WOMEN
01/12/2015 11:42 am ET Updated Jan 14, 2015

What You Should Really Say When Your Friend Declares, 'I'm So Fat'

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When a friend complains about her weight, what do you say? Do you go the supportive route and encourage her to start dieting? Or do you follow the unspoken rule of female friendship and tell her that she looks great just as she is?

New research suggests that the latter option is actually the most effective way to make your friend not only feel better, but potentially help her stop stressing out about her body and, in turn, lose weight.

The study, which appears in a recent issue of the Personal Relationships journal, surveyed over 100 female university students in Canada to find out how the messages they got from their loved ones affected their preoccupation with weight and their actual weight gain over the course of nine months. By the end of the study, those who were initially concerned about their weight but had received mainly positive messages -- like, "You look great just as you are" -- generally maintained or even lost weight. Those who had the same initial concerns but were told by their loved ones to try to reach their fitness goals and lose weight actually gained an average of four pounds during those months.

"If we think that what's best for our loved ones' health is to lose weight, then of course we want to support that," Christine Logel, Assistant Professor at the University of Waterloo and co-author of the study, told The Huffington Post. "But the reality is, if our loved ones were going to be able to lose weight, they would've already."

If the growing body of research suggesting that diets don't work is any indication, Logel has a point. Feeling bad about the size of their bodies doesn't make people lose weight -- it only puts them at greater risk of gaining. The stress from all of that weight preoccupation can cause people to lose control, and eat more or even binge eat. Social approval, on the other hand, has been shown to support physical health.

In Logel's study, participants were asked to record their weight and identify three "close others" -- a friend, a parent and a romantic partner, if that applied -- and say whether or not they received particular messages from these loved ones in response to weight concerns. There were three types of messages they could've received: weight-acceptance messages (which reassured the participant that her weight was acceptable), weight-loss pressure messages (which conveyed that it was important to lose weight and be thin) and weight-concern dismissal messages (which ignored the participant's weight insecurities entirely).

The results suggest that agreeing with a friend that she needs to lose weight or avoiding talking about her weight concerns aren't helpful reactions when she says, "I'm so fat." The only messages that actually had positive effects on participants' well-being and BMI were weight-acceptance messages.

"It just seems that, in this particular culture, there's no good outcome from bugging our loved ones about their weight, no matter how good our intentions," Logel said. "They're getting those messages all over the place, so they don't need to hear it from us."

Offering reassurance, rather than pressure, can make a woman less stressed and cause her to lose weight without wasting mental real estate on body insecurities.

One big caveat of the study, however, was how societal expectations to be thin interact with these comments from friends. Put together, they can make the pressure to lose weight debilitating. If we lived in a different world -- one that didn't put forth underage, underweight models as the beauty ideal and foster a culture of fear and rejection around weight gain -- Logel said it's likely we'd be able to take healthy criticism without stress-eating and yo-yo dieting. But as it stands, every time a woman flips on her television or scrolls through her Facebook feed, she's reminded that appearance and weight matter, and that she's not measuring up.

At the end of the day, if you care about the health and well-being of a friend who feels she needs to lose weight, accepting her and enjoying your time together is the way to go, whether or not she needs to lose weight for health reasons. Remember: Contributing to a friend's weight preoccupation will likely only stress her out and set her up for diet failure.

If you're concerned about your own weight, surround yourself with compassionate people who accept you the way you are. Unlike low self-esteem and crash diets, spending time with people who love you is good for your health and well-being.

Take it from Logel: "There's nothing to lose and everything to gain -- no pun intended -- from spending time with people who make us feel good about ourselves when we're with them."

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