You want to tell someone “You should lose weight.” What should you say?

Your friend, adult child, parent, brother or sister is overweight or obese, perhaps unhealthily so. You want to help. So you decide you will tell them they should lose weight.

This is a very dumb idea. Let’s think it through.

They know

Remember, we are talking about adults here.

Every adult in our society is well aware of how their weight compares to what society thinks is appropriate. This includes men, women, young people, old people, and everyone in between. So you are not sharing any information your friend, adult child, parent, etc. doesn’t already know.

Given that, there are several possibilities.

It is possible that the person you are speaking with is already at a healthy weight. In that case, your advice is wrong. So don’t share it.

It is possible that the person is at a weight that you think is too heavy, looks bad, or could be better, but they think is just fine. If they are happy with their weight — and trust me, they’ve thought about it — why do you feel it is up to you to change their mind? You won’t. So don’t bring it up.

It is possible that the person is well aware of being overweight and is unhappy about how they look, or feels that their current weight is unhealthy. They know they have a problem. Your bringing it up is not helping. So don’t.

But they need my advice

If you’re bringing up a person’s weight just to “make them aware,” well, that’s pretty silly, because they are already aware.

If you are bringing up a person’s weight to provide advice that will help them lose weight, I can understand the impulse, but it’s not going to help.

Maybe you have a diet that you love. Diets generally help people lose weight — temporarily. Then they are far more likely to gain it back, or even add more. Even if a diet worked for you, it likely won’t work for a person very different from you. They didn’t ask for your advice, and they’re not going to listen.

Maybe you have some other fitness or wellness program that worked. Even if it is not a diet, the same thing applies. What worked for you won’t necessarily work for them, they didn’t ask for advice, and they’re not going to listen.

Maybe you have a professional or organization you’ve worked with, like Weight Watchers or a dietitian or a program at hospital. That might actually help. But — say it with me once again — what worked for you won’t necessarily work for them, they didn’t ask for advice, and they’re not going to listen.

I know you’re just trying to help.

But think about it for a minute. Did you ever get advice and actually follow it at some point in the past?Was it about something you were already well aware of, or something you hadn’t realized? Did you ask for help or was it offered unsolicited?

Nobody follows unsolicited advice about things they already know about. That applies to weight loss and wellness just as much as it does to any other “flaw” they might be concerned about.

What you will end up doing

So what happens when you give people unsolicited advice about something personal to them, something they didn’t ask for, like their weight?

Will you make them feel bad. Maybe.

Will they resent you? Yes.

Will you damage your relationship? Yes.

Will this get in the way of all the other interactions you have with them? Yes.

Will you create real pain in someone with an eating disorder, and possibly start another episode? You don’t know if your friend has an eating disorder, so you don’t really know if you will. It’s possible.

Will they change? It’s conceivable. But not because you brought it up. If they change, it will be because they decide to change — a decision that you will have nothing to do with.

So what should you do?

Nothing. Accept your friend, child, parent, or sibling as they are.

I know you want to help. I know your intentions are good (probably). But whatever your intentions, you’re not going to accomplish anything by telling a person to lose weight.

There are things you can do.

If you are having success, you can share your success. Your success is about you. If that sparks interest in the person you’re speaking with, they may ask for information. (Of course, if you’ve never had a problem with weight, don’t bring it up, they don’t want to hear about how effortless it is for you.) If you share your hard-won success, it’s entirely possible that they will tell you to shut up, that they’re not interested in hearing about that right now. Respect those wishes. You’ll have to get validation, or whatever you’re seeking, from someone who doesn’t resent hearing about your success.

If they ask you for help, then you can share what worked for you (if you think it would help your friend, of course). If they bring it up with you, you can certainly connect people to resources. If you don’t have any, tell them to talk to their doctor or insurance company — doctors are generally aware of successful programs in their area, because they have many patients who may need them.

Even if they ask you for help, limit what you share to information, referrals, and support. Resist the urge to get in the middle of this, or to “coach” your friend. Avoid using shame and fear as motivational tools. A person who wants help with weight loss is almost certainly in an emotionally uncomfortable state. Don’t make it worse. Nutritionists and dietitians are skilled and trained at this. You aren’t.

But you want to help

Do you?

Why do you want to say something here? Before you look at your friend, child, parent, etc. who you believe needs to lose weight, look at yourself.

Do you dislike the way they look? That’s your problem. How they look is important to them, not you. If you don’t like the way they look, why impose your standards on someone else? If you look at someone and don’t like what you see, why do you feel the need to judge others?

Do you have a desire to change the world for the better? Good for you. Don’t impose it on people who didn’t ask for your help. Find someone who is asking for help, and help them. Your desire to help is not the same as someone else’s need.

Do you have a real concern about someone’s health? Assuming you do, recognize that you cannot fix their health by telling them something they already know. If they have a serious weight problem, they know it’s not good for their metabolism or their joints. Your desire to “fix” them is not helping if they don’t want to be fixed.

Do you feel overweight people are a drain on society and health care? If so, do you really think that shaming your friends is the way to fix things? Or are you, maybe, just maybe, a little prejudiced about people who are different from you?

If losing weight was anything other than extremely slow and difficult, people wouldn’t have so much trouble with it. Your desire to help isn’t helping.

Consider saying nothing. It’s hard, I know, but it is an option. Because saying “You need to lose weight” is not going to accomplish what you think it will.

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  1. When I saw the headline, my first thought was “Don’t.” You explained very well why. Thank you.

  2. Sounds like hard lessons won here. I’ve been on both sides of this. I am reaching now for a path that forgives and lets umwanted advice drop harmlessly behind me. It’s not who I am.

  3. Excellent advice. My mom (may she rest in peace, I miss her) once took me to an “all you can eat” brunch, after which she told me the percentage of obese Americans and added “and you need to lose weight.”

    I laughed, especially at the juxtaposition, but said “I know that, Mom.”