How Major Weight Loss Can Affect You and Your Relationships
By Michelle Hunt, PsyD, LCADC
Clinical Psychologist and Licensed Clinical Alcohol and Drug Counselor
Virtua Bariatric Weight Loss
Weight loss, whether it’s a few pounds or 100 pounds, often results in positive changes to your physical health, such as lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels. And while many people who lose weight think it will automatically result in increased happiness, improved body image, and better relationships, the reality is more complicated.
Losing weight doesn’t necessarily make you happier or boost your body image. It actually can lead to challenging changes in your relationships with friends and loved ones. Some people experience immediate positive mental and emotional changes with little impact to their relationships. Other people, however, need more time and support as they and their loved ones adjust to their new body size.
If you have lost—or are hoping to lose—a significant amount of weight, here’s what you need to know about the mental, emotional, and social challenges that can affect you and your relationships during or after major weight loss.
What are the potential negative effects of weight loss?
Although weight loss may change your body size, it doesn’t change your thoughts.
For example, if you had problems with emotional eating, food addiction, or unhealthy food associations before losing weight, you probably will continue to have the same problems after losing weight. And, if you had mental health disorder such as anxiety and depression before losing weight, the symptoms might improve post-weight loss—but they probably won’t disappear.
Also, people who felt ashamed or devalued when they were overweight are likely to continue feeling the same way after major weight loss.
Weight loss also can cause problems with self-image. Phantom fat syndrome is a common issue that occurs in people who have experienced major weight loss. People who have phantom fat syndrome have difficulty seeing themselves in their new body size and believe they’re larger than they really are. There are several factors that can contribute to phantom fat syndrome, including:
- Being unhappy with your appearance after losing weight. With major weight loss, it can be difficult to predict where (on your body) and how you will lose weight. Sometimes, people who lose a lot of weight develop saggy skin or have difficulty losing weight in preferred places like in the abdomen or thighs. This can disappoint them or make them feel self-conscious about their appearance.
- Not adjusting how you negotiate space. Many people who lose a significant amount of weight continue to negotiate space the same way they did when they were overweight. For example, some people may still avoid booths in restaurants or seats next to other people, even though their new body could easily fit.
- Fear of regaining weight. People who have lost a lot of weight may continue to hang on to old habits, thoughts or feelings and fear that they could lead to weight gain.
What should I do if I'm having problems adjusting to my new body size?
It’s important to remind people that it takes time for the brain to “catch up” with the body after major weight loss. It’s also normal to discover that there are things you need to work on that aren’t entirely related to weight. This includes negative thought patterns or mindsets, body-image issues, or unhealthy eating behaviors.
When possible, it helps to identify these problems before you lose weight. If you’re having weight-loss surgery, most insurance companies require that you have a pre-surgical counseling session to identify any psychological concerns in advance. During your session, your therapist also will talk to you about the mental, social, and emotional challenges you may experience.
However, even if you’re planning to lose weight without having surgery, it’s a good idea to seek counseling beforehand. Being aware of these mental, social, and emotional issues can help you identify signs of serious problems. It may be helpful to continue with individual counseling during and after your weight loss journey or join a support group for people who have experienced major weight loss.
How can weight loss affect my relationships?
You’re entitled to improve your health, and weight loss is a great start. But it’s important to understand that losing a lot of weight can change the way others see you and affect the dynamics of your relationships.
Friends, family members, co-workers—and even members of the opposite sex—may give you more attention after you lose weight. The extra attention can make you may feel uncomfortable, flattered, resentful, or self-conscious.
It’s also common to experience changes in relationships that are based on food. For example, if you and a co-worker always go out for lunch at fast-food restaurants, your relationship may change if you decide to skip the fast food and pack healthier meals.
You might have a friend who enjoys being labeled as the “skinny one” or the “outgoing one.” And these people may resent, or feel threatened, by your weight loss. If you lose weight and become more confident, others might feel insecure by comparison, which can lead to jealousy and conflict.
Family members and friends also can turn into the “food police,” or be unsupportive of your weight loss.
What should I do if I'm having problems in my relationships after weight loss?
The people your life may need time to adjust to your new body size. One of the best things you can do is talk to the important people in your life about your weight loss and how it may affect your relationship.
You might find it helpful to alter your interactions with certain people. For example, you might not feel comfortable going out for fast-food lunches with your co-worker every day, but you could go along on Fridays and order a salad.
When it comes to interacting with family and friends, encouraging non-food activities and building positive routines—such as serving veggies with every meal, going for long walks, or dining in instead of going to a restaurant—can help you to create the supportive environment you need. Inviting your family members to a support group meeting or individual counseling session also may be a good idea.
Still, some people in your life may never respond well to your weight loss, and those relationships may diminish or end.
Being prepared for the mental, emotional and social changes that come along with major weight loss can help you achieve your goal of overall health and well-being.
Updated December 15, 2020