In It Together - How a Diet Partner Helps You Lose Weight

For years, the M&M’s on a secretary’s desk at the Trumbull County courthouse in northeastern Ohio were Claudia Cabot’s downfall. Cabot, 45, a juvenile docketing clerk, would eat them by the handful (the bowl was no dainty glass dish — it was a Sam’s Club special.)

 After she started Real Appeal in March 2017, she still found them hard to pass by, especially when she was stressed, but she had help: her diet buddy, Magistrate Deborah Rudloff, 69.

“She would just be very encouraging,” Cabot said of Rudloff. “I’d walk into her office with a handful of M&M’s and she’d say jokingly, ‘Do you need that?’ And I’d end up only having three or four because I knew if I deprived myself, I’d just binge later.’”

Cabot said Rudloff’s help was instrumental in helping her lose 40 pounds. Rudloff actually inspired her to start Real Appeal in the first place, talking it up at work after she’d lost a few pounds. And Rudloff, for her part, credited Cabot with a key role in her own loss of 37 pounds.

“Having a person there that was truly supportive and not competitive was priceless,” Rudloff said. “A lot of my friends were overweight, so you couldn’t brag, ‘Hey, I lost 10 pounds’ because they didn’t want to hear it.”

 Weight loss is typically thought of as an individual process, but studies show that diet and exercise behaviors are highly influenced by the people around us. A 2005 study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology found that people with at least one successful weight loss buddy lost more weight than those who tried to go it alone or those who had no successful (at least in weight loss) pals. Current recommendations, such as those from the CDC, also endorse social support.

“You see someone else doing a behavior and it prompts you,” explained Amy Gorin, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut and the study’s lead author. “If I order a healthy lunch, you’re more likely to have one.” The flip side is also true: If your friend orders dessert, you’re also more likely to indulge.

The Key to a Good Buddy

 What makes for a good weight loss buddy? The key is just that he or she is successful — something that may be hard to know for sure when you’re first starting a diet. Of course you can pick someone who has already lost a few pounds, as Rudloff had when she and Cabot teamed up.

 Or Gorin, also the director of UConn’s Institute for Collaboration on Health, Intervention, and Policy (InCHIP), suggests looking for someone “who seems like they’re really motivated to embark on healthy changes.” That person should not feel like the food police. Instead, she said, “You want to think about whether this person can really understand what you’re going through and isn’t going to be judgmental about the slips and lapses.”

Rudloff recommends being open to who might constitute a good partner — and perhaps reaching out beyond your comfort zone. There’s no type of buddy that’s better than another type — it depends on what you need to help keep you accountable. You could ask someone in your weight loss class or look farther afield — maybe the woman standing in the cereal aisle also double-checking ingredients is also motivated to lose weight. 

If you want someone who is willing to exercise with you, you’ll need someone who lives nearby who can make that commitment — and who is available when you are. (Your local gym may be able to do some matching.) If you think online daily check-ins will work, consider a digital accountability group, such as those found on free apps where you can, for example, share your food diary with a buddy. 

If the relationship isn’t working — maybe she’s no longer available much, or the way he calls you out on food behavior feels too much like being policed — it may be time to break things off. Consider a frank conversation about your goals and the level of support you need to reach them. Maybe this will spark renewed determination in your buddy; otherwise you can agree to take a break, with the possibility that maybe you’ll team up again in the future (hey, you never know). 

“Claudia and I aren’t social buddies or exercise buddies, but we were at the same place mentally,” said Rudolph. Rudloff, who recently retired, said she and Cabot don’t see each other often, but “we text, and she holds a special place in my heart.”

 Rudloff and Cabot also bonded over how to enlist the support of spouses who were overweight.  A 2018 study, on which Gorin also worked, found that when one half of a couple loses weight steadily, the partner does, too. “It’s a ripple effect,” Gorin said.

Of course buddying up with a male partner may be challenging for some women. Men may often lose weight faster than women, and, says Gorin, usually have more “obvious” changes to make — like swapping out sugar-sweetened beverages — than women, many of whom  may have been watching their diets for a while. If you’re someone who finds this frustrating, your spouse-as-weight-loss-confidant may not be your best bet.

When Your Buddy Is Your Spouse or Partner

Others may find their spouse or partner is an ideal weight loss buddy.

Consider the case of Amber and her husband, Jade Wagner, who live in Sarasota, FL, and started Real Appeal in the fall of 2017, when Amber spotted it on a mailing from Jade’s work.

 “I’m terrible at holding myself accountable, and I said, ‘I need you to help me do this,” said Amber, 34, a stay-at-home mom. After having two kids — and a lot of butter-laden grits and a chain restaurant’s apple cheesecake — she was 5’5” and 213 pounds, and tired of feeling tired all the time. Jade, 30, was 5’10” and 333 pounds. 

He agreed to sign up and take the weekly classes with her because she asked him, though he was initially skeptical he’d get much out of it. (The pair had once belonged to a gym together, but never managed to go.)

When they received the kitchen scales and information about portion control from Real Appeal, both were shocked to see how much they were eating. “I look back and see there were nights we were eating 3,000 calories between dinner, drinks and dessert,” says Amber. They switched everything white to whole wheat, and began cooking with more fresh vegetables. Often, they would choose a bowl of oatmeal instead of the buttery grits — “A third of the calories and just as filling,” says Amber.

 Once they began losing weight, they shared the victories — and frustrations — with each other.

 “It bums you out when you don’t lose or you don’t see results,” says Jade. “My wife would say, ‘Hey, it’s fine. Just keep doing what you’re doing.’” She encouraged him to stay positive when he’d come home, irritated that a friend with miracle metabolism could eat two pizzas and seemingly not gain an ounce.

They also helped each other stay on track — in two years of Real Appeal, Amber eventually lost 48 pounds, while Jade lost 78. They still had cake for birthdays and anniversaries — “there was never anything we couldn’t have,” says Amber — but they’d encourage each other to make healthier choices for other parts of the meal.

 “One of us would say, ‘Oh, let’s have mashed potatoes for dinner, and the other one would go, ‘Do we really need that on top of everything else?’” she said.

 Added Jade: “It was great to have somebody to do that.”

Real Appeal members who attend four or more sessions during the program lose 10 pounds on average. Talk to your doctor before starting any weight loss program.

Copyright © 2019 Real Appeal, Inc. All rights reserved.

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