Tips from Nancy Clark
When Dieters Lose Weight: Acknowledging weight loss
"My wife has lost about 30 pounds. She looks GREAT!"
"My roommate has dropped 10 pounds. She's down to a size 4
and I'm so jealous...!"
"My brother is dieting by eating only one meal a day. He has
shed 20 pounds in three weeks ... he looks awesome!"
We all know someone who has lost weight and our knee-jerk response
is "WOW...Don't you look GREAT!" At diet workshops, the
leader and participants applaud the successful dieters who, upon
weighing in, register a lower weight on the scale. Advertisements
for weight loss programs idolize how much better you'll look when
you shed excess flab. High schools runners ogle over their friend's
loss of two pounds.
This praise is intended to be positive but you should be aware
it can sometimes backfire. The following story, told by an athlete
in recovery from anorexia, can perhaps teach you how to acknowledge
weight loss wisely. The story goes like this--
"When I was a student in medical school, I was very unhappy
and my life felt out of control. I followed my strong desire to
be able to control something , so I started to diet and exercise.
I got a bit carried away and within a year, I had to admit myself
into an eating disorders program. The surprisingly sad part is,
no one saw my unhappiness.
"Mind you, I was in medical school, surrounded by health professionals,
and I got nothing but praise the whole way down. Doctors, nurses,
friends and family alike would say to me--
"You've lost weight. Don't you look great...!"
"You are so dedicated with your exercise program. I feel like
I barely have time to sleep, but you manage to get up early enough
to run an hour every day. You're too good."
"You always eat such healthful food--salads, fruits, rice cakes.
I'm living on junk out of the vending machine, and you're preparing
your own healthy foods every day. You are just so dedicated when
it comes to eating well. I admire you."
The praise and compliments flowed endlessly--but no one saw this
woman's unhappiness. Twenty pounds later, and exhausted with compulsive,
relentless exercise, she ran out of energy and admitted herself
into a hospital program for people with eating disorders. She knew
her lifestyle was sick, but no once else had seemed to notice. No
one made the appropriate comment: "You are looking very thin...are
you OK?" or "I'm worried about you. You look so tired
and seem to have lost that sparkle in your eyes..."
Another similar episode took place in a health club. A 39 year
old man just trying to get back to his college "fighting weight"
started dieting and exercising to the extreme. He claimed he was
training for an Ironman triathlon. The truth was, he was abusing
exercise to lose weight. His thoughts about food and exercise consumed
99% of his day--to the point he did little but exercise, work, sleep,
and (try not to) eat. He also heard nothing but praise about his
"You look great...How much weight have you lost???!"
"You are so dedicated with your training program. How do you
find time to exercise for two hours every day? You are a better
man than I..."
"You are so good with your diet. I wish I had your discipline
when it comes to eliminating junk food from my life..."
After a year, this exhausted "athlete" ended up in my
office saying "I don't know if I need to see you or a psychologist..."
In both cases, these "athletes" got nothing but praise
as they tumbled into their eating disorders. Granted, their friends,
teammates and training partners were not responsible for this happening,
but they failed to say appropriate words.
Acknowledging weight loss
So what should you say when someone has lost weight? What you do
not want to say is "Have you lost weight??? You look GREAT!!!"
1) They looked horrible before.
2) Physical size is more important than health.
3) They are a better person if they are lighter. And what happens
when the dieter regains the weight (a common occurrence)? Does he
or she revert to being a worse person?
Be it two pounds or twenty pounds, the better way to acknowledge
weight loss is to shift the focus away from physical weight changes
and focus instead on the praiseworthy aspect: the person's improved
health status. Here are some recommended phrases to share with dieters
who are losing or have lost weight:
"You look like you've been working hard at losing weight..."
The dieter will be ever-ready to talk about how proud they are of
their hard work. Let them brag.
"You look smaller... Is there is less of you to love?"
The message is, you are not a better person if you lose weight;
you are just less.
"You look pleased with your weight loss. How do you feel about
it?" They'll undoubtedly feel healthier, more energetic, super!
"You are looking more fit. How are your workouts going? How
is your energy level? How do you feel...?"If they are losing
weight appropriately, they'll feel great.
"You appear to be trading some of your excess fat for muscle?"
Acknowledge what you see but don't suggest they are a better person.
Sometimes you can just say nothing. After all, how often do you
acknowledge weight gain: "You've gained weight!!?" (But
then, maybe you should: "You look stressed, exhausted. Are
Regardless of the dieter's response, the goal is to help the person
hold a solid appreciation of their value as a person. Their beauty
is in their smile, their friendship and caring--not in being size
two instead of size twelve. Dieters need to know they are loved
from the inside out, not judged from the outside in. If dieters
lose weight, they need to fully realize there is simply less of
them to love. They are not better, more perfect or more likable.
They are just less. But hopefully they are healthier, more energetic,
stronger, and happy with these benefits.
Nancy Clark, MS, RD, nutrition counselor at SportsMedicine
Associates in Brookline MA (617-739-2003) teaches weight-conscious
athletes how to eat well for health and energy. She is author of
Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook, Second Edition, available
or by sending $22 to Sports Nutrition Services, 830 Boylston St.
#205, Brookline MA 02467.
Nancy appreciates the help of the following RDs
who contributed to this article: MJ Detroyer, NYC; B Beardsley,
NM; R. Romely, CT; K Geagan, MA, C Fenwick, NC.
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