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Study: partners sometimes do these things to thwart a diet

The study identified criticism and interference as the two commonly-endorsed kinds of dietary undermining.

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ROCHESTER — As if losing weight wasn't hard enough, sometimes the process can cause friction in a romantic relationship.

In fact, for people who perceive their partner as working against their dietary goals, this phenomenon tends to follows a similar path.

That's the finding from a new study conducted by researchers from the University of Texas at Austin and Western Washington University, and published in the latest issue of the Journal of Health Psychology.

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In theory, healthy relationships are supportive of positive changes in lifestyle. But research has long identified an assortment of ways in which one half of a couple can impede the other's efforts to improve their health.

The actions thwarting dietary progress include bringing home foods of concern, refusing to eat shared healthy meals and wielding criticism about the partner's diet or complaints about their goals.

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Previous research has also suggested that the impact of a partner's opinions on diet are often determined by how the dieter perceives the motivations that produced them. If a partner encouraged a diet out of controlling reasons, for example, that encouragement was less effective.

The new study sought to better understand this quiet household dynamic of dietary tug-of-war when partners undermine a diet. It did so by asking 241 overweight individuals seeking to lose weight for their impressions on whether a romantic partner had acted to undermine their efforts.

It also asked why a dieter believed their partner had acted the way they did, and whether the attempt at weight loss had proven successful or not.

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Rene M. Dailey, professor of communication studies, University of Texas at Austin.
Submitted photo.

"If you have your own internal motivation you might be able to make healthier choices, in the face of opposition," says Rene Dailey, a professor of communication studies and lead author on the paper.

"But if you are in a relational context, whether it's friends, family, or a romantic partner, if that context isn't set up for you to make healthier choices then yes, it is more difficult."

The study identified criticism and interference as the two most commonly endorsed kinds of dietary undermining. It determined that both caused recipients to report less success in reaching their goals.

Criticisms identified by the study included a partner making discouraging predictions, and a partner complaining that the dietary efforts negatively affected them.

"With criticism and complaint," Dailey says, "it might be saying things like, 'Oh, you don't really need to do that,' or, 'You're going to fail anyway,' or, 'Why do you feel like you need to do that, because I like you the way you are?'"

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"We tend to think of undermining as a negative thing, but these data show that partners could have very good reason of getting in the way of weight management practices if such practices are pretty extreme.

"But overall, if partners are really critical, or if they are complaining about the weight loss, that is going to thwart an individual's effort to lose weight."

The forms of interference identified in Dailey's research included ordering items at a restaurant the partner was trying to avoid, and urging the dieter to eat foods that were not on their meal plan.

The study also identified six perceived motivations from the point of view of dieters at play during undermining. Three were selfish in nature, while three were "prosocial," or born of sincere concern.

"We wanted to find out what are the undermining behaviors, verbal and behavioral, but also what do (persons making dietary changes) see as the motivations behind them," Dailey said.

"If we see that they have our best interest at heart, that they think I am perfect the way I am, maybe that has less of an effect on my weight management, or actually helps my weight management, rather than hinders it.

"But if I feel like it's happening because my partner is negatively comparing themselves to me, or they have fears about the relationship, or they don't want to change their own lifestyle, maybe that has more negative effects."

Of the six perceived motivations listed in the findings, just two were reported as linked with dietary failure. They were a prosocial perceived motivation driving criticism that the dieter was at risk of harming their health, and a selfish perceived motivation driving interference in the diet, stemming from the non-dieting partner's unhappiness.

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Going forward, Dailey hopes to conduct a study of partners who undermine dietary change.

"This is one piece of the puzzle in terms of trying to understand all the different sides of how hard it is to lose weight in a relationship context ... We're trying to figure out the whole puzzle," Dailey said.

Related Topics: NEWSMDHEALTH
Paul John Scott is the health reporter for NewsMD and the Rochester Post Bulletin. He is a novelist and was an award-winning magazine journalist for 15 years prior to joining the FNS in 2019.
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