A friend recently lost 10 pounds, to the envy of all who know her. We asked how she did it. "I simply stopped my husband from enabling my eating," she replied. Seeing our puzzled looks, she went on. "Finally, after 32 years of marriage, I realized that half the time I was putting food in my mouth, it was because he was suggesting that I eat. It was:

'Do you want a cookie? I am having one."

'You are only ordering an appetizer? That won't be enough for you."

'Please eat when we visit my mother. It is embarrassing when you refuse to eat her cake."

'Try this ice cream; it is a new flavor."

'Look what I found at the cheese shop. Maybe now you will stop eating that low-fat stuff you call cheese."

'Don't remove the skin on the chicken. It is the best part."

"When I started eating only when I was hungry, and refusing to eat just because he felt like a snack, the pounds came off. I stopped feeling guilty when I refused food at his mother's house. She must be 200 pounds overweight and everything she cooks is full of fat and cream. Now it amazes me to realize how much food I put in my mouth because my husband suggested that I eat."

My friend's story is, alas, a common one. Often we find ourselves eating because a partner, friend, parent or child feels like doing so and insists we must share in the experience. Sometimes the suggestions are harmless; you may be dining with friends at a new restaurant and everyone enthusiastically shares new dishes and encourages each other to sample as much as possible. Or perhaps the eating enabler has discovered a food that he or she thinks you might like and buys or prepares it for you without any thought to whether it is calorically acceptable. The best response, under both these conditions, is to take a tiny taste or accept the food offering with thanks and say you will eat it later when you are hungry.

But sometimes the person who is pushing you to eat may be motivated by less altruistic reasons. Beware of people who make the following statements:

"You are too thin."

"Don't you ever eat?"

"This (fattening food) isn't going to kill you."

"It's no fun eating alone."

"I spent hours cooking that dish." (This statement is usually accompanied by a stare indicating that your kneecaps will be broken unless you eat it.)

"Don't you like my cooking?"

"You're leaving all that food?"

"If you won't share dessert with me, I can't order one."

"Why are you refusing food? I can't believe you are on yet another diet!"

People who may envy your new lighter weight and prefer you fat often make comments like these (and an infinite number of others). They may regard eating as a recreational activity best enjoyed with others who like to eat and resent your view of eating as simply a source of nourishment. Some are food pushers; they feel validated when you eat dishes which they feel reflect their expertise and labor. (Often the only solution to not consuming dishes that are guaranteed to clog arteries and add pounds is to claim a newly-discovered food allergy that will cause certain death if you eat the dish.) The person paying for your meal at a restaurant may feel you are wasting money if you don't eat everything on your plate, regardless of how big the serving is. This is particularly true if, for example, you have been taken out for a buffet brunch and eat nothing but an egg-white omelet and fresh fruit. Pointing out that the cost of a weight-loss program is higher than the cost of the meal is rarely effective.

The nastier eating enablers will attack any diet or maintenance program you are following by reciting your past failures. Defending yourself against these attacks is difficult, as they involve more than simply a wish to have you share a dessert or enjoy a snack. Your desire to consume more healthy food and to control portion size can be threatening to someone who has his or her own weight problems. Worst-case scenarios often involve someone who prefers you to remain fat and unattractive and will insist you eat foods that are incompatible with your weight loss or weight maintenance. If you feel that capitulating is easier than fighting back, realize that you are fighting for your health.

What is so curious about the eating enabler is that to be one is so acceptable in our society. Can you imagine someone pushing alcohol on a recovering alcoholic ("Just have one cocktail with me; I hate to drink alone")? or cigarettes on a person who gave up smoking ("Come on, you know you want one")? We would be horrified if it happened to us and certainly would not do it to someone else. And no one would ever push a food known to cause allergic reactions on a dinner guest ("One peanut can't hurt you.").

Yet we nag and cajole and mock people who refuse food because it is too caloric, or high in fat or cholesterol. I have had people say about me, "She never eats" when I refused desserts made from an excess of egg yolks, cream and butter because my genetic predisposition to heart disease makes eating such food dangerous. And I have heard friends make fun of a mutual acquaintance when he carefully eats only half of what he is served in a restaurant. Yet no one complains when a colleague who has celiac disease interrogates the server to make sure that he is not accidentally given food containing gluten.  

If we really want people to reach and stay at a healthy weight, we must make eating enablers aware of what they are doing and convince them to stop. This approach has worked successfully with families and friends who are supporting people in their recovery from alcoholism. We must also support those with whom we eat when they say no to the offer of food that is incompatible with their diet, or efforts not to gain weight. And we must accept the fact that if we want to eat something fattening ourselves, it is not necessary to have an accomplice who eats along with us.

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