How Being Nice Promotes Weight Loss

A recent study explores just how important social acceptance is for those looking to lose weight.

Imagine the scenario: you’re out with a friend, and you muster the nerve to open up to her about some concerns you have about your weight. You ask if she thinks you need to drop some pounds, and she responds that you’re fine just as you are, and that she’ll be your friend no matter what. Or, in a parallel universe, she responds that she is a bit worried about your weight, and thinks it would be a good idea for you to slim down. She even offers to help you find a gym or some healthy recipes.

Now imagine that you get home afterward. It’s late, you’ve had dinner, and you’re not hungry. But on the counter is a tin of brownies your mom insisted you take home after a get-together on Sunday. They were delicious. Do you eat them, or do you go to bed? Whatever choice you make probably has a lot to do with how your friend answered your question. And if you think that you’d be more likely to demolish those brownies if your friend told you to lose weight, you’re not alone. In fact, that reaction is predictably borne out by psychological studies.

It may seem counterintuitive at first—if someone told you to lose weight, why would you go on a binge?—but if you give it a bit more thought, it makes perfect sense. A new study explores this phenomenon, and makes the ultimate takeaway a bit more explicit: making someone feel good about their body helps them drop weight; making them feel bad has the opposite effect.

"Making someone feel good about their body helps them drop weight; making them feel bad has the opposite effect."

The study followed 187 women at a Canadian university for nine months. Throughout the study, the women were asked about their current weight, ideal weight, and self-esteem. They were also asked if they talked to their friends or romantic partners about their weight concerns, and if so, how the friend or partner reacted. The results were unequivocal: for women concerned about weight, those who received messages of acceptance were more likely to maintain or lose. Those who felt pressured to change gained weight. In fact, women who felt accepted by their loved ones shed an average of 0.17 BMI units during the nine months, while those who felt pressured to lose weight gained an average of 0.75 units.

This bears out some basic truths about weight loss, self-esteem, and the emotions of eating. If you hear critical feedback from people you care about, you’re likely to feel bad about yourself—and if food has been an emotional crutch and comfort for you in the past, that large pepperoni pizza might seem like just the cure for your negative feelings. As the study’s author, Christine Logel, puts it, “weight concern may primarily reflect the knowledge that one’s weight could lead to rejection.” This feeling that your body is unworthy, in turn, can cause stress and shame that sabotage your healthy eating.

These findings drive home a larger point about change: it can’t be imposed from the outside. Or it can, but it’s much less likely to bring successful, lasting results. In other words, there’s legitimate science behind all those inspirational quotes and clichés that go around: “Only you can make the change,” “True change comes from within”, etc.

"Everyone is enough just as they are—and if that unconditional acceptance comes, the weight loss will follow."

The study also explains why the communities that form in DietBet games are so powerful for helping people lose weight. Sure, the money is an incentive, but it’s not what actually helps players make the day-to-day choices necessary to lose weight. In a world where body-shaming is rampant, where we are always made to feel less-than for not meeting unrealistic ideals, DietBet games are a safe haven in which each person, no matter their size or where they are on their journey, is treated with the same support and encouragement. And, sure, players are all cheering each other on to lose, but nobody shames or pressures anyone when they slip up. Everyone is enough just as they are—and if that unconditional acceptance comes, the weight loss will follow.

So as much as you can, surround yourself with those who love and accept you for who you are, and show the same acceptance to the people in your life, regardless their size. And, perhaps most important of all, remember to accept yourself.

Make it WayBetter

Make two lists: On the first one, put the people in your life who make you feel good about yourself. On the other, those who make you feel bad. As much as you can, try to spend time with those from list 1 and minimize time with those from list 2.