The Goonies had Chunk, Take That had Gary Barlow, the college fraternity of Robot House from Futurama had Fat Bot and your mates have, um, you. Sorry, but it seems to be an unshakeable cliché that every group of friends needs a fat one; someone to be the lovable, chubby butt of all the pie jokes; to make the other members of the group look and feel slimmer in comparison. So what happens when you decide to lose weight and decide you no longer want to be The Fat One?
The people you work with, live with and socialise with can have a huge impact on your weight loss, because they have the power to inform everything from your diet and fitness regime to your self-esteem. This can either be a real positive if they’re cheering you on but the danger arises when this power is wielded irresponsibly. As Men’s Health Forum editor Martin Tod puts it, “Men are less likely to recognise that they’re overweight than women – and less likely to consider being overweight a risk to their health – so male friends will probably start off less than sympathetic.”
The problem may be that your mates don’t want you to lose weight. This problem tends to manifest itself in one of three ways. The first, and easiest to recognise, is bullying. Registered Dietician Aisling Pigott of the British Dietetic Association warns that because social occasions for groups of male friends tend to revolve around food and alcohol, and a positive change in behaviour for one member of the group can serve to highlight the extravagant behaviour of the rest. As Martin Tod, editor of menshealthforum.org.uk says, “Sometimes it’s easier to make a joke about someone who’s trying to lose weight than to confront that you might need to do it yourself.”
It’s all too easy to chalk this stuff up as friendly banter, but as Martin warns, banter can be harmful and counterproductive. When your mates are mocking you for ordering salad at the steakhouse or struggling to do your first sit-up, they’re bullying you every bit as much as when they used to get you to perform the Truffle Shuffle back in school. As Martin advises, this behaviour stems from a psychology of hierarchy that exists in male peer groups. If the alpha male types become threatened it’s natural to respond to a threat with increased aggression; albeit that tends to be passive aggression rather than pinning you down and scenting you with their urine (if that happens, you definitely need new mates).
The second, slightly less obvious way in which your mates can ruin your diet is misplaced advocacy. This is where your friends, seemingly with their hearts in the right place, belittle your lifestyle choices by insisting that having dessert “won’t kill you” or telling you with cast-iron certainty that you need to do P90X or you don’t stand a chance. Pigott explains that in this behaviour stems from social politeness, “It’s the desire to ensure our mates don’t go without,” she says. “It’s the reason we continue to offer that extra lager or bag of chips, even if they are aware that the person is trying to lose weight.”
From Men’s Health Forum editor Martin’s perspective, the problem is that men tend to prefer to be more proactive than reactive; that we prefer to weigh in with our own opinions and be problem-solvers, rather than be supportive good listeners. All well and good when we have expert knowledge of a given subject, but we’re all too happy to blag it when we don’t know what we’re talking about.
The third, manifestation of your mates not supporting you is pure and simple apathy. It’s unlikely that your social circle will consciously aim to sabotage your efforts (see the note about urine above if so), but the bottom line is that people don’t like change and will usually do anything to maintain the status quo, so if you find that your mates are ribbing you for the “rabbit food” on your plate, or for cutting down on the lager and pub snacks, or for the way you look in your sweatpants, it’s important that you understand their motives. Once you realise that this behaviour says more about them than it does you, you’ll be able to look at ways to combat it.
So, once you understand the negative effect your friends are having on your weight loss, what can you do about it?
Solution: Cut negative people out of your life
Let’s start with the bullies. The extreme solution would be to cut these people out of your life. It’s like your mum always said, if they were your real friends they would understand and support you. Assuming they have some redeeming characteristic the answer here would be to accept that support isn’t their strong suit and simply put the worst offenders on the back burner for a while until your diet is more firmly on course. If you can’t cut them out dilute them – think of the positive people in your life and drop them a text about a game of squash.
Solution: Understand where they’re coming from
The key to this, as with all bullying, is to recognise that it’s all about self-esteem. When your mates are belting out “Who Ate All the Pies?” the object is not to make you feel bad, but to make themselves feel good. We each carry our own personal feelings of inadequacy and the secret is that we’re all pretty much as crazy as each other and they’ll have their own concerns they don’t want highlighting. When you start to lose weight the bully now begins to fear that the focus will turn to his baldness, shortness, and/or inability to pronounce the letter ‘R’.
Solution: Watch your language
Start talking about your weight loss efforts in a different way. Martin Tod suggests that some of the negative associations men hold with dieting might simply be about the terms we use. “You’re probably more likely to have the piss taken out of you if you say you’re dieting than if you say you’re getting fit. Men aren’t too keen on the ‘D’ word” – perhaps because products like Diet Coke are marketed so squarely at women, making a diet a somewhat emasculating prospect for a bloke.”
Instead focus on your exercise regime and how much stronger and fitter you’re getting. Focus on the foods that are enabling you to smash through your personal bests. You’re beefing up on protein to increase your lean muscle mass and you’re balancing all the cardio by massively increasing your nutrient intake with vitamin-rich foods. Throw in some impressive-sounding terms and a statistic or two and they’ll be hooked.
Solution: Get honest and explain why you need this to work
Guys who have a healthy relationship with food never understand the rest of us who don’t. The men who claim they can “eat anything and never put on any weight” don’t have some kind of superhuman metabolism; they just don’t know what it means to truly overeat; habitually, without heed. Explain how you feel about it. Tell them that you can’t give yourself an inch without taking a mile; that allowing yourself to let the diet slip for a day can set you down a slippery slope. If you decide that placating them is the easier option all round, plan ahead so you can fit the odd treat into your lifestyle without blowing the whole thing and jumping crazed into a Scrooge McDuck-style vault full of chocolate coins.
Solution: Involve your friends in your weight loss
This brings us to the final tactic you can employ to get all of your friends onside, no matter which category they fall into, and that’s getting them involved. Men’s Health Forum editor Martin, “Your mates can be a great support – particularly if they decide to join you in tackling their weight and improving their fitness as well.” This could be something as simple as getting them competitive and organising a kick-about before the pub, or it could be something monumental, like training together for an actual marathon and raising a few sovs for a charity close to your hearts.
Dietician Aisling explains that you might also want to find a new HQ. With 1g of alcohol containing almost as many calories as 1g of fat, alcohol is a diet-killer for many reasons, “Despite being very energy dense, alcohol stimulates most peoples’ appetites, leading to feelings of hunger. And because alcohol lowers our inhibitions, this in combination with stimulating appetite often leads to a trip down to the kebab shop.”
The support that you get during your weight loss is going to be a huge factor in its success or failure. Obviously, you’ve got Man V Fat on your side, but to have the people you meet in real life onside is a massive factor. Planning for their responses (good and bad) and setting them up to be the perfect diet buddy is just one way you can ensure that your mission to beat fat is successful – then all you have to do is pick the new fat guy and start giving them some stick.