Can I help my mom loose the weight?
April 30, 2011 4:46 PM   Subscribe

My mother is obese. Can I help her?

She's always been on the heavier side, even before kids (I've seen her in pictures), but after kids she's consistently weighed over 250lbs. Once, on the "Cookie diet", she got down to around 200lbs, but she was not able to keep it off. She constantly complains about her weight, citing that she can't do anything to lose it. She has health problems related to being overweight.

It's clear that a huge part of her problem is lifestyle. Her diet is absolute shit. For example, she hosted Easter dinner. Her planned menu include ONE vegetable side, and a number of meat/starches, and she made the same number of desserts as she made entrees. And her portions are way, way out of control. She doesn't exercise. Literally doesn't even walk. I've tried to gently and subtly guide her to see these things, but I don't want to seem like a jerk. I realize how hard it is to actually lose weight. People struggle with it, and I would like to be sensitive about that.

However, when she complains to me about how she tried on clothes and she hates her fat legs or that she has a weight related injury, I just want to shake her silly! How do I get her to see the light? I've seriously considered recommending talk therapy or a nutritionist, but I know that she'll insist she can't afford to do that. Is there something I can do? Would it be wrong of me to have a serious chat with her about this? I don't want to seem like "it's easy" or that I couldn't understand, and I don't want to seem too lecturey or hateful. I love my mom, and I want her to be happy and healthy. She's 45, and I know it's only going to get harder for her. So, can I help her? What's the best strategy? Or should I stay quiet?

Just to note, I live about an hour away, so getting together to work out isn't all that practical, otherwise I'd be all about that! And I am on the low side of average weight. I don't always eat perfectly, but overall my diet is healthy and balanced, and I run and bike daily.

Thanks in advance for your input!
posted by your mom's a sock puppet to Health & Fitness (24 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I don't mean to facetious here, but have you considered that your mom has compared the effort of weight loss versus remaining at her weight but unhappy with the way she looks already, and decided that she'd rather not put forth the effort? I mean, that's a terrible thing to say, but it's possible that she just doesn't see weight loss as worthwhile. She may not until she has a catastrophic health experience.

She may complain to you ("I can't afford to see a nutritionist," "I hate my fat legs," etc.) but she may be looking for a poor baby as opposed to looking for you to fix her problem. You have to ask her, really ask her. As in, "Hey, mom, I'm okay just listening and being supportive of you emotionally, if that's what you want, but if you really want help losing weight, I can help you with that too. Just tell me what you want."
posted by juniperesque at 4:58 PM on April 30, 2011 [11 favorites]

Another good one, if you want to be more direct: "Mom, what can I do to support you in losing weight?"

Do not shake her silly. She has to actively want to change her life, or it won't work.
posted by SMPA at 5:06 PM on April 30, 2011 [4 favorites]

What juniperesque said!

If the complaints really bother you, you might ask her to tone it down. I wouldn't mind someone complaining about an injury, no matter how they got it, but "my thighs are fat" or general body dislike is not something I would care to hear on a regular basis.
posted by the young rope-rider at 5:07 PM on April 30, 2011

It sounds like you may be a little bit judgmental of your mom, which is totally normal. Are you a little bit ashamed of her being obese? The next time she complains about how she hates being fat, look at her seriously and say "If you need or want help getting healthy, I am here to support you." Other than that, I don't think there's anything you can do other than try to come to terms with your own feelings about your mom being obese.
posted by katypickle at 5:10 PM on April 30, 2011

There are two different issues here: 1) your mother isn't taking care of herself; 2) your mother is fat. These two issues are interrelated to some extent or another, yes, but one of them is a simple problem of nutrition and the other is a huge source of pain, social discomfort, and deep, soul-aching shame.

It can be hard to try to lose weight. And I don't just mean in the "Oh, it takes a lot of effort!" way. I mean emotionally. It can hurt. It certainly sounds like your mother has hurt, and she has hurt a lot, in her attempts to control her weight.

If you go to her in any attempt to help her control her weight, no matter how, I bet she'll immediately back away from it. She won't want it. She's tried before, she's failed, and she's probably come to the point where she has resigned herself to hating her physical form. After you've tried and failed enough times, you learn it's just a whole lot easier to not try.


Eating healthily does not have to be couched in terms of weight loss. In fact, the nutritionist I saw made it clear to me that it is healthier to think about a good diet as something completely unrelated to your weight. Especially if you feel like you have no control over your weight, you are far more likely to abuse yourself, nutritionally, if you only think about food in terms of "trying to lose weight" or "not trying." If you only understand food as "stuff that helps me lose weight" or "stuff that makes me fat," you just end up on a horrible cycle of self-hate, self-abuse, and bad decisions. Given how many times you say she's tried to lose weight in the past, I imagine she has lost total sight of what it means to eat in an emotionally healthy way.

