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Body Positivity

4 Lessons for Approaching Conversations About Weight Loss

Reframe conversations with insight, empathy, and untold stories.

Key points

  • It's important to acknowledge the effort, not the number on the scale.
  • Weight loss does not make someone a better person, so focus on their accomplishments and hard work.
  • If you're not close to the person, it's best to keep your comments brief and positive.
Yuma/ Unsplash
Source: Yuma/ Unsplash

Recently I sat down with two people, Summer and TJ, both of whom have navigated their own weight-loss experiences. Just weeks before, I was amazed to learn that TJ had lost over 100 pounds.

My praises, while genuine, led TJ to share insights about the nature of such compliments. This sparked my interest, and I arranged a focused discussion on the topic, also involving Summer, a registered dietician with a similar story.

Both TJ and Summer have insights that gave me a fresh perspective on how we often perceive and address this change in others.

Firstly, a bit about my background: I help individuals using prescription, weight-loss medications get started and stay consistent with exercise. One thing I do is emphasize the importance of a good system because the best of intentions are often not enough to overcome a system that does not support these intentions. How does this advice apply to weight loss?

At its core, weight loss is about caloric balance, but factors like genetics and environment play pivotal roles.

We’ve known this for quite some time. Claude Bouchard's 1990 study demonstrated the significant role genetics play in weight gain. He overfed 12 pairs of identical twins by 1,000 calories per day for 100 days. The mean weight gain was 8.1 kilograms, but the range was 4.3 to 13.3 kilograms. There was much more variance in weight gain between pairs than within the pairs of twins, pointing to a genetic component.

This shows how genetics interact with the environment, making weight gain easier for some. In other words, their system is not the same as someone's system who has never struggled with their weight.

Recognizing the complexities of weight loss can guide us in our reactions and compliments. Here are four key takeaways from my chat with Summer and TJ, which are on YouTube:

1. Acknowledge the Effort, Not The Number on the Scale

Summer suggests instead of merely praising weight loss, emphasize personal growth and hard work. Ask them about their journey and what they've learned along the way.

Summer says, “When we look at somebody who’s lost a ton of weight and we want to say wow, congratulations, I think it’s more helpful to say, wow you probably worked through a lot of stuff to get here.”

If you feel the need to comment, ask them about what they did rather than how much they lost. Acknowledge that this is not an easy process and they must have learned a lot.

2. Weight Does Not Equal Worth

Weight is no measure of character, intelligence, or capability. TJ reminds us that losing weight doesn't suddenly make someone smarter or better at their job. Similarly, Summer shared how she was perceived as a more credible dietician when she was slimmer, although her advice remained consistent. Let's remember: Weight isn't indicative of a person's worth.

I have a mantra to coach with unconditional positive regard. This is the belief that people are trying their best with the resources that they have. I believe this because first and foremost you don’t know what else is going on in someone's life.

Because you do not know, you cannot sit in a seat of judgment. I’ve spoken to several people who had to put their health on the back burner to take care of children, spouses with disabilities, or aging parents. You do not know the person's full story. Remember that a person's body size does not make them a good or bad person and you most certainly do not know their full story.

3. Gauge the Depth of Your Relationship Before Commenting

Your closeness with the person should guide your response. Summer pointed out, “The level of our relationship dictates the depth of our conversation on this topic.” If you aren't closely acquainted, perhaps a simple congratulatory remark will suffice, without pressing for details.

If you are truly inspired by that person, ask to talk to them in private, rather than in a public setting. Remember, nobody is required to share what they did, whether it’s their methods, their exercise routine, or if they are taking medication.

4. Respect Their Openness (or Lack Thereof)

For someone like Summer, who's candid about her weight-loss journey on social media, an acknowledgment of their hard work and perseverance may be appropriate. But with those who are less open, tread lightly. It's not your place to ask for details, especially when you're unaware of underlying circumstances.

You do not know how or why they are losing weight. What if they lost someone close to them and have been experiencing depression that makes it hard to eat? What if they have an illness?

I would revert to my advice from No. 3: If you are interested, ask for permission to talk about it and do it in private. You can still keep the conversation as low-key as possible.

Remember: While our intentions might be pure, we should be cautious when discussing someone's body. A genuine attempt to understand and empathize will always be more meaningful than surface-level praises.

Hopefully, this information helps others to be more mindful in their conversations regarding weight. Remember to compliment the effort, not someone’s appearance, and to gauge your relationship with that person in conjunction with how open that person is.

You can watch the full conversation here.

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