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How to Overcome an Unsupportive Environment

How to deal with friends, co-workers, or family members who sabotage your efforts to lose weight or eat healthier.

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS,
January 31, 2012
Episode #175

I got a letter this week from a listener that I know will resonate with many of you. Meredith writes:

“I need to lose about 20 pounds. But I have three growing sons and a husband who stays thin no matter what he eats. I have tried getting the junk out of the house but after a few days, the guys end up making a run to the store for chips and candy. Even if I don't buy it, it seems impossible to keep it out of the house. How do I ease the whole family away from the junk food and toward healthier choices? I know we would all benefit even if I am the only one looking to lose weight. Do you have any tips for overcoming resistance to a healthier lifestyle?”

Meredith faces a tough challenge, and one that I encounter frequently in my nutrition counseling practice. One spouse wants to make a change but the other wants to keep things just the way they are, and this creates a lot of tension.

Although couples and families frequently have to negotiate over conflicting priorities, in this case, the person agitating for change usually feels that their desires should prevail. After all, as Meredith argues, cutting down on junk food would be good for everyone in the household.  

But of course, Meredith’s desire to improve her family’s eating habits is not entirely altruistic. If you’ve ever tried to lose weight—or even just to overhaul your eating habits—you know that controlling the environment is a huge factor. It’s hard to choose carrot sticks over corn chips and apple slices instead of ice cream—especially at first.

Meredith recognizes that keeping tempting foods out of the house will make it a lot easier for her to make healthy choices and to succeed in her goal of losing weight. And her family’s unwillingness to support her efforts by keeping the house junk-food-free can feel like sabotage.

How to Change in an Unsupportive Environment

The first step, of course, is to let your significant other, family, or roommate know what you’re trying to do and why, and how their actions affect you. You can ask for their help and support—but you might not get it.  However, this cannot be your excuse to give up. Here are 4 strategies that can help you stick to your guns even without the support of those in your household.

  1. Divide and Conquer.    If household members insist on bringing foods into the house that you find tempting, try to establish one cupboard where those foods will be stored…and discipline yourself to stay away from that cupboard. It helps if the “junk” cupboard can be out of the way. By the same token, clear out an easily accessible cupboard to stock with “approved” snacks and foods. You can do the same thing with shelves in the fridge.

  2. Establish No-Snack Zones. Sticking to your guns while watching a movie, working on the computer, or spending time with your family may be challenging if the family room is a 24-hour snack buffet. Even if you can’t control what or when they eat, it helps if you can at least control where they eat it. Confine food and snacks to the kitchen and dining room or some other space and reserve living areas for living.

  3. Live and Let Live. Make a deal with your family. You won’t lecture them about their eating habits but they cannot make any comments about yours, either. No teasing about what you’re missing. No snarky comments about rabbit food. No comments that “you’re perfect just the way you are.”  Keep in mind that people who don’t want to change often try to prevent the people around them from changing because it takes the pressure off of them. 

  4. Find Support Outside the Home. Just because you don’t have the support of your family, doesn’t mean you have to go it alone. It’s never been easier to connect with friends or even total strangers who share your goals and can offer moral support. You can communicate by text message, post on an online forum, use social networking sites, or pick up the phone. Feel free to use the Nutrition Diva Facebook page to connect with other listeners for mutual support. If you’d be interested in forming a private Facebook Group especially for this purpose, let me know and I’ll set that up.

How to Get Others to Change

Finally, let me address the part of Meredith’s question that has to do with convincing her kids and husband to join her in her quest to eat healthier. I’ve talked in the past about strategies for instilling healthy eating habits in kids. But these tips are most effective when your kids are small and you’re still able to call the shots about what they eat. Once kids are old enough to run to the store for chips and candy on their own, it’s a lot tougher to control their eating habits. You could try to sell your boys and husband on the benefits of a healthy diet but the fact is that trying to get other people to change when they don’t want to is usually a huge waste of energy. 

See also: How to Help Loved Ones Get Healthy

Your energy is better spent focusing on your own goals and priorities. Take Ghandi’s advice and “be the change you want to see in the world” (or, in this case, in your kitchen).  Or, to quote another great sage, Grammar Girl, “Show, don’t tell.” In other words, instead of nagging your loved ones about what they should and shouldn’t eat, simply model those healthy eating habits and enjoy the benefits.  Be patient. As your new habits get more ingrained, and the benefits more apparent, it will get easier to stick with them. And don’t be surprised if some of your new healthy eating habits end up rubbing off on the rest of the family, after all. It wouldn’t be the first time.

If you have been successful making positive changes in an unsupportive environment, I want to hear from you! Post your ideas in Comments below or on the Nutrition Diva Facebook page. I’ll share your best ideas in a future blog post or in my free weekly newsletter.

And, if you’re trying to shed a few pounds this year, check out my new e-book, How to Win at Losing: 10 Diet Myths That Keep You From Succeeding. It’s also available as an audiobook (read by me!).

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