Is There a Polite Way to Tell Someone They Need to Lose Weight?

When a friend or loved one complains about needing to lose weight, is horrified at the prospect of wearing a swimsuit in public or otherwise criticizes her own body, most of us have the same knee-jerk reaction—something along the lines of, "Stop it, you look great, you're perfect just the way you are!"

It's a kindhearted and well-meaning response. And, indeed, it is important for people to learn to accept and even embrace themselves at any weight. But is there ever a time when it's okay, or even supportive, to suggest to someone that it would be in his or her best interest to make some changes? Obviously, you don't want to walk around commenting on the weight of everyone you meet, but what if a loved one's lifestyle is putting him at risk for health problems, limiting her mobility or causing mental distress? Should you speak up and possibly bruise their ego for the sake of potentially improving—or perhaps even saving—his or her life?

When It's Time to Speak Up

The subject of losing weight can be touchy, but it doesn’t have to be taboo. When timed appropriately and voiced with compassion, it could ultimately help to point your loved one in a healthy new direction.

According to clinical psychologist Dr. Aviva Gaskill, some frank discussion could be in order if someone is displaying any of these tendencies:
  • Is quickly gaining a large amount of weight
  • Has high blood pressure or high cholesterol
  • Snores very loudly or experiences other sleep disturbances
  • Has back, knee, hip and/or neck pain that limits mobility
  • Gets out of breath walking short distances or up the stairs
"If the person expresses their own concern or makes comments about their weight, it also might be an important time to have the conversation," Dr. Gaskill adds.

Gaskill also points out that if there are medical conditions tied to the weight gain, your well-meaning warning may not be all that's needed. "If a person is pregnant or has a medical condition that might induce weight gain, such as some thyroid issues, an autoimmune disease or other [disease], and you're concerned that they are gaining too much weight too quickly, it's always better to direct the person to speak with their medical providers," she says.

Your decision to speak or stay silent should also hinge on the nature of your relationship with the person. "Bring it up only if you have an intimate relationship with the person that is grounded on a solid foundation of trust, respect, empathy and compassion," says psychotherapist Dr. Paul Hokemeyer. "If the person you care for is struggling and has either expressly or implicitly let you know that they are looking for guidance and support, it's okay to mention as kindly as possible that you're available to help them sort through some options to cultivate a healthier lifestyle."

If it's your boss, colleague or someone you don't know very well, Dr. Gaskill says it might be more beneficial to act as a caring listener or gentle question-asker but to refrain from doling out explicit comments or advice. "The only people you really should speak with about losing weight are close friends and family, people you care about and who care about you," she suggests.

If you have a feeling the person might not be receptive to your well-intentioned message, another option is to take the more roundabout route of expressing your concerns to your loved one's doctor(s) and letting them take the heat. "If you can tell your mother's doctor that you have some concerns about her weight, you don't have to play the 'bad guy,' and her doctor can help her from a medical standpoint rather than having it come from you," says Dr. Gaskill.

Also, if someone expresses frequent concerns about her weight when she appears to be at a healthy weight—or perhaps even underweight—Dr. Gaskill says the person may need to seek professional help. "Anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders can be incredibly dangerous and even life-threatening when they've gone untreated," she warns.

How to Broach the Weight Loss Topic

Once you've decided to introduce the topic of weight loss to someone close to you, try these expert-recommended strategies to ensure effective and empathetic communication.
  • Bring up the topic artfully: "Remember that no two human beings are alike ,and that what we say is heard differently by different people," says Dr. Hokemeyer. "Always consider your comments from the point of view of the person hearing them, rather than focusing solely on what you are saying."
  • Lead with compassion. Dr. Gaskill says it's best to express your thoughts about your loved one's weight gain from a place of love and concern rather than frustration. "Before broaching the weight topic, remind yourself that you want to talk to them about this issue because you love them and you want them in your life for many years to come," she suggests. "Approaching someone with care will almost always lead to a better outcome than acting frustrated with them. Keep your voice calm and quiet throughout the conversation."
  • Use the person's own words. "If the person has voiced her own concerns to you, remind her using her own words how frustrated she said she was with her weight," suggests Dr. Gaskill. For example, you might say something like, "Do you remember our conversation last week when you told me you were upset that your pants weren't fitting well anymore?" Or, "Just a couple of days ago you sounded so annoyed that Donna from work brought in cookies and left them in the break room, yet again."
  • Don't push too hard. Be prepared for some degree of resistance, and roll with it. In fact, Dr. Gaskill calls this technique "rolling with resistance." If someone bristles at your advice, follow his lead rather than arguing with him, but also let him know that you're always available to talk about the issue when he's ready. "If you push someone too hard to discuss their weight and they are not ready, they will often feel resentful and closed off rather than open and available to discuss," she says.

Words to Avoid

  • "Should." Dr. Hokemeyer says the word "should" in any format—as in, "you should really exercise more often," or "you really shouldn't be eating that"—causes shame and rings of disdain and judgment. He recommends replacing any versions of "should" with "might," as in, "You might want to consider…"
  • "You, you, you." Instead of positing the process as something your loved one needs to tackle on her own, invite her to work with you on weight loss, and assure her that you’re on her team. For instance, the two of you could start walking together, sharing healthy recipes and serving as mutual motivational sounding boards. "Even if you live far from one another, you can still motivate each other to work out and make a daily or weekly time to talk about your progress," says Dr. Gaskill. That said, don't feel like you are your loved one's only hope of success, as that's a heavy burden to bear.
  • "Fat" or "skinny." Dr. Gaskill recommends steering clear of any version of the word "fat" when expressing a concern about weight gain. Also, she notes that most experts avoid using the term "diet," as it has negative connotations. Instead, she suggests referring to the person's "eating habits." Also—particularly if you are a fit or smaller-bodied person—remind your loved one that the goal is to be healthy, not necessarily skinny. "Express concern as a health-related issue rather than about the way the person looks," Dr. Gaskill suggests. "If you discuss looks, the person may feel a sense of shame, but if you share that you want them to live a long, healthy life, it's a lot harder for them to reject your love and concern."
When it comes from a place of compassion, your well-timed, carefully crafted advice could be the gentle nudge your loved one needs to make some life-changing, or even life-saving, adjustments. If you tailor your message to your audience, choose the right words and ultimately let the person lead the conversation, there's a greater chance that your warning will be well-received.