So, here's my suggestion: very earnestly and carefully take interest in your mother's nutrition. Not her weight. Here are some ways that diet can really matter, beyond just dieting: good food makes you feel more active, a balanced diet leaves you feeling stronger, appropriately sized meals leave you feeling satisfied rather than sick, you get better skin, your stomach feels better, you feel happier. Pay special note to that last one -- eating better can make you happier. Not because you're thinner and thus you feel better about yourself; no, diet itself can improve how you feel all on it's own. Emphasize that. Work to help your mother understand why she deserves to take care of her body, regardless her weight. Work to help her think she deserves all the benefits that come from good nutrition, even if her weight never goes down a single pound. You do that, it's far more likely she'll have the emotional strength to listen.

Also, could you perhaps offer to pay for her to see a nutritionist? Again, if you can point out that a (good) nutritionist won't care one lick about her weight but will, instead, merely help her figure out how best to eat so that she feels good, she may be far more likely to see one.
posted by meese at 5:22 PM on April 30, 2011 [21 favorites]

You know, if you want to support your mother in being healthy, you might want to look at the stress in her life - if someone is miserable at work, frantic about bills, in a lousy relationship or simply bearing the entire weight of taking care of the family, that's going to take emotional priority over managing her eating or getting exercise. It may even be, if things are stressful enough, that eating tasty food in sufficient quantities is the only real "for her" thing she has. And maybe she can't afford a nutritionist or talk therapy--those things can be pretty costly!

You might also want to read up on weight loss - I don't have time to link because I need to leave, but there have been very good longitudinal studies that suggest that long-term weight loss is virtually impossible for most people, but that exercise, de-stressing and a healthy diet compensate for many of the problems that are associated with weight. It might help you to focus a little less on weight and size and appearance and more on exercise and eating. Also, despite the obesity panic going on right now, being fat doesn't mean you're inevitably going to keel over at fifty or choke to death on a cheeto.
posted by Frowner at 5:24 PM on April 30, 2011 [9 favorites]

I'm in a similar boat with my mom: she complains a lot about her weight and isn't very active. I've tried giving quite a lot of very direct advice, which did not work out particularly well. She's still the same weight, but this is what has worked for me:

1. Asked what I could do to support her. Actually I had to ask several times, and eventually I had to come up with an idea of how I could help without taking on too much myself and propose it in a gentle way. She accepted, and now I'm helping her be more active and though she hasn't lost weight yet she's on the right track.

2. Cook for her when I get the chance. She's been cooking her own way for years and isn't eager to make changes if I suggest it, but if I make healthy food that tastes good, she'll ask for the recipe.

3. I have to accept that it's her body, and ultimately her health choices are her own. I've stopped making judgmental statements and I try to model self-acceptance and be frank about my own body issues, and when I can't take any more of listening to herself complain about her weight I say something like "It's hard to hear you say those things about yourself, mom, you're a beautiful woman. You mentioned you were leaving for Florida next week, when do you start packing?"

Good luck!
posted by bunderful at 5:32 PM on April 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

Tell her what you wrote here, "I love my mom and I want her to be happy and healthy."

Whether or not she loses weight, she should pay attention to her health and take care of herself. Anybody who is 45 years old and has been overweight most of her life has most assuredly tried many, many times to lose weight and knows full well how unacceptable her body seems to the rest of the world. She's very familiar with the contempt our society heaps on fat women. Don't you pile on by putting your concern in terms of her weight. Surely, if she could be healthy and happy it would not matter to you what she weighed, would it? Focus on that. Maybe suggest she check out some of the health at every size sites. She's not alone.
posted by Anitanola at 5:38 PM on April 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't think it's such a great leap to make the connection that continued obesity, despite not wanting to be obese, is sometimes an indication of deeper issues. Not to be all "YOUR MOM'S CRAZY"--just that if food is used as comfort or crutch or recreational activity it is very difficult to switch to a less food-oriented lifestyle.

