Sharing Life, Shedding Pounds

Her thighs are getting a little too lumpy, his middle is becoming a little too thick.
The problem: Losing weight as a couple without starting a grudge match that would
do the World Wrestling Federation proud. The solution: Learning how to understand
each other’s approach to weight issues—and finding a healthy lifestyle that
lasts as long as undying love.

By Lisa James

June 2008

If there’s a woman in America who hasn’t stared at the mirror at least once in her life and thought, “I hate my body,” we’d love to shake her hand. According to one national health survey, 48% of all women have tried to lose weight in the past year, many believing that if they could only get rid of those stubborn [insert amount here] pounds, they could face the bathroom mirror (and scale) with confidence.

Men are not subject to quite the same scrutiny when it comes to their weight. But the relentless media stream of idealized male images—chiseled features, square jaws, muscular upper bodies tapering to six-pack abs—has affected them, too. “The fastest-growing population for plastic surgery is men,” says psychotherapist Lydia Hanich, MA, LMFT, author of Honey, Does This Make My Butt Look Big? (Gürze Books). “Twenty years ago it was unheard of.”

This simmering stew of gender and body image, spiced by the health dangers that can accompany obesity, may boil over when both partners in a relationship decide to tackle weight loss together. The reason lies in subconscious, crossed wires of communication between the sexes. “It’s often an unspoken, beneath-the-surface tension because it’s such a sensitive subject,” says Hanich.

Keeping Up Appearances
     The problem stems from the ways overweight men and women are seen by society. “There’s always been this ‘He’s a big/burly/stocky guy’ idea,” Hanich says. “Those terms are not
negative, they’re descriptive. Women are more often described as ‘chunky,’ ‘heavy,’ ‘fat’ and all the other negative things.” It’s no wonder that women tend to worry more about how they look. “Women typically are more concerned about being abandoned due to their appearance, men because of their wallet,” says Leslie Seppinni, MFT, PsyD, a Beverly Hills psychologist who specializes in weight-loss counseling.

Part of this plays out as emotional eating: To soothe “unfeminine” emotions such as anger, women will gravitate towards sugar, fat and carbohydrates. “Then they spend the next few hours feeling guilty for or ashamed of what they’ve just done to themselves,” Seppinni says. (“I can’t believe I just inhaled the Häagen-Dazs.”) On the other hand, “men eat more when they’re happy, or simply because what they’re eating tastes so good.” And both sexes may overeat if family and friends encourage them to do so (New England Journal of Medicine 7/26/07).

As a result, “women see themselves as overweight much quicker than men,” notes Seppinni. “This is in part because women wear more fitted clothes, and their weight gain is more noticeable faster.” The result can be poor body image and even such eating disorders as anorexia and bulimia. “I can’t tell you how many young women come to me, and I think they can be on the cover of Vogue while they think they’re unattractive,” says Hanich.

These gender differences can lead to hurt feelings. “Men don’t worry as much about weight so they don’t recognize the depth or intensity of a woman’s experience,” says Hanich. “They’re often talking on different planes—he’ll say, ‘You just have to cut back on your eating.’ But for a woman the issue of her eating habits is so complex on so many levels.”

Weighing In on Venus and Mars
     The emotional differences in how men and women respond to weight issues are compounded by the fact that men, much to their mates’ exasperation, lose weight more easily. “First of all, they have a faster metabolism because their bodies carry more muscle and women’s bodies naturally carry more fat,” explains Rovenia Brock, PhD, nutritionist, author of Dr. Ro’s Ten Secrets to Livin’ Healthy (Bantam) and contributor to The Today Show and National Public Radio. “The more muscle you carry, the quicker you can burn fat and calories.” Men tend to carry fat around their middles; evidence suggests that such abdominal fat is more readily burned off than deposits in the hips and thighs, where women often carry their extra weight. Finally, men even “have more collagen in their skin,” says Seppinni, “therefore they have less loose skin after weight loss.”

The fact that losing weight is easier for men, plus their tendency to take a do-it-yourself approach to the process, can make for marital discord when a man tries to “help” his lady drop excess pounds. “He can fall into the trap of wanting to fix it—‘I can handle this, I can fix this, I will be your hero,’” says Hanich, “and it backfires because she starts to resent it. Then she starts sneaking treats, and he then gets resentful because he wonders why he’s expending all this energy and she isn’t losing weight.”

So what do women really want? “Reassurance,” says Hanich. “To have someone say ‘It’s okay, honey’ can be so comforting.” What they don’t want to hear is that their mates find them unattractive. “You don’t say to your partner that you’re not turned on,” Brock admonishes. “You have to remind yourself that you’re in a relationship with a person, not a belly or other body part.”
Ladies need to improve their relationship skills, too. “Women become frustrated when communicating with men regarding weight loss because men often wait until they are told that their health is in jeopardy from issues such as diabetes, hypertension and sleep apnea,” Seppinni says.

But Hanich believes “we often like to use that as the ultimate weapon against fat—‘it’s unhealthy for you’—when it’s another form of fat phobia.”

