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Skip the food fight this Thanksgiving — even if that means biting your tongue when your loved ones put their health at risk by gorging themselves.
By MSNBC contributor
msnbc.com
updated 11/24/2009 8:32:40 AM ET 2009-11-24T13:32:40

Should you do anything when your unfit family is stuffing themselves at Thanksgiving? And how can a husband motivate his wife to get on board the wellness train before baby comes along? Smart Fitness answers your queries.

Have an exercise question? To e-mail us, click here . We’ll post select answers in future columns.

Q1: Holiday meals present an uncomfortable situation for me. My parents are very overweight and have histories of heart problems, so it is really hard for me to bite my tongue when they gorge themselves on stuffing and mashed potatoes and buttered rolls during the holidays. My dad eats the better part of a pie on his own in one sitting! I’m always encouraging them to exercise and eat better because I’m concerned about their health and really want them to be around to watch their grandchildren grow up. But whenever I bring it up, whether over the holidays or other times of the year, they get really upset that I’m judging them. My dad told me to stop telling them how to live their lives — eating makes them happy, so who am I to try to change their ways? What should I do? Do I turn a blind eye while they slowly commit suicide with pumpkin pie?

Q2: I try to lead an active lifestyle to keep healthy and watch what I eat to avoid weight gain. The problem I have is that my wife knows what she needs to do but is not at all motivated to stay active and does not eat a healthy diet. How can I motivate her to take better care of herself for her sake and to set a strong example for our family that we are hoping to have soon? I have tried being supportive but I am afraid of offending her, and she gets very defensive when I make suggestions.

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A: “It's really hard to watch the people you love do things you know may cause them discomfort, hurt them or even shorten their lives,” says nutritionist Bethany Thayer, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. “Unfortunately, no matter how hard we try, we cannot control other people's behavior, only our own.”

People who are not adopting healthier behaviors generally fall into one of two groups, either the “I won’t” category or the “I can’t” category, says Thayer, who works at the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention at the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit.

For those who fall into the “I won't” category, who don't think there is a problem, the best thing to do is to offer understanding that they are not ready right now and let them know that if they ever are ready, you would be happy to help them get the education and support they need, Thayer says.

“Being judgmental or making them feel they are inadequate will only ruin your relationship with the ones you love,” she says.

For those in the “I can’t” category, who are aware there is a problem but feel it is too big or hard to change, Thayer recommends helping them to recognize their barriers and to develop reasonable strategies — such as scheduling an appointment with a dietitian or other health professional — to move past those barriers.

“The key, no matter what the category, is listening and empathy,” she says. So, hard as it may be, accept your loved ones without lecturing or constantly nagging them about their bad health habits.

To be sure, nobody wants a food fight during Thanksgiving dinner. But that doesn’t mean the reader in the first question can’t offer to bring a dish and then make it a healthy one , says Thayer. “No need to draw attention to the fact that it is healthy unless asked.” Even though you can’t change someone’s behavior, “you don't have to contribute to it,” she notes.

“In the meantime, continue being that role model,” Thayer says. “Seeing someone they love and respect be healthy and happy may lead your loved ones out of the "I won't" or "I can't" category into an "I might," "I will" or "I am."

Indeed, health habits can be "contagious," agrees Boston psychologist Eric Endlich.

In the second reader question, Endlich says, the wife may be influenced to follow her husband’s lead as time goes by. After all, they are living under the same roof. And the prospect of pregnancy can be a health motivator for women.

“Be patient,” he says. “Also, rather than trying to give your wife information in the form of suggestions, you might try to gather information from her to better understand her choices.” Ask if she or her family were physically active while she was growing up, and inquire about her beliefs and attitudes about nutrition, exercise and health.

“If you get to know her mindset, then you can try to find some common ground — for instance, agreeing that there's not always a lot of time for exercise or that healthy foods may seem less appealing than junk food,” Endlich says. “Once you've established some agreement, you can try to address her concerns” such as by finding snacks that are both healthy and tasty, he says.

“In any case, a happy marriage is good for [one’s] health, so loving and accepting her is one of the best things you can do for her,” he says.

Jacqueline Stenson is a freelance writer in Los Angeles. A former senior health producer for msnbc.com, her work also has appeared in publications including the Los Angeles Times, Health, Shape, Women’s Health, Fit Pregnancy and Reuters Health.

© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints

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