However, as for her wanting to lose weight . . . There is saying you want to lose weight, and there is actually putting into the work to lose weight. They are very different mindsets. Most people want to lose weight/be more active/get up early in the morning/be more productive/etc. The difference between wanting, and wanting enough to do the hard work to get there is vast.
posted by Anonymous at 5:46 PM on April 30, 2011

She definitely wants to change her life. She wants to lose weight. When I say she complains, I mean she constantly complains. At Easter dinner, she was complaining about how fat and sick he felt after eating her fourth serving of dessert. This is why I feel the need to "shake her silly". Heck, I wouldn't feel healthy after eating four servings of desserts no matter my metabolism.

Give her a copy of Good Calories, Bad Calories. And leave her alone.

(worked for a similar family member)
posted by rr at 5:47 PM on April 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

Get her a copy of Why We Get Fat instead of Good Calories, Bad Calories. And leave her alone.
posted by elsietheeel at 5:49 PM on April 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

My first answer is - no, not unless she specifically gives you tasks to do that are related to her losing weight and really, truly wants you to do those things (as opposed to feeling that, as a fat person, this is something she "should" ask/say/do).

It sucks to be overweight. It does. And it really is hard work to combat it - the concept is easy, "eat less, move more" but if someone has made it to the point of being overweight by more than a few pounds, it's not that easy. There are so many layers of "issues" and "stuff" and "habits" and "health-related things" and "other stuff" that has to be undone to make the weight loss happen. You can't help with that - unless, again, you're asked for very specific help.

In your shoes, what I'd do is reassure your mom in very clear words that you love her and don't think any less of her as a result of her weight. She's your Mom, you think she's amazing and smart/funny/loving/supportive-of-you/whatever. That's it. That's all I'd do; reassure her in a truthful way.

Having been overweight for many years, to varying extents, I can say that the only thing I want from the people around me is a reassurance that they see the person inside of me and not just my weight. When I complain that it's impossible to find good-fitting jeans in my size, I want to hear, "That sucks!" and not "Well, how 'bout I help you by cutting up carrots ever weekend?". When I complain about my fat-related health issues, I want to hear, "Man, that must suck. What did the doctor say?" and not a lecture about being fat.

Weight loss takes a long time. It takes a lot of effort. Your mom has to want to do it and she needs to be able to carry the effort herself, when she's ready to do it. That can't be your job, or your choice, or your work.

I agree with everyone who has said that the focus needs to be on health and not weight. I've improved my own cholesterol, triglycerides and other "important health markers" in huge ways (by adding more exercise, taking the right supplements, and eating better). They're now all in the "healthy" range, but I haven't lost any weight. I still weigh over 200 pounds and I'm only 5'5". I'm fat!

Listen to her, commiserate about how it must suck, and let her do her own thing. If she says she's losing weight, ask her how it feels - don't tell her you're "proud". If she says she's struggling, ask her why, don't tell her "That's how it goes!". If she says she hates being fat, say, "What's the worst part?" and then tell her you agree that having sore joints/health concern/no pants that fit sucks. And then tell her you love her, that you're glad she's your Mom, that you're not embarrassed by her, that you think she's awesome... etc.
posted by VioletU at 6:02 PM on April 30, 2011 [3 favorites]

I'm a chubby mom. I am also a sensitive person. I think those 2 things are often connected. Please think before saying anything to your mom about her weight. She knows she is fat. She knows she doesn't eat right. She knows exercise could help lose weight. Telling her any of those things may make her feel judged, which, if it were me, only leads to overloading on junk food.

I think the above suggestions about asking her if she wants your help in response to whining is ok, but other than that, just love your mom.

Unlike many other addictions (cocaine, cigarettes), food is not something that can be completely given up. And food has lots of other emotions wrapped in it - celebrations, comfort, happiness, showing love (by cooking). No one is going to lose weight until they are ready to lose weight.

Lastly, make sure you aren't ashamed of her, because that's my take on your post (I could be wrong).
posted by daneflute at 6:09 PM on April 30, 2011 [6 favorites]

I think you are so awesome for wanting to help her. I don't see judgment from you. Having been in your mom's place for a good chunk of my life, I would have loved to have someone offer support in any way, including the things you mention about cooking in new ways. I do often see food being a source of comfort and good feelings, and bad habits relating to food much easier to walk away from when there are other sources of comfort and satisfaction. For me, that is key, and only you and your mom can look at her situation and see if it is lacking in that regard - and possibly do something about that. Basic strategy I would use is to be responsive to her complaints and say you'd love to help her make changes so these problems she cites can disappear and she can love her legs or whatever, and love the energy and well-being that come from being healthier and active.
posted by Listener at 6:37 PM on April 30, 2011

Response by poster: She definitely wants to change her life. She wants to lose weight. When I say she complains, I mean she constantly complains. At Easter dinner, she was complaining about how fat and sick he felt after eating her fourth serving of dessert. This is why I feel the need to "shake her silly". Heck, I wouldn't feel healthy after eating four servings of desserts no matter my metabolism.

