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Assertiveness and Eating Better: Speaking Up to Manage Your Weight

Can assertiveness training help you eat better? In many cases, yes.

The classic definition holds assertiveness as a middle path of communication. In contrast, aggressiveness, on one end of a spectrum, violates the boundaries of others. Passivity, on the other, fails to defend boundaries, leading to victimhood and "doormat" syndromes. An aggressive person won't take "no" for an answer. A passive person can't say "no". Between these extremes, assertiveness respects the rights of others while upholding the rights of the self. An assertive person can either accept "no" or say "no", as the situation requires.

Assertiveness plays a role in many stress management and self-esteem building programs. It less commonly appears in weight management guides. This is a major omission. For pressure from others-perceived or real-affects people's diet choices. Research repeatedly shows that we tend to eat more with other overeaters, and vice versa. And in a 2008 Boston College study, more than half of the dieting women reported feeling frequently pressured to eat by others. Those who ended up sticking to diets were most often those who consciously used strategies to manage that pressure. Suzette Glasner-Edwards, Ph.D., a UCLA researcher, uses the term "assertive dieting" to describe these kinds of strategies.

In my own practice, I find that assertiveness helps the cause of better eating in general, as it reduces stress, improves self-care, and eases relational conflict. However, even where people work hard to behave more assertively in life, it's not uncommon for the domain of food and diet to remain untouched. Hannah, for instance, would be described as a "go-getter" by most who know her. She's smart and extroverted and handles upset customers regularly at her job. It had never occurred to her, though, that she could veto a restaurant pick if her friends were heading to a site without good choices. And she was uncomfortable saying "no, thanks" to certain dishes at a recent family feast.

"I handle conflict at work all the time," she reports. "But somehow I become meek around my friends and family. I imagine people will get upset, or will see me as ‘demanding' if I ask for something special."

Some family and friends do react negatively to these kinds of changes. Hannah, with practice, found people to be accommodating and understanding. Karen's family, on the other hand, refused to budge when she suggested changing some of their Thanksgiving menu items. "I finally gave up on the vegetables without butter or the stuffing without sausage. I make a couple of separate side dishes for myself now, though. And I've finally stopped worrying about anyone's thinking I'm weird or antisocial."

Still others meet more overt hostility with their requests for change or their "no, thanks" to second helpings. Maybe you don't really care, if you reject that cake. Maybe you just don't want to have fun, if you decline those nachos. In many cases, diet assertiveness brings less-than-ideal relationship dynamics to the fore. This is certainly one reason we avoid it. However, bringing assertiveness to one's diet raises anxieties unique to food and weight as well.

In Hannah's case, she knew that speaking up with loved ones challenged her, as she'd always been the one in her family to smooth ruffled feelings. She'd been grappling with that and felt she'd made progress. When it came to eating, though, she felt intensified shame. "I realized that I just loathed bringing any attention to my weight. If I said no to certain foods it would shine a light on my size and how I still haven't lost." To really make changes stick for the long run, she needed to hold her head up in eating situations, too, and state her needs and preferences.

Karen also felt that her efforts highlighted her failures in others' eyes. As she puts it, "They just weren't going to take it seriously. I'd been on so many diets before, it was like, ‘yeah, yeah...' I had to build some inner resolve, ignore their dismissals, forgive myself for the years of struggle. It was hard at first."

Assertiveness, by definition, calls on us to take our own needs seriously. It calls on us to respect others without neglecting what's important to us. And learning the many different ways to say "no, thanks," "I prefer that," "this is what works for me," can prove every bit as useful as calorie counts and exercise when it comes to eating well.

Dr. Katz’ workbook, Eat Sanely: Get off the Diet Roller Coaster for Good, is available in paperback, or as an ebook for Kindle, Nook, or ipad: www.eatsanely.com/order-the-eat-sanely-weight-loss-workbook

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