5 Things Never to Say to Someone Who Lost a Lot of Weight

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

© Kristo - Gothard Hunor | Dreamstime Stock Photos
Significant weight loss is a unique and personal journey. We share struggles and goals, but at the end of the day we each have our own reasons powerful enough to drive us through the blood, sweat, tears and years it took to reclaim our bodies, our health, our lives.

As individual as our stories are, responses from friends, family and even strangers are surprisingly uniform, and often unintentionally hurtful.

Here are 5 things you should never say to someone who lost a lot of weight.

  1. When did you have the surgery?

I continue to be astonished this is often the first question new acquaintances ask when they find out I lost 140 pounds.

The notion that no one can lose a lot of weight without bariatric surgery is so pervasive that my insurance company actually insisted my doctor provide written documentation of my weight loss proving that I didn't have it. So, I understand why the average person makes the same assumption.

However. Unless you are a doctor and need that detail of their medical history, it doesn't matter how someone lost the weight. Asking is an unbelievable invasion of privacy. Not just medical privacy, but delving into deeply personal, often traumatic issues.

Maybe they have an eating disorder. Maybe they are diabetic. Maybe they had cancer. Maybe they were terrified of dying young like a parent. Maybe they gained the weight as an emotional barrier because of PTSD from childhood sexual abuse and finally got enough therapy to face losing that physical shield.

Asking when someone had a weight loss surgery they may or may not have had is asking them to revisit emotional triggers you know nothing about.

Personally... I find the immediate assumption I could only have had surgery insulting. I spent 12 years working my ass off. Literally.

Success stories are rare, and obviously people ask because they are eager to express supportive curiosity. That is lovely, and we welcome the positivity because our journey is ongoing. But rather than asking when we had surgery... just ask "How long did it take?"  That respects the privacy of any medical decisions we made while showing that no matter how we lost it, you recognize we must have dedicated ourselves to the effort for a very long time.

2.What's your secret?!

They know there's no secret. Everyone knows there's no secret. It is hard work. It is dedication. It is, if the weight loss is to be maintained, a permanent lifestyle change we will wrestle with day in and day out for the rest of our lives.

I realize this question is usually meant more like a "how are you" - a socially generic expression of politely supportive inquiry without the expectation of an honest answer.

In my experience, people are generally looking for my answer to support their confirmation bias regarding their own weight loss efforts. While I can and have engaged in depth with this in a rewarding way, I know that most of the time I am supposed to smile and answer along the lines of "there is no secret, just hard work."

Rather than obligating us to the 7,482nd recitation of this faux conversation, why not just express the general sentiment behind it?  "Wow, that must have taken a lot of work, good for you!" 

Then, all we have to say is a heartfelt "Thank you!"

3. Don't you miss your favorite foods?

Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ, YES. Of course we miss our favorite foods. Thank you for rubbing it in. At a party. While we watch you eat them.

This is another case where expressing the conceptual sentiment behind the question would be a lot less insensitive. "You must have made some really challenging long term changes to your eating habits. Good for you!"

Unless you live it, there is no way to explain what it takes to fight the urge to indulge in our favorite foods. One comment regarding the food we eat may make the emotional difference between winning and losing the battle on any given day. If you feel the need to say something, make it supportive.

4. Call me next time you work out! I want to start exercising and need someone to make sure I stick with it.

I used to fall for this. A lot. I spent years believing people who said they wanted me to help motivate them to exercise.

In the early part of my journey, I felt guilty for failing to help them because I wasn't yet clear they needed to help themselves.

In the middle of my journey, I felt frustration that they were asking me to make a major temporal, logistical and emotional investment in them when I was struggling to keep myself on the right path.

Now, in the maintenance phase of my journey, I feel annoyance that they have no idea what they are asking. Which is for me to trade something like my time slot allotted for a 10 mile run that's planned in a training schedule meticulously arranged around an upcoming race (and work and child care)...  for a 30 minute mosey around the local park trail. Usually followed by peer pressure to go drink twice the calories we just burned in Starbucks.

The thing is, if you ever decide you're ready, you won't need someone to make sure you stick with it. It will come from soul searching. It will come from fierce desire. It will come from inside.

If you do need an outside boost - and we all do sometimes - take an instructor led class or hire a personal trainer. Please don't put someone on the spot who is probably already using every ounce of emotional energy they have to keep themselves on track.

It makes perfect sense to talk about your own fitness goals with someone who has achieved theirs. If you want their guidance because you respect the work they put into adopting a healthy lifestyle, it's more realistic to ask something like "Do you have any tips to help me get started?"

5. Aren't you afraid you'll gain it all back?

The first time someone asked me this question, I was recovering from the last of my weight loss skin removal surgeries. I literally still had stitches in my body. I was flabbergasted.

Statistically, the success rate for weight loss rounds down to zero. Study after study has shown this to be so.  Science has determined that body chemistry remains in an altered state after weight loss. The effect is that our bodies are chronically trying to force us to regain the weight.

This is why it isn't about willpower. It's about biology. And for reasons unknown, this particular biological process is actively waging war against us.  Because of this, long term success stories are so rare there is a national database that tracks them.

We have all dieted, lost some weight, and then been embarrassed to gain it back.  I went through that cycle myself more times than I care to count, back when I still thought diet programs were a thing that could work.

So, YES. I am afraid. Of course I am afraid. My odds of keeping it off approach zero. We all know it.

But here's the thing. How about not asking that after I've been at my goal weight for all of 5 minutes? How about not asking that while I'm recovering from a series of surgeries that cost me my meager retirement fund? How about just not asking that??

Back before I did the emotional work that enabled me to make the drastic, permanent lifestyle changes necessary for this I was just as at risk as the next 99.98% of people of gaining it back.

But I made the sacrifices. I did the therapy. I changed every single thing about the way I was living my life. It took me 2 years to decide I was even ready to try. Because the thing is, those of us who choose this? We first have to accept that it's forever. We have to accept that we must wake up every day for the rest of our lives and make an active choice to continue living this new life. That, or accept the weight back.

Am I afraid? Yes. Do I think my odds of being one of the statistical outliers are good? YES. So much so that I even registered myself for the national tracking database.

There is no way to salvage this question. Don't ask it. Just be supportive. We all know the odds. Let your friend enjoy their success for as long as they can fight for it.

This post is Part 1 in a TBD Part weight loss series
Read Part 2 : The Secret to My Success