As far as her state if mind is concerned, I think that's a huge one, which is why I've considered recommending not only a nutritionist but therapy.

I am not judging my mother. I think she is amazing and beautiful. I am primarily concerned with my mother's happiness and health, not what size she is or what the scale says. I thought I made that clear, but I guess not. Now it's clear.

Great suggestions otherwise, though!
posted by your mom's a sock puppet at 7:13 PM on April 30, 2011

Just FYI, Easter dinner (or any holiday dinner) is a terrible way to judge someone's diet. I mean, there are holiday meals that DON'T involve more dessert choices than entrees? That's part of what makes it a festive meal.

(Frankly, even in very healthy households, even holiday vegetable side dishes often involve a lot of butter. Holidays are when you make traditional dishes, rich dishes, old-fashioned dishes with real butter and full-fat cream, etc.)

If you're going to express concern, you need an idea of what her day-to-day meals look like.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:30 PM on April 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: If you're going to express concern, you need an idea of what her day-to-day meals look like.

I used that particular example because it's honestly not that far off. Obviously, it's an exaggeration in some ways, but I know that most of her meals do not even include a vegetable.
posted by your mom's a sock puppet at 7:38 PM on April 30, 2011

Can you go for walks with her when you come visit? Maybe at a mall where it's nicely air-conditioned and you two can look at the window displays. Think about funny stories or interesting things to talk about while on said walk, that way it can be like enjoyable-family-together-time instead dreaded-exercise-time.
Introduce some healthy or healthier food options to her (asparagus with butter are much better than potatoes with butter, strawberries with sugar are better than oreos, apples with almond butter are better than little debbie cakes), small steps first.

Negotiate with her. Mom if you try A (eat something healthy, walk to the end of the block, whatever), I'll do B (whatever it is that she'd like you to do: clean something, read something, whatever).

How to talk to her: "Mom, I love you and I want you to be in my life for as long as possible. It breaks my heart to see you having these weight-related health issues, not just because I want you to be happy, but because they remind me that those weight-related health issues are going to take you away from me sooner than I want them to...."
My point is to emphasize that it is your love for her that is making you concerned (and also how you will love her just the same no matter what size she is). Many overweight people often feel unworthy of love. Apologize if your frustration for the matter has come across, but emphasize that you in turn feel unloved since she's not taking active steps to ensure that she'll be there 15, 20 years down the line.
I repeat: emphasize YOUR LOVE FOR HER! If you get mad at her, that'll probably be encouragement to eat a little extra fat&sugar for the calming effects.
Best of luck!
PS: can you save money to get her to Weight Watchers? Ask her first, of course.
posted by Neekee at 8:11 PM on April 30, 2011

She sounds a bit lonely. Sometimes people use their misery as a way to connect with others, so letting go of misery also feels like letting go of their social connection. It might seem to her that her weight problem is so overwhelming and she doesn't even know where to start, or if a small thing (like changing her diet to include vegetables) would even make much of a difference. Plus the instant gratification of eating how she chooses might trump any slow gains to be made by eating a salad.

You might try asking if she is lonely and seeing if you can help her in that aspect, before suggesting weight loss. It may be a chicken and egg thing - fix the loneliness and she'll have a more positive attitude and have the energy reserves for change, instead of trying to fix the weight issue first to get her to a positive place (which implies that she won't be happy as she is, which feeds her poor self-esteem).

Vitamins might be a better place to start than eating habits. Many people are vitamin D deficient, especially if they don't get exercise outdoors. My mom used to tell me I would feel better if I took vitamins and I blew her off for years ... but she was right. Especially in the wintertime, vitamin D makes a difference. Plus it is an easy habit and inexpensive. Her body might be craving nutrition and she's eating a lot of bad things to get what she needs. Vitamins might take the craving down a notch.
posted by griselda at 8:15 PM on April 30, 2011

Sometimes people who aren't motivated to help themselves will go out of their way to help others. One way to employ that strategy is to say you need a partner to help maintain your health.

