent support and resources for people suffering from obesity.


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