The Thing Keeping You Out of Shape That Nobody Ever Talks About

How to deal with food pushers, gainz goblins, and fitness saboteurs.

Take a moment to Google “things that make you fat.”  You’ll find plenty of articles about hormones, genetics, lack of exercise, overeating (seriously though, not enough about overeating), even environmental toxins.  But you know what nobody ever talks about?  Your damned friends. 

Look at this reddit thread about a woman whose friend is trying to sabotage her diet.  That may seem like an extreme example, but if you’ve ever been fat and also had a lot of fat friends, you’ve probably experienced something similar.  In fact, everyone gets faced with food pushers at some point, even if it’s not that extreme. 

Humans being the social animals that they are, healthy and unhealthy habits spread through social networks. As such, obesity is contagious. To a lesser extent, health is too. 

To borrow a famous semi-true but really misleading quote- food doesn’t make people fat.  People make people fat.

And yet people hardly ever talk about this, and when they do it’s usually anonymously, as in that reddit thread.  This is, in my opinion, easily the most under-discussed issue in health and fitness, both on the personal, fitness advice level, and on the societal, public health policy level.

So I’m going to talk about it now.  Here’s how to make your social life support, rather than sabotaging, your health and fitness goals. 

Strategy 1: Keep This Fitness Stuff to Yourself at First

Food pushers are the worst when you’re first starting out.  So don’t let them know you’re starting out.

Don’t tell everyone you’re starting a new diet.  Don’t post a bunch of photos of your food to Instagram.  Don’t make a bunch of Facebook posts about how hard your workouts were.  Not at first.

You can privately tell individuals who you know will be supportive.  Don’t delude yourself into thinking that someone who’s obese and “wants” to get into shape but never actually tries at it will be supportive though.  The people you should confide in are the ones who are already doing what you’re doing.  If you go on a paleo diet, for example, you should definitely tell that friend who’s been eating paleo for a year. 

There’s another reason not to post a bunch of stuff about your new health habits on social media: it can sap your motivation.  Talking publicly about your goals can give you a sense of accomplishment similar to what you’d get from actually working towards those goals, thus taking away some of the impetus to actually work on them.

So keep quiet at first.  Once you’ve been consistent about your new fitness program for a few months though, things change.  Talking about a diet and workouts you have been doing, rather than ones you’re planning to do, will build motivation via cognitive dissonance, by reinforcing your self-image as a healthy person. 

And the longer you’ve been at it, the less you’ll have to deal with diet saboteurs and gainz goblins.  They’ll try their damnedest to stop you from getting started, but once you’ve built momentum they usually start giving up on sabotaging you.  I’ve been in great shape for years and I rarely have to deal with this problem, even when I hang out with people who try to sabotage other people’s diets.  They simply have no illusion that it’ll work on me. 

Strategy 2: Use Canned Lines to Deflect Food Pushers

Your first line of defense against food pushers should be deflecting them with prepared scripts about why you’re dieting.  It may or may not work, but it’s easy and doesn’t require changing anything about your life, so it’s worth trying first before you do anything drastic.

Here are a few lines to try when when people try to force-feed you a bag of donut holes:

I can’t. Sugar gives me a headache.

My husband and I are doing this together. We promised each other we’d stick with it, and I can’t break that promise.

My doctor said I need to cut back on the sugars and starches and eat more whole foods, or I’ll have diabetes and heart problems within a few years. So this is something I really need to do.

Honestly, I haven’t been doing much. I just notice myself eating more meats and vegetables, and not wanting dessert as often as I used to.

I need to stay healthy if I want to be able to go skiing with my grandkids in ten years. 

This diet isn’t as hard as I thought. It includes a lot of foods that I love, and I can still find something that fits my diet almost anywhere I go.

I didn’t think I would like salad, but I actually love it now that I’ve found a kind I like. Here, try some of this.  No, I swear you’ll love it- try it!

Oh my god, fuck off Sharon.

Here are the operative principles at work here.

First, you’re making it about yourself, not them, to avoid riling up their insecurities any further.  At least until you get completely fed up with them.  Even though their food pushing totally is about them. 

Second, you’re making it about health rather than attractiveness or confidence.  Again, that aims to tiptoe around their insecurities, but it also makes them sound like an asshole for sabotaging your health.

Third, you’re appealing to authority my mentioning other people you have a commitment to. Food pushers aren’t great about listening to doctors, but on the other hand, they’re sheep, and hopefully they realize those other people are more important to you than they are.

Fourth, you’re downplaying your effort.  Again, to avoid making them feel bad that you’re working so much harder than they are, but also to make it seem like getting you to break your diet will be hard, because sticking to it is easy for you.

Fifth, if all that doesn’t work, you turn it around on them and give them a taste of their own medicine.  Who knows, maybe they’ll even have the self-awareness at that point to realize how annoying it is.  Maybe. 

And if all that doesn’t work, you flip out and let them know that they’re going to lose a friend if they keep it up.  I, uh, may be skipping ahead to step five there.

Strategy 3: Surround Yourself With Pro-Fitness Media

The media you consume has a huge effect on you, and over time will reshape your attitudes, values and habits.  Yes, even if you’re strong-willed.   Even if you’re a rugged individualist.  Even if you don’t own a TV.  And no, you don’t become any more resistant to it once you know about the research.

