Sep. 25, 2013 at 3:13 PM ET
Close to 70 percent of Americans are overweight or obese—chances are that you know someone who struggles with her weight. It can be heartbreaking to see a loved one who is unhappy about her size. “But the decision to do something about it is ultimately up to that individual,” says Melissa Horowitz, Psy.D., director of the Eating Disorders and Weight Management Program at the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy in New York City. In the meantime, you can be a source of support and encourage your friend to shift her thinking from negative to positive.
Respect how she feels. Studies show that the farther one gets from a perceived ideal weight, the greater the feelings of shame. Once shame sets in, other negative emotions like worthlessness, loathing and feelings of inadequacy appear. But when your friend says, “I look fat in these jeans,” you shouldn't necessarily rush in with a “No you don’t!”
“A more caring approach would be to say, ‘Those jeans aren’t cut in a way that flatters your figure. We should shop for something else that you will look great in,’” says Horowitz.
Focus on the rewards. Losing the weight is only half of the battle; you also have to keep it off. If your friend has yo-yoed in the past, she may be reserved about trying to lose weight again—or reticent to talk about a new effort. But if she does want to talk about it, take the focus off of the pounds she regained and emphasize how great she’ll feel after another successful attempt. “Remind her of the good things that came out of her earlier successful efforts: more confidence, better health, more energy,” says Horowitz.
Be supportive. Studies show that dieters who have a support network, like a weight-loss group or a group of friends, are more likely to lose weight and keep it off. If you want to start eating healthier or get some more exercise, who better than your friend to take a fun fitness class with or share cooking tips with? If you aren't trying to lose weight, you can still be there to help if your pal needs you. Support was always a phone call away for Dawn Hudson, 43, of Jasper, Ga. “I had a friend on speed dial who I could call any time I was tempted to blow my diet. And my sister was always sending me healthy recipe ideas,” she says.
Celebrate achievements. Acknowledging lost pounds can be a great source of encouragement, says Horowitz. It can be something subtle such as, "I cannot pinpoint what is different, but you look fantastic," or more obvious, "I really admire your dedication to losing weight." Kim McDiffitt, 44, enjoyed a much-needed morale boost when a long-distance friend sent her a department store gift card so she could shop for smaller clothing sizes. “It was nice to know that she believed in me and was cheering me on from afar,” says the Charles Town, W.Va., resident. You can offer to go shopping with your friend to help her pick out a few pieces or sign up for a charity walk together in recognition of how strong and fit your friend has become.
Listen more. Sometimes people just need an understanding ear—not someone who is going to dole out advice or judgments. “Your job should be that of cheerleader, not coach,” says Horowtiz. While it may be tempting to want to point out to your friend all that she is doing wrong, it’s more important that you help her focus on her end goals, without feeling bad about herself right now.
A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.