You could create a mutual challenge to try new vegetables or go for a walk once a week, then scale up once her interest kicks in. Make up bingo cards, challenge each other via IM, whatever you can do to get her involved in your health might rub off on her eventually.
posted by dragonplayer at 8:29 PM on April 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

I wanted to point out that, in my experience, for many women, when they want to feel close to other women, they default to talking about how much they hate their bodies. My aunts get together and talk about their "poochy bellies". The women in my office congregate in the break room and talk about how they're feeling so fat, and the waistband of their jeans is tight on their stomach, and over the weekend they ate [whatever]. These are not isolated examples, but something that happens with almost all the women I know. Consider that your mother may be trying to feel closer to you by bringing this up. Obviously it's backfiring, but it's possible that she doesn't want you to fix things, she wants you to sympathize and commiserate.

As other have mentioned, weight is a super-sensitive issue for many people, and your mom--duh--knows that she's fat, and knows why she's fat. The reasons she has for not changing that pattern could be anything from depression to feeling overwhelmed by what can be a fairly monumental undertaking to clinging to her weight as a security to flat-out laziness. And all of those are normal, understandable reasons.

Regardless of what you're going to do, you should keep that in mind, and you should also closely examine your own feelings on the subject--like others, I'm picking up not just disapproval, but some disdain and embarrassment, as well, which is sad for both of you.

All of that said, I don't think that you'd be wrong in talking to her, but I'd suggest couching it as "Mom, you don't seem happy, and I'd like to know how I can help fix it." If it's actually her weight bothering her, she'll bring it up. If it's something like weight-related injuries, you can gently point that out when she brings it up. But maybe you'll find out that she's depressed, or feels isolated, or is under a lot of stress, or... And then focus on whatever she's telling you. If she says she's under a lot of stress, you can suggest gentle exercise as a coping technique, but don't suggest that part of the stress is that she's fat. Hopefully, dealing with one aspect of her life will enable her to deal with others--and even if it doesn't, you still get a happier, healthier mother.
posted by MeghanC at 11:17 PM on April 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think your Mom overeats because it makes her feel better, it's a momentary escape from the difficult aspects of her life.

If you really want her to lose weight, don't give her eating plans, instead talk to her and try hard to understand what she is relieving by eating, and how you might help her eliminate that, if you can.
posted by dave99 at 5:19 AM on May 1, 2011

You can sit down with her, once, and once only, and say "Mom, your weight is putting you at serious risk of diabetes. You're hurting your joints. Your lack of exercise and your diet is probably hurting your heart. I love you; I want you to be around for a long time. How can I assist you with diet and exercise so you can get healthier?" You can offer to pay for a nutritionist, Weight-watchers(they do a good job w/ nutrition), personal trainer, etc. I'm overweight, and would love somebody to walk and exercise with; maybe she'd go for that. Start with a walk in the mall, build up to regular walks. When you go to family meals, bring tasty, healthy food as your contribution.

Your other problem is dealing with your own frustration and annoyance at what you see as self-harming. When she complains about her weight, you can say "I love you no matter how you look." You can also just not respond. And you can come prepared with distractions. When she complains about her weight, start a new topic. The President's speech, news in your town, your cousin's new baby. If she says "Oh you don't like me to talk about my weight" you reply "I worry about your health. I love you and want you to be around for a long time."
posted by theora55 at 11:27 AM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

And I am on the low side of average weight. I don't always eat perfectly, but overall my diet is healthy and balanced, and I run and bike daily.

I thought it might be helpful to let you know my honest reaction here. I'm smack in the middle of the healthy BMI range for my height, and even I would be irked to hear advice on my weight loss and fitness from someone like you. You would give me advice, and I'd think, "well, that's all well and good for you, but you're one of 'those people.' These things are easy for you, and it's not the same for me. You wouldn't understand." And I'd tune you out until you left me alone.

Now that may not be rational. But I'm just saying, that's what my reflex would be. And I don't think I'm alone in that.

So. I don't think your mom needs to be told that her weight is causing her health problems, as you said, that's something she talks about herself. And I don't think she needs to be told that her overeating is contributing to her weight -- that's another thing she talks about herself. She already knows those things, so I think informing her of them can be ruled out as a solution here.

Plus, there are reasons that your mom has for overeating, eating poorly, and not exercising, so if you focus on advising her not to do those things without working on the reasons WHY she does them, nothing is going to happen. So, I think you are definitely on the right path when you mentioned you think therapy could help.

The bottom line is, though, that this has to be driven 100% by your mom or else nothing is going to change. So the only way you can help her is not to tell her things or suggest things, but ASK her what would help. Forget about helping her in way *you* think is best, helping her to do the things you think she should do. Help her with the things she asks for help with even if they seem silly, tangential, or even unrelated.
posted by Ashley801 at 3:58 PM on May 1, 2011 [4 favorites]

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