The influence of social support on our physical health is undeniable. In the vast landscape of health research, social support emerges as a formidable force, consistently linked to positive health outcomes. This article seeks to provide an insightful overview of the wealth of knowledge surrounding the profound effects of social support on health.
Furthermore, we delve into the intricate role of social support in weight management, examining its significance in the context of behavior change interventions and bariatric surgery. However, it’s crucial to recognize that not all forms of social support are created equal.
This article also delves into the less explored territory of how social support can sometimes hinder an individual’s efforts to effectively manage their weight. It’s a nuanced perspective that acknowledges that support can sometimes take on a detrimental guise.
Towards the end, we introduce a novel model of negative social support, shedding light on concepts like sabotage, feeder behavior, and collusion. Our approach considers these dynamics within the framework of systems thinking, recognizing the central role of homeostasis in relationships.
Understanding Social Support
Social support is a concept that researchers have defined in various ways. For instance, Cohen and Wills categorized it into different forms: esteem support (boosting self-esteem), informational support (providing advice), companionship (engaging in shared activities), and instrumental support (offering practical assistance).
In contrast, Lett and colleagues made a distinction between two types: structural support (pertaining to network contacts) and functional support (related to perceived benefits from the network). Sarason and his team focused on both the quantity of friends available for support and the satisfaction derived from that support. In simpler terms, Wallston and associates viewed social support as encompassing perceived feelings of comfort, care, esteem, or assistance received from others.
The Positive Influence of Social Support
Taking a positive stance, numerous studies have consistently showcased the beneficial effects of social support across a wide array of health outcomes. For instance, research has revealed that social support serves as a significant predictor for positive shifts in health-related behaviors, encompassing areas like exercise, dietary habits, smoking cessation, and contraceptive use.
Moreover, social support plays a pivotal role in facilitating individuals’ efforts to seek help during the early stages of illness onset, aiding in adaptation, adjustment, and enhancing overall quality of life throughout the course of an illness.
Wing and fellow researchers conducted a thorough examination of the National Weight Control Registry in the United States. Their findings underscored the paramount importance of social support in sustaining weight loss over extended periods, up to 5 years.
Furthermore, a comprehensive review of existing literature conducted by Elfhag and Rössner echoed this sentiment, emphasizing the constructive influence of social support on weight maintenance, particularly for a minimum of 6 months following intentional weight loss.
The Downside of Social Support
While social support is typically associated with positive health outcomes, recent research has unveiled a more intricate facet of this concept. It suggests that not all forms of support are beneficial, particularly when it pertains to health-related behaviors.
In some cases, support can inadvertently lead to coercion and the exertion of pressure on individuals to engage in unhealthy actions. This is particularly evident in the context of managing obesity.
For instance, interviews with individuals who have undergone bariatric surgery have uncovered instances where the support they receive from friends and family may not always be conducive to their well-being. Some reports suggest that these well-intentioned supporters can sometimes be discouraging and even stigmatizing.
Furthermore, studies by Gerac, Brunt, and Marihart have highlighted instances where patients encounter hurtful and critical comments from those around them. Similarly, Ficaro has shed light on the challenges faced by daughters when their mothers undergo significant weight loss.
In addition, Whale, Gillison, and Smith have outlined various ways in which negative aspects of social support can undermine efforts to manage weight, especially when friends feel threatened by someone else’s weight loss. This complex dynamic reminds us that social support is a multifaceted concept with both positive and potentially detrimental consequences in the context of health and weight management.
The Act of Sabotage
Research in the field of social support for weight management sheds light on a concerning issue: intentional sabotage. This refers to situations where individuals consciously work against the efforts of those striving to shed pounds. Several studies investigating the experiences of individuals participating in behavioral weight loss interventions have revealed instances where friends and family members actively undermine weight loss attempts, thereby impeding progress toward achieving weight management goals.
Being a Feeder
Sabotage is a distinct form of negative social support that can hinder weight loss efforts. In this context, a significant aspect of sabotage revolves around eating behavior. Researchers have investigated the deliberate and clear act of tempting someone with food, even when they aren’t hungry or are trying to cut down on calories. This behavior, often referred to as “Being a Feeder,” plays a role in undermining an individual’s attempts