Skip to main content

Being on a diet can suck. The exercise, the green beans, the weigh-ins - all of it.

But do you ever wonder how your diet affects the person seated across the table? You know, the guy picking at his baked chicken and brown rice, missing the old days when lasagna wasn't banished from the kitchen?

A new study by Ontario researchers has shone a light on the plight of the dieter's significant other. Published this week in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behaviour, the researchers interviewed 21 pairs - mostly spouses and one father-daughter duo - to understand how one person's decision to lose weight or eat healthier food affected their partner's emotions and diet.

For the most part, the researchers found, the significant others saw themselves as a positive influence on their partner's battle of the bulge.

Part cheerleader, part personal chef, they filled the fridge with spinach, whipped up low-fat dinners, even modified their own diets drastically to support their partner.

"I try to keep him relaxed," said one man who took part in the study.

"[I]know that if he eats a little potato salad one day, it's not going to be the end of the whole thing," the study participant said.

Other partners, however, acted more like saboteurs, refusing to alter their junk food habits, and in some cases, offering little more than snide comments.

"She'll sit down and eat a bag of cookies right in front of me," one dieter said of his wife.

One man refused to touch his wife's "tasteless" vegetarian cuisine. Another proffered impossible-to-resist glasses of wine, which, of course, led to cheese and crackers ... and his wife falling off the weight-loss wagon.

A few were openly skeptical of their partner's ability to succeed.

"He thinks that this is the way he's going to be for good," said one woman whose husband was on a weight-loss diet. "All the power to him, but I just don't see it happening."

One reason people felt negatively about their partner's diet was because they felt rejection, said Judy Paisley, the study's lead author and an associate professor of nutrition at Toronto's Ryerson University. Women who were used to cooking meals for their husbands, for example, felt insulted if their husbands wouldn't want to eat their food.

Others may fear that their relationship could change as their partner's waistbands get smaller, their confidence grows and their social lives change, said Judy Rose, a registered dietitian in Calgary who has been counselling clients for 31 years.

Finding ways to get a partner on board is important, experts say, because their support can play a major role in whether a dieter succeeds or fails.

"Doing these things on your own, or doing them with negativity on the other side - it's a stroke against you from the start," said Ms. Rose, nutritional co-ordinator with TrymGym, a lifestyle change program operating at the University of Calgary since 1972, which focuses on behaviour change, nutrition education and physical activity.

Dieters should also communicate their needs, said Jan Chan, a registered dietitian in Richmond, B.C. "If there's no communication, then it's pretty hard to make changes."

Dr. Paisley, who conducted the study with other researchers at Ryerson, the University of Guelph, and the University of Toronto, said more research is needed to look at the social factors associated with dieting.

"It's really important to understand the context in which dietary change happens ... so we can approach our task of supporting people in a better way."