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KEEPING FIT

The Diet Duet Has Two Sizable Roles : Togetherness can have a profound impact on weight. And 'help' from a partner does not always have positive results.

April 06, 1993|JULIE BAWDEN DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Jack Sprat could eat no fat,

His wife could eat no lean:

And so betwixt them both, you see,

They licked the platter clean Couples have long been waxing and waning on the issue of weight. Some have found a comfortable balance--a state epitomized in the Jack Sprat nursery rhyme--but many others have struggled mightily.

When Marion, a 47-year-old Santa Ana office administrator, started a weight reduction program, her husband praised her--initially. "For the first three months he encouraged me," she says.

Then things changed.

"After a few months, he began to criticize me if I gained a pound or stayed the same. His nagging hurt my feelings, so I told him I no longer wanted to share my progress with him--only with positive people. He got angry, but my decision turned out for the best."

She succeeded in losing 25 pounds.

Though how much we weigh should be our own individual business, once we unite with someone else, our weight suddenly becomes a couple issue, says Amy Stark, a clinical psychologist in Santa Ana who provides family and individual therapy and often counsels people trying to lose weight. "People have definite ideas about how their partner should look."

With these expectations often come instructions on how best to lose weight and scolding when the inches don't melt away.

Thanks to all this "expert" advice, many spouses and significant others affect a person's weight loss attempts, says Newport Beach registered dietitian Michelle Pawlak, who does private and corporate nutritional counseling, often working with couples and families regarding weight loss and healthy eating plans.

"Food is an integral part of our lives; eating is something we do several times a day, often with our spouses," she says. "There is a lot of emotional significance attached to eating that can affect what we eat and how much."

Marriage and togetherness can have a profound affect on a person's weight.

"Some married people who have weight trouble feel safe in the relationship, so when they tire of fighting the weight, they just let themselves go," Stark says.

"In other situations, the person without a weight problem may belittle the overweight person with nasty 'fat' labels. The more the overweight person is criticized, the higher his or her weight goes in an attempt to insulate himself or herself from the emotional abuse," she says.

Many with weight problems turn to food for comfort because they aren't getting the nurturing they need in their relationship, Stark says. That is often why women eat more than they need to, she says. While men can also overeat to compensate for a lack of nurturing, they are more likely to turn to food for comfort when they are depressed.

In relationships in which both partners have a tendency to be overweight, they sometimes simply get carried away cooking and eating together. In some instances, people even gain weight because their spouse is trying to love them with food. "Many women adhere to the old adage, 'The way to a man's heart is through his stomach,' " Stark says.

However, Stark says, sometimes individuals who are obese have underlying serious personal or marital problems that have not been addressed.

"I recently counseled one couple (where) the wife began to lose weight and feel good about herself, but the husband is still overweight and not trying to help himself. That marriage is headed for disaster," Stark says.

Because being overweight in our society is so socially unacceptable, partners often make the mistake of trying to make the other person's weight their business.

"The truth is, if your spouse is overweight, it has to be his or her decision to lose the weight," Stark says.

"Slim spouses will sometimes announce to the overweight person: 'If you really loved me, you'd lose weight,' " she says. "It's not about an overweight person loving his or her spouse. It's about the person loving himself or herself enough to lose weight. A slim person can lovingly express concern and offer to help, but the decision is ultimately the overweight person's. Nagging, pleading, begging, provoking and threatening won't help and may very well hinder, causing a person to gain even more weight."

Because an overweight person's spouse is a powerful influence, what he or she does and doesn't do is very important. To help a loved one lose unwanted pounds, keep the following in mind.

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