Should You Really Be Eating That?

Dear Helena,

My friend is really unhealthy and overweight. She doesn’t work out EVER, and she loves really gross stuff like eating fudge frosting straight from the can. She’s only in her 30s, but the doctor told her she’s at risk for diabetes. I hate seeing her put that crap in her body, but I don’t know what to do about it. The doctor already told her to change her ways. I’m worried that if I start giving her diet advice too, she’ll only get mad. Should you intervene to improve a friend’s terrible eating habits? What’s the best way to do so? —Fear of Frosting

Dear Fear of Frosting,

You can’t tell your friends to lose weight, any more than you can tell them to get unsightly moles removed or stop dating slackers. Unless they ask for your advice, you must accept them as they are. The only exception is if your friend is seriously endangering herself or others—for instance, if she’s guzzling Ben & Jerry’s immediately after gastric bypass surgery. Otherwise, keep your diet tips to yourself.

Of course, it’s hard to stand by when a friend’s diet is compromising her health, as a recent Chowhound thread discusses. But Peggy Howell, public relations director of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, says that many overweight people are sick of their friends trying to help: “People are always trying to share their latest diet tips or pills they are on or program they heard about.”

It might be tempting to drop hints instead, but that’s not going to help either. Research shows that people need to be internally motivated, says Dr. Melina Jampolis, author of The No Time to Lose Diet. Deep-seated emotional issues may be driving your friend’s overeating, which means filling her fridge with broccoli via an organic produce box delivery “gift,” or trying to drag her on a hike next time you hang out together, won’t help her much.

If your friend broaches the topic of weight loss herself, then you can encourage her. Don’t focus on superficial benefits, like thin thighs—you’ll make her feel like a blob. Concentrate on the health benefits instead. “Focus on the positives of losing weight instead of the negatives of being overweight,” advises Jampolis. “For example, a 10 percent loss in body weight can really decrease your risk of diabetes and blood pressure.” You can also suggest she look for a support partner online if you think you’re going to wind up frustrated by being her de facto diet buddy. “There’s too much emotion and judgment with close friends,” says Jampolis. “That’s where the Internet works well from a weight-loss standpoint.”

Finally, it may cheer you to know that if you’re skinny, you might help your friend slim down without taking any action at all. Dining companions significantly influence our food choices. If you go to a restaurant and order healthily and moderately, you may inadvertently stop your friend from ordering the nachos platter and fried ice cream. Howard Rankin, author of The TOPS Way to Weight Loss, says: “I know people whose weight-loss technique has been to find their skinny friends and go and order what they are ordering.”

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.