Consuming media featuring overweight people will make you eat more and get fatter, especially if that same media flat-out tells you that being overweight is okay, or worse yet, refers to overweight women as “real women.” 

Excuse me while I vomit. 

Sorry to say, but fat acceptance, or “body positivity” as it’s called if people are trying to sound inclusive, makes people less conscious about their health and weight.  You’re best off avoiding media that promotes, glorifies or normalizes being overweight or unhealthy.

In fact, you should do the opposite- go on a media diet.  Surround yourself with media featuring people who are in great shape, and look the way you’d like to look.  Read fitness magazines and keep them lying around your home, follow a bunch of fitness accounts on social media, bookmark fitness sites and read them regularly, and hang out where fit people hang out.

The pro-fitness media you consume should still be “body positive” in one sense- it shouldn’t go out of its way to make you obsess over minor imperfections or things you can’t change.  Don’t get caught up in nitpicky fitness and beauty fads like cankles, thigh gaps, or perfecting the exact ratio between your biceps and forearms.  The idea here is to be in amazing shape overall, without fixating on some little detail that nobody else will ever notice about you. 

Strategy 4: The Facebook Hack

You can tilt your Facebook feed to provide more positive influences for yourself- and you can do it without friending or unfriending anyone.  Here’s how.

First off, you can do it through following.  Following is separate from friending- it determines who shows up in your news feed, and nobody can tell if you’re following them or not.  So unfollow anyone who’s a bad influence- because they’re openly anti-fitness, always talking about eating junk food, or just write constant whiny pity-party posts- you know who those people are. 

By the same token, look up everyone you know who’s either very healthy, very encouraging, or just very positive and motivated, and make sure you follow them.  While you’re at it, follow 10-20 fitness coaches, bloggers and models so they start showing up on your feed.

Join a few fitness groups too so they start showing up in your feed.  make sure they’re good groups though, full of genuinely helpful information.  Many Facebook fitness groups consist mainly of companies posting spam ads for dumb magic pill supplements and courses that will help you lose 50 pounds in 2 months.  Avoid those.

Finally, use friends lists.  Put your best influences in your “close friends” list, whether you’re actually all that close with them or not, and put bad influences on the “acquaintances” or list.  This has roughly the reverse effect of following and unfollowing- people you designate as closer to you will see your posts, and comment on them, more often. 

You can also use these lists to specify who can see your posts.  A “friends only” post won’t be visible to acquaintances, and a “close friends only” post will only be visible to close friends.  So use this feature to avoid letting the gainz goblins see your gym selfies, once you start posting those.

Strategy 5: Start Making Pro-Fitness Friends

After improving the media you consume, the next step is to improve the quality of the real-life social influences you surround yourself with.  Start hanging out with people who take good care of their health.  If you already know people like that, the Facebook hack I just described will help- start commenting on their posts more often to build your connection with them.

To meet totally new fitness buddies, here are a few things you can do:

-Start taking group classes at your gym.

-Take a healthy cooking class.

-Talk to people at the gym.  Don’t start conversations expecting to become fast friends; just build the habit of talking to people.

-When at social events, always start conversations with the healthiest-looking people in the room.  Ask them about themselves and look for common interests on which to build a friendship. 

-Use meetup.com.  Look for groups in the following categories: fitness, recreational sports, cooking, dieting, hiking and other outdoor activities, and yoga and meditation.  Hiking and adventure sports groups might be your best bets for making friends, since many of their events involve going on trips with people, and even for day trips people will often carpool, giving you plenty of time to get to know each other. 

Strategy 6: Cut the Worst Offenders Out of Your Life

Once you’ve done everything else on this list, most of the diet saboteurs will fade away.  But once in a while, one or two of them won’t. 

If, a month or two from now, you’ve done everything discussed in this article and there’s still a food pusher you can’t shake, here’s what to do.

First, re-read this article and make sure you’ve really done everything.  Have you used prepared lines to deflect them?  Have you ensured that they don’t see any fitness stuff you post to Facebook?  Have you started hanging out with more pro-fitness friends, thus leaving you less time and energy to spend with the food pushers? 

If you’ve done all of that and they’re still trying their damnedest to fatten you back up again, it’s probably time for them to go.  If you want to, you can give them an ultimatum- you can tell them, in no uncertain terms, that if they keep it up you won’t want them to be a part of your life anymore. 

And if that doesn’t work- or if you’re just over it and can’t be bothered with an ultimatum- then it’s time for a clean break.  Tell them their behavior is unacceptable and there’s no place in your life for people who try to sabotage your diet or make you feel bad for taking care of your health.  Don’t yell or call them names, but don’t sugar coat it either- you’re not friends anymore.  Block their number, block them on social media, and avoid them like the plague- they’re gone. 

If you execute strategies one through five properly, it’s very unlikely you’ll have to do this- but you should be prepared for that possibility nonetheless. 

Bottom line: your social environment has a huge impact on your health, and it’s almost impossible to be in far better shape than everyone around you.  The people around you will either pull you up or drag you down. 

The good news: you can strategically engineer your social environment to support you in becoming the person you want to be.