Yet another new study shows that Americans are getting fat and fatter. Today the obesity rate is above 20 percent in 49 states, according to a report from the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Just 15 years ago, no state passed that threshold.
Whether you live in the fattest state (Mississippi, where 34.4 percent of adults are obese) or the slimmest one (Colorado, where "just" 19.8 percent are), you may be worrying about loved ones who are packing on the pounds. After all, obesity increases the risk that they will develop heart disease and diabetes. "The increasing girth of Americans is a concern to everyone for reasons of health, well-being, and self-esteem — to say nothing of the public cost of paying for the disease burden associated with obesity," says psychiatrist Elizabeth Berger, author of Raising Kids with Character.
So what should you say (and do)? A few tips:
Don't nag or state the obvious. Don't say, "'You're fat,'" says registered dietitian Bonnie Taub-Dix, author of Read It Before You Eat It. "Whoever is overweight knows they're overweight." Zip your lips if you're tempted to say, "'Do you really think you need another of those, dear,'" she says.
Stress health. "Don't make it about the weight," says Taub-Dix. "Make it about health." Don't point fingers or say, "You are really overweight, and that's why you need to change," she says.
Treat healthy eating as a family affair. A sample line: "I think it would be so cool if all of us could get to eat better," says Taub-Dix. "We could cook together." Why not test some exotic-but-healthy new foods, such as star fruit and Malaysian chicken curry? (For more ideas, read "Top 10 Ways to Get Everyone to be More Adventurous Eaters.") "An enthusiastic, 'Hey, I've decided to turn over a new leaf and eat healthy! Do you want to join me?' can sometimes win supporters," says Berger.
Stop micromanaging. "If they feel you're overcontrolling them, they're going to go into the closet and triple eat," says Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent. That spouse or teen can drive to Burger King and Baskin-Robbins, she notes, "all in one stop."
See a nutritionist. Sometimes Taub-Dix first meets with the slim family member and gives him or her "ammunition," she says. Then that person can tell the rest of the family positive stories about someone who lost 30 pounds, largely by adding more vegetables to his plate and eating almonds. "A good nutritionist will not do it by force but will offer education and will understand that dynamic of getting that wife and mother out of the equation," says Walfish. To get a spouse to make an appointment, you can say, "'I'm concerned, because I love you so much, for our good health and long years together,'" she says. With a daughter, you can say, "'I found a lady named Jane, and her job is to meet with kids and teach them about healthy eating so that their moms and dads don't have to bug them every day about what they eat.'"
Stay positive. "Excessive girth and depression reinforce one another since people who are depressed tend to overeat, and people who are overweight or obese are often depressed," says Berger. "So 'helpful' interventions must be very carefully calibrated to be empathic, enthusiastic, realistic, and long term."
Stock your refrigerator with cut-up veggies. Instead of buying potato chips and then telling everyone not to eat them, chop red bell peppers and celery every morning and put them in containers. "Healthy eating habits consist of long-term over-indulgence in fruits and vegetables and long-term under-indulgence in very caloric, sugary, or fatty foods," says Berger. "A puritanical approach is usually short lived."
Make healthy eating fun. Carl Hindy, a Nashua, N.H., psychologist and co-author of If This Is Love, Why Do I Feel So Insecure, plugs in his GPS and explores out-of-the-way health food stores and ethnic markets with his wife. Then they break old habits and get out of food ruts, too. The couple is also scouting for new restaurants with healthier choices. "It's a shared adventure rather than a dreadful diet," he says.
Exercise together. Don't lecture and say, "You need to start jogging." Instead, explore parks and nature preserves as a couple (or with the kids, too). "The daily walks are a welcomed opportunity to talk," says Hindy. "This joint project can strengthen your relationship, itself an important goal." Most participants in the National Weight Control Registry, who have lost at least 30 pounds and kept it off for at least a year, exercise nearly hour a day. Also, remember that you'll naturally be more physically active if you limit "screen time" — hours logged in front of TV's, videogames, and computer screens.
Skip weigh-ins. A thin family member should not lord it over heavier ones or focus on weight. A "Jack Sprat" couple can still together eat well and exercise together, says Hindy. "Don't make the weight loss the end-all. Make it one of the welcomed byproducts. Let it come from your partner, and compliment the changes that you see."
Make it a joint project. Couples who both want to lose a few pounds should help each other, not compete with each other. "Doing it together means the buddy system: being positive, encouraging, and rewarding one another, keeping it fun and playful," says Hindy. "It's not you versus your spouse to see who is the biggest loser. It's about both of us succeeding." Perhaps as a reward, you can plan a bicycle tour together instead of an all-you-can-eat cruise, says Hindy. "Remember, we are not losing weight to get a better position on the height-weight charts or to flaunt our BMI. We're doing it because we're going to enjoy life in some new ways."
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