Remember what the road to hell is paved with? Yep, good intentions. So even though your intentions are good when you “encourage” family members and friends to eat more healthfully, if you overstep and start to seem like the self-appointed Food Police, there could be a very damaging backlash. For instance…

  • The people you’re trying to help may assert their independence by obstinately doing the opposite of what you’re pushing for.
  • Your criticism may wound a loved one’s self-esteem.
  • Relationships can be damaged or destroyed if other people decide to tune you out or avoid you altogether to escape your proselytizing.

Food Police are all too common. “In my practice, I routinely counsel couples and families in which one person has unwittingly offended another in an effort to help that person eat better,” said Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, CDN, owner of BTD Nutrition Consultants in New York City and Long Island, New York, and author of Read It Before You Eat It.

Here’s what to do—and what not to do—to help those you cherish clean up their eating habits…

Focus on health, not on weight. Harping on body size is likely to backfire and even may contribute to eating disorders. Evidence: In a recent study of almost 1,300 adults, people whose partners strongly pressured them to lose weight during the previous year were much more likely to engage in binge eating, regardless of their weight. Bingeing occurred among 25% of women and 14% of men whose partners pushed them to slim down, versus 14% of women and 4% of men whose partners did not do so.

The problem, Taub-Dix explained, is that by emphasizing weight, you sound judgmental rather than supportive. “Saying something like, ‘I thought you were trying to lose weight, so why are you eating that cake?’ only makes the other person resentful. She may even think to herself, ‘I’ll show you—not only am I going to eat cake, I’m going to have two slices!’ Or she may start to angrily sneak food when you’re not around,” Taub-Dix said.

Better strategy: Gently remind your loved one that you care for her and want her to be healthy…so you can enjoy each other’s company for many years to come. Expressing concern about another person’s health does not carry the same sense of censure as expressing dissatisfaction with her weight. Then share information, such as articles on good nutrition, so that information comes across as objective and helpful rather than judgmental.

Pick the right time and place. It may seem logical to talk about food while you and the other person are actually eating—such as when you see your loved one eating that slice (or two!) of cake mentioned earlier. But in fact, that’s the worst time to initiate such a discussion, Taub-Dix said. Reasons: Once the person has the food on his plate (or at least in his sights), he may already be too emotionally invested in eating it to hear your message…and he may feel defensive and resentful about being “caught in the act.” This is especially likely to happen if there are other people at the table, because having additional witnesses will increase his embarrassment.

Instead: Bring up the subject of healthful eating when you’re both involved in some pleasant, nonfood-related activity. This way, the conversation is less emotionally charged…and the other person can better absorb your message.

Speak about your own struggles with food and how you solve them. By relating eating issues to yourself rather than to the other person, you avoid the kind of finger-pointing that makes others self-conscious or angry.

For instance: You might say, “This bread on our table isn’t good for us, but it’s hard for me to resist. Do you mind if we ask the waiter to take it away?”

Setting a good example can be very powerful. Research from the Framingham Heart Study, which followed more than 3,400 people for many years, showed that eating behaviors—good and bad—tend to spread among family members and social networks. So keep your kitchen stocked with nutritious foods, and let your loved ones see how much you enjoy eating healthfully. Do not moan about how much you crave tiramisu as you eat your salad!

Remember, in the end it’s not up to you. If your loving encouragement and role modeling don’t succeed in changing another person’s eating habits, you need to accept that he simply isn’t ready to make a change. You cannot do it for him…and if you keep pushing, you may succeed only in pushing him away. Poisoning the relationship won’t help him get any healthier—it will only hurt you both. Let it go, at least for now. You can always try again later…and by then, your loved one may be more open to your message.

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