Urging a partner to diet may seem like a supportive thing to do, but a new study finds it can trigger unhealthy habits such as fasting and taking diet pills — measures that can then lead to severe eating disorders.
Both women and men tended to react negatively to their partners' well-meaning encouragement, said researcher Marla Eisenberg, an associate professor of adolescent health and medicine at the University of Minnesota.
"Romantic partners provide important feedback about each other's weight," Eisenberg said. "Encouraging a loved one to diet, however, may do more harm than good."
In 2008 and 2009, she surveyed nearly 1,300 young adults in Minnesota, ages 20 to 31 and in relationships.
More than 40 percent of those surveyed had used extreme dieting behaviors in the past year, she found. Binge eating nearly doubled among women whose partners encouraged dieting ''very much'' compared to ''not at all." While about 14 percent of women who were not urged to diet engaged in binge eating, more than 25 percent of those urged to diet ''very much'' did so.
While about 4 percent of men who were not urged to diet by their partner engaged in binge eating, 14 percent of those who experienced constant urging to diet engaged in the behavior, the investigators found.
The study is published in the American Journal of Health Promotion.
About half of the men and women said their significant other encouraged them to diet either a little, somewhat, or very much. More than 56 percent said their partner dieted to lose weight.
About half of the men and women were normal weight or underweight, 27 percent were overweight and 22 percent were obese, according to the report.
Eisenberg didn't ask the men and women why they resorted to unhealthy behaviors if they were urged to diet, but she has an idea. "We would speculate that suggesting that a partner should lose weight or diet implies that the partner is overweight, unattractive, not sexy anymore, etc., which can be a very painful message to hear," she said.
"Hurtful comments, even if well-intentioned, may contribute to poorer body image and unhealthy eating behaviors," Eisenberg explained.
The findings held for both men and women, she said, but were slightly more pronounced and consistent for women. That men were also affected didn't surprise Eisenberg. "Men have body image issues, too, of course," she added.
Edward Abramson, a clinical psychologist in Chico, Calif., who has written about emotional eating, is not surprised that urging people to diet doesn't lead to healthy behaviors. "Almost 100 percent of the population who is overweight knows it," he said.
"They know bacon and donuts have more calories than celery."
When he leads weight-control groups, Abramson finds those constantly urged to diet and lose weight sometimes go out of their way to overeat, a kind of rebellion against their partner, he believes.
Abramson said he is ''not a big fan of dieting." Instead, he encourages partners to work together on weight issues. If they're going out to eat, for instance, one could suggest sharing a main course. If they are putting a meal together at home, they could focus on keeping it healthy.
Study author Eisenberg suggested, "If someone is genuinely concerned about their partner's weight, the recommendation is to discuss it emphasizing health rather than appearance, and focusing on adopting a healthier lifestyle long term rather than dieting (which is usually characterized by restrictions that are difficult to maintain and not effective for weight loss in the long run)."
Partners should be careful how they verbalize encouragement to lose weight, she said.
"Encouragement like 'Will you join me for a walk after dinner? I'd love the company' will probably be received better than 'You should skip the ice cream tonight.' "