Fat runs in families. Genes do play a role, but the psychological factors — emotions, traditions, and expectations — that govern every household are every bit as intricate, and just as powerful, as DNA.
Weight loss experts have long known this; University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researchers report that most women pack on almost 25 pounds during the first five years of marriage; men typically gain 30. And the likelihood of overweight parents having heavy children is well documented.
The contestants on NBC's "The Biggest Loser: Families" are living proof. At the start of the season, mom-and-daughter team Renee Wilson and Michelle Aguilar had a combined weight of 509 pounds; Vicky Vilcan and husband Brady together tipped the scales at more than 580 pounds.
Transforming the patterns that keep families like these overweight isn't easy, says Michael Lowe, PhD, a psychology professor at Drexel University. But to lose weight, change is essential. Here, our experts help contestants on "The Biggest Loser: Families" identify the dynamics that feed unhealthy habits and offer strategies to break the cycle when they get back home. Their advice can get you and your loved ones on a healthy path for life, too.
Michelle Aguilar and her parents ... taught each other bad habits
Lost 42 pounds in 7 weeks
Lost 45 pounds in 7 weeks
Many of us turn to friends and family for support to lose weight, but sometimes those same people cause us to fail. "Loved ones may undermine your efforts without meaning to at all," says Edward Abramson, PhD, a professor emeritus of psychology at California State University, Chico, and author of "Body Intelligence."
Before her parents divorced, Michelle, 27, remembers watching her mom, Renee, struggle to lose weight. "She was a quintessential yo-yo dieter," recalls Michelle. "She'd try the zaniest diets to fit into a certain dress." Seeing her mom then regain the weight, Michelle came to believe: Diets never work, so what's the use? "When I started gaining weight, I didn't even try to fight it," says Michelle. "I didn't want to do what my mom did, so I just didn't do anything."
And from her father, Michelle inherited what she calls the "dessert gene." "After dinner, my dad has to have something sweet," she says. "It's ingrained in me, and now my day doesn't feel complete without it."
Enabling "bad" behaviors can also unintentionally derail health efforts. Renee, 47, says that back home, she and her best friend tried countless diets: "We'd do well for a few days, and then one of us would say, 'Let's get sundaes,' and off we'd go." The two may not be trying to hurt each other, but they're not encouraging each other, either.
Break the cycle
Often loved ones want to help, but they just don't know how, explains Anthony Fabricatore, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. To get support, be specific about what you need:
Talk about trigger foods. Banning "bad" foods may create resentment, he says. So instead of saying "No more chocolate cake," ask them to eat it in another room.
Confront resistance. Be honest if your family is making weight loss harder; they may not be aware they're doing so. Say, for example: "I know you mean well when you bring home treats, but I have a hard time resisting them. I need help."
Accept diet lapses — then move on. Tell loved ones how you'd like them to respond if they see you splurge: Comment if you reach for a second brownie? Raise an eyebrow? Determine what works best for you.
Brady and Vicky Vilcan ... were a fast-food family
Lost 71 pounds in 7 weeks
Lost 45 pounds in 7 weeks
For parents who juggle careers and raising children, life can feel like one long stress-a-thon, with little or no room for making healthy meals. That's the case for Vicky and Brady Vilcan: She races off to work early; he gets their daughter, Lucy, 5, and son, Chance, 7, ready for school. "Breakfast is usually a cereal bar in the car," says Brady, 37. In the afternoon, Vicky, 38, shepherds the kids from gymnastics to dance to play dates. "By 7 pm, everyone is starved, so I pick up nuggets or burgers and fries on the way home," she says.
Worse, the Vilcans use food to coax their little ones into cooperating ("If they're good, they get Sno Balls," says Brady) or as a way to spend family time, often at a place such as Chuck E. Cheese's.
While Vicky and Brady are used to lugging around extra pounds, their lifestyle is undermining the children's health, adding a new layer of guilt. "Lucy weighs about 10 pounds more than her older brother," admits Vicky. "It's so hard to know we did this to her. She doesn't drive herself to McDonald's every day."
Break the cycle
First, make room for healthy habits: "Parents often devote a lot of time to after-school activities and less to cooking meals. The latter benefits kids more in the short and long term," says Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, Prevention's nutrition director, who helped coach contestants during the season. Limit your kids to one activity, cut back on social commitments, and use the extra time to get them involved in meal prep. And to get the family in the right mindset, try these tips:
Focus on well-being, not weight. "You want to encourage habits that will shape their health for life, not what the scale says tomorrow," says Patricia A. Cluss, PhD, a licensed psychologist who has researched family weight interventions. "Provide healthy food and keep them active, and the weight will likely take care of itself."
Take a total-family approach. Single out one child who needs to lose weight, and he or she may feel resentful, says Cluss. "Children learn best when parents lead by example."
Watch your language. If you tell little ones to eat greens because they're "good for them," you're inviting groans, says Sass. Instead, focus on flavor or texture. Even words such as treat are ripe for reinvention — use it to describe fresh berries, not just candy.
Coleen Skeabeck and her best friend ... bonded over food
Lost 41 pounds in 7 weeks
In many families, food is not just about sustenance, it's also a way to stay connected: Every holiday, weekend visit, and celebration centers on what's served. Whether it's the Thanksgiving sweet-potato-and-marshmallow casserole or Grandma's triple-chocolate birthday cake, the dishes themselves feel like a part of the family.
These food bonds can sustain a person's entire social universe — and for Coleen, 24, that's one of her biggest real-life challenges. She and her best friend, Holly, would have pizza and margaritas if one of them had a tough day, dinner at their favorite Italian restaurant if there was a reason to celebrate, or go on a Starbucks run for Frappuccinos if they were bored. "That's what Holly and I do when we're together — we eat," says Coleen.
In a food-focused relationship, eliminating the tie that bonds can be tough. "People worry that distancing themselves from the food will force them to distance themselves from loved ones, " says Fabricatore.
Break the cycle
Consistency and stability are what strengthen all relationships, and any change — even a positive one like weight loss — can feel like a betrayal, says Lowe. But placing more emphasis on preserving a tradition and pleasing others while ignoring your health is a personal betrayal. "To be successful, you have to find that balance between making the healthy changes you need, while letting everyone know you still care," he says. Some strategies:
Share the love, not the food. Think about why you really enjoy your best friend's company —because she makes you laugh, always offers a sympathetic ear, has the best advice. Realize that this is what bonds you, and tell her food has nothing to do with what makes her special to you.
Focus together time on nonfood fun. Instead of brunch with girlfriends, get manicures or go shopping; skip dinner and dessert with your parents, and organize a family game night or have them over for a movie marathon.
Make new traditions. Especially around the holidays, some foods are symbolic. But do you really need three different potato dishes at Thanksgiving or a cake, cookies, and ice cream at every birthday? The answer is probably no. Ask family members which ones really matter to them, and keep those on the menu; then serve healthier fare for the rest of the meal.