THURSDAY, Aug. 8 (HealthDay News) -- Urging a partner to diet
may seem like a supportive thing to do, but a new study finds it
can trigger unhealthy habits such as fasting and taking diet pills
-- measures that can then lead to severe eating disorders.
Both women and men tended to react negatively to their partners'
well-meaning encouragement, said researcher Marla Eisenberg, an
associate professor of adolescent health and medicine at the
University of Minnesota.
"Romantic partners provide important feedback about each other's weight," Eisenberg said. "Encouraging a loved one to diet, however, may do more harm than good."
In 2008 and 2009, she surveyed nearly 1,300 young adults in
Minnesota, ages 20 to 31 and in relationships.
More than 40 percent of those surveyed had used extreme dieting
behaviors in the past year, she found. Binge eating nearly doubled
among women whose partners encouraged dieting ''very much''
compared to ''not at all." While about 14 percent of women who were
not urged to diet engaged in binge eating, more than 25 percent of
those urged to diet ''very much'' did so.
While about 4 percent of men who were not urged to diet by their
partner engaged in binge eating, 14 percent of those who
experienced constant urging to diet engaged in the behavior, the
The study is published in the July/August issue of the
American Journal of Health Promotion.
About half of the men and women said their significant other
encouraged them to diet either a little, somewhat, or very much.
More than 56 percent said their partner dieted to lose weight.
About half of the men and women were normal weight or
underweight, 27 percent were overweight and 22 percent were obese,
according to the report.
Eisenberg didn't ask the men and women why they resorted to
unhealthy behaviors if they were urged to diet, but she has an
idea. "We would speculate that suggesting that a partner should
lose weight or diet implies that the partner is overweight,
unattractive, not sexy anymore, etc., which can be a very painful
message to hear," she said.
"Hurtful comments, even if well-intentioned, may contribute to poorer body image and unhealthy eating behaviors," Eisenberg explained.
The findings held for both men and women, she said, but were
slightly more pronounced and consistent for women. That men were
also affected didn't surprise Eisenberg. "Men have body image
issues, too, of course," she added.
Edward Abramson, a clinical psychologist in Chico, Calif., who
has written about emotional eating, is not surprised that urging
people to diet doesn't lead to healthy behaviors. "Almost 100
percent of the population who is overweight knows it," he said.
"They know bacon and donuts have more calories than celery."
When he leads weight-control groups, Abramson finds those
constantly urged to diet and lose weight sometimes go out of their
way to overeat, a kind of rebellion against their partner, he
Abramson said he is ''not a big fan of dieting." Instead, he
encourages partners to work together on weight issues. If they're
going out to eat, for instance, one could suggest sharing a main
course. If they are putting a meal together at home, they could
focus on keeping it healthy.
Study author Eisenberg suggested, "If someone is genuinely
concerned about their partner's weight, the recommendation is to
discuss it emphasizing health rather than appearance, and focusing
on adopting a healthier lifestyle long term rather than dieting
(which is usually characterized by restrictions that are difficult
to maintain and not effective for weight loss in the long
Partners should be careful how they verbalize encouragement to
lose weight, she said. "Encouragement like 'Will you join me for a
walk after dinner? I'd love the company' will probably be received
better than 'You should skip the ice cream tonight.'"
For information on eating disorders, visit the
American Psychological Association.
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