Trying to help a friend keep weight off after a diet sounds like a good idea, but certain kinds of advice may actually have the opposite effect, a new study from Greece suggests.
Researchers surveyed 289 people who successfully lost weight and kept it off for more than a year, and 122 people who lost weight, but then regained it shortly afterwards. Participants were asked detailed questions about their diet, physical activity and the kinds of support they received from friends and family.
Surprisingly, the results showed that people who regained weight reported receiving more support overall from their family and friends. Hoping to get to the bottom of this puzzling finding, the researchers dug into the data, looking at each question participants answered about the kinds of support they got.
They found that, for the "regainers", support often came in the form of reminders about what they should and shouldn’t' do. For example, compared to people who maintained their weight loss, the people who regained weight reported more frequently that their friends and family reminded them not to eat high-fat foods, or reminded them to be physically active.
In contrast, people who maintained weight loss more often reported that their friends and families just engaged in helpful activities with them, such as eating healthy or low-fat foods with them. Maintainers were also more likely to say that their friends and family frequently complimented them on their eating habits.
"Family and friends of people trying to maintain weight loss could possibly be more helpful when offering their support in the form of compliments and active participation, rather than verbal instructions and reminders," the researchers, from Harokopio University in Athens, wrote in the Jan. 22 issue of the Journal of Behavioral Medicine.
It could be that people who've lost weight view these reminders in a negative way, the researcher said. "Well-intentioned support may be perceived negatively, as criticism and meaningless reminders, by the person already struggling to cope with weight management," they wrote in their study.
This would agree with findings from a previous study, in which some women said that reminders to eat better or exercise more made them feel worse, because they were already struggling to make these lifestyle changes.
Still, the researchers can't explain what caused the findings, and they noted that it's possible that friends and family offer reminders only after they notice that a person is already starting to put weight back on.
In addition, the researchers noted that some of the differences between the regainers and the maintainers, although statistically meaningful, were still relatively small.
For example, the participants rated the social support the received on a scale of 1 to 5, based on how often something happened, and on the question "how often has your family reminded [you] to eat healthy or low-fat foods," in the past month, the average score for regainers was 3, compared to 2.4 for maintainers. (On the scale, a score of 1 indicated "almost never," 2 "rarely," 3 sometimes," 4 "often," and 5 "almost always.")
Future studies are needed the follow people forward in time to clarify whether certain kinds of social support lead to negative results, the researchers said.