Brock can speak from experience regarding her husband of six years, Murray Riggins, MD. “I got him down to less than 250 just before the wedding,” she recalls. “After the wedding, what do you know? We’re on the upward spiral again. But I was looking for a partner and a mate, and he’s not too hard on the eyes.” Brock’s task wasn’t easy despite her husband’s medical knowledge: “He once said to me, ‘I’m creating a planet where bellies are sexy.’” So how did she handle the situation? “I didn’t say, ‘Honey you’re fat.’ I said, ‘Honey, the extra weight you’re carrying makes you much more likely to have a heart attack, and if you make me a young widow I’m going to dig you up and kill you again.’”

Margie Davis has worried about her spouse’s health, too. “You envision what it could be like without him,” says Davis, 59, who works for the department of social services in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Her husband, Hollis, a 64-year-old retiree, “was dealing with high blood pressure due to his weight.”

Fortunately, Hollis’s weight-loss efforts didn’t really affect the couple’s marriage of 42 years, although “if I’m too overprotective he says, ‘You treat me like a child,’” according to Margie. But she adds that the experience “can draw you closer because you want to get them where they need to be in terms of their health.”

Working (Out) Together
Whether it’s for good looks or good health, weight loss for two has to be a cooperative pursuit. But simply agreeing to start a slim-down program isn’t the end of the story. “What can start off as a supportive, healthy opportunity for a couple to bond can sometimes lead to a competition,” says Seppinni. “Sometimes a partner commits to more than what they know they can do realistically to please their spouse, which can lead to resentment, frustration and a feeling of failure.”

Avoiding such misery is easier when partners talk things over first. Seppinni suggests asking, “What is our goal as a couple? What is the goal for me as an individual? What is the motivation for losing weight together, and why now?” For women especially, she says this means not focusing “on the number of pounds lost in comparison to their men but rather how they feel in their clothes and the inches they’ve lost.” Both parties also have to agree that criticism (“You ate a candy bar again!”) is taboo. As Hanich puts it, “We are ultimately each responsible for what we put in our mouths.”
That doesn’t mean spouses should place temptations in each other’s way, however. “My husband has a sweet tooth,” says Brock. “I don’t need to be taking chocolate chip cookies out of the oven and have the odor wafting through the air when he comes home. All I’ve done is tempt him with food that I know is a trigger for him.”

What does work is encouragement. “Compliment each other along the way, even for the small successes,” Seppinni advises. “If one partner loses all their weight and the other continues to struggle, let your spouse know you are still the same person, simply healthier.” And don’t lose heart. One study found that spouses were six times more likely to adopt healthy habits if their mates did so (Health Services Research 7/5/07).

Jealousy can arise when the weight loss is unevenly distributed. Brock tells the “old joke about the woman who picks up a bum and dusts him off—gets him new clothes and a haircut—and he says, ‘Honey, you’re not good enough for me anymore.’ Perhaps your partner senses that you feel better about yourself and you’re leaving him behind.” Hanich says, “He can feel threatened because she starts to look attractive, so he may start bringing home candy.”
One way to avoid that trap is for couples to rediscover what drew them together in the first place. “Find other ways to spend time together, new hobbies and activities,” Seppinni says. Brock suggests that couples “make a date. Light a couple of candles, have the table set and have a healthy meal prepared.”

What should be in that meal? “Three quarters of your plate should be colorful fruits and vegetables—steamed, raw, grilled—and we don’t want them swimming in fat,” Brock says. “Round out the final quarter with small amounts of lean protein—fish, turkey, beans, tofu or other soy, lean red meat; I would advise organic. And then you can introduce whole grains—brown rice, whole-grain pasta.” She also suggests treating supper prep as playtime. “Prepare meals together; get him to chop vegetables, get him to grill the meat. Feed each other—she can put a strawberry in his mouth.

Make it about the relationship.”

How did the Davises handle the diet part? “We just cut back and watched the fats,” Margie says. “We do a lot of baking and broiling, eat less canned vegetables and more frozen. And when we do eat out we make better choices.”

Hollis also walks regularly, and exercise has to be a component of any couple’s plan. While aerobic exercise such as walking is important, don’t forget weight lifting—the perfect way to increase fat-burning muscle mass. Brock says women fear getting muscle-bound. “I tell them, ‘You don’t stand a chance because our bodies carry more fat. What you will do is become toned.’” Guys are generally self-starters in the gym, but women may be more comfortable getting some advice from a trainer.

It is possible to maintain weight loss over time; nearly 59% of the people in one study managed to do so (American Journal of Preventative Medicine 7/07). Keeping track of weight on a regular basis is important, but Seppinni warns against excessive scale watching. “That leads to all-or-nothing thinking and yo-yo dieting,” she says.

Seppinni has seen duo diets succeed. “Many people have created a wonderful healthy new lifestyle where the focus is no longer on the scale number but on having a healthy body, and learning to manage their emotions between them.” It’s worked for the Davises, too. Hollis has lost about 30 pounds, and Margie says she “can see it’s done more for his self-esteem.” That’s something both partners in a couple can aspire to.

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