Are Your Friends Making You Fat?

Have you ever noticed that when you hang out with negative people, their sense of "gloom and doom" tends to rub off on you? Conversely, when you surround yourself with positive, optimistic people, you’ll likely find your own spirits start to lift.

It stands to reason, then, that the same would hold true for weight loss. In fact, studies have shown that eating and exercise habits can have a ripple effect. In one study, when people participated in a weight-loss program, their partners (who were not in the program) also lost weight—which seems to support the idea that our nutrition and movement choices can directly impact those around us.

If weight loss is contagious, then is the reverse also true? Can you gain weight as a result of the people around you? How much does the company you keep impact the number on the scale? "It is said that we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with," says Lizeth Santamaria, founder, coach and speaker at Discover Your Power. "I believe this is true, and that you can also apply this belief to weight loss and even weight gain."

Personal trainer Rui Li sees this a lot in her line of work. "One of the [negative] signs is when you see that your friends or family take actions that don't support your weight-loss progress," she says. For example, maybe your loved ones are fully aware of your expressed dietary concerns but choose a restaurant that has no dishes that are diet-compliant for you. Similarly, they might make unsupportive comments, such as "you're so picky" or "just live a little."

That said, you might not want to completely cut out these people from your life—and you shouldn’t have to. With the right approach, it is possible to stay on track with your health and weight loss goals, even if you feel as though your inner circle is weighted negatively against you.

Know Your Circle

Think about the people you spend the most time with. Are your friends, family members and loved ones asking you to skip your workouts and encouraging you to eat bad things? Or are they motivating you to keep up with your health and fitness goals, or even taking up healthy eating habits and working out alongside you?

"It’s important to know whether the people that you choose to surround yourself with are on the same health journey as you," Santamaria says. "This will help you determine whether or not they can be a positive influence when you are trying to make healthy choices [and] also [will] help you establish whether these individuals will understand and be supportive of your health journey."

Once you have made this determination, you have the power to allow them to negatively or positively influence you. On the other hand, you also have the power to serve as a positive influence for them.

Be Confident in Your Commitment

Dani Singer, a trainer with Fit2Go Personal Training, notices that people often shy away from telling their partners or close friends about their new weight-loss plan. Some common reasons might include, "I don't want it to be awkward," or "I don't want my friend/spouse to mock me" or "I don’t want to be embarrassed if I fail."

When working with new clients, Singer recommends that they talk to their friends or spouses about their weight-loss plan. "The key here is that you have to be genuinely committed to this plan, and communicate that clearly," he says. "If you don't take your own commitment seriously, you can't expect anyone else to. That said, if you have a sincere conversation and explain your plan with confidence, you might be surprised by how supportive your loved ones actually are. They may even be willing to actively take steps to help, like providing extra accountability or refraining from eating junk in front of you."

If, after having a sincere conversation, your loved one is still not supportive of your success, this likely signals a deeper issue that needs to be addressed. You deserve to be surrounded by people who encourage you.

Instead of Judging, Provide Healthy Opportunities

When attempting to make better food choices, it’s easy to come off as self-righteous to those who haven’t made the same commitment. Alex McBrairty, a certified personal trainer with A-Team Fitness, notes that constantly calling out your friends for their bad eating habits isn’t likely to convert them to a healthier way of life.

"Everyone has their reasons for doing what they do," McBrairty says. "It took very specific, motivating factors that led you to start your fitness journey and commit yourself to living a healthier life. Instead of ostracizing your friends, try to understand their motives. Once they find their own reasons, they will commit to making better choices, too."

McBrairty suggests providing your loved ones with opportunities to participate in your healthy activities. Whether it’s helping you cook a healthy meal, prepping food for the week or going on a weekend walk or jog together, offer frequent invitations to join you on [your] healthy adventures. "The key here is ‘invitations,’" he says. "Be persistent, but not pushy. Let them know that they can join you if they’d like, and let them know often."

Stop Comparing Plates

If you find yourself eating more to equalize the portions on your friends’ or family members’ plates, your dining company might be influencing your eating decisions. Stop and pay attention during the next shared meal—do you feel that your portions or food choices need to be equal to that of your companions?

Personal trainer Kasey Shuler advises her clients to think about the other person less as a measure of comparison and more as a conversation companion. "When you’re finished eating and are tempted to eat more to catch up with the other person’s amount, ask them a question and fill up on your social interaction meter instead of overfilling on food," she suggests.

Stick to Your Goals

Santamaria says the most important factor of success is to establish your health goals and stick to them. That might mean prioritizing your daily workout before hanging out with your friends, ordering a healthy option on the menu instead of the unhealthy foods your family is ordering or even declining certain activities that will take you off track from your health and fitness goals.

A few things Santamaria suggests to help you stick to your health goals include getting enough rest, prepping your meals, bringing healthy snacks along with you and incorporating fitness activities that you enjoy.

Be a Leader

Every social circle has a leader—someone who implicitly decides what behaviors are normal in the group.

"If unhealthy eating behaviors are the norm in your group, it makes sense that this would increase your chances of being overweight," says McBrairty. "Stay committed to your program and share your successes (in a non-boastful way) to establish new group norms. Eventually, being fit and healthy will become the new normal in the group."

One of the side benefits of prioritizing your own health is that, by default, you will become a positive influence on those around you.

As Santamaria points out, the decisions we make along our health journey will either help us move forward or cause us to regress. "If you choose to continue to make good decisions for your health, you can be a positive influence on your friends, family and loved ones in your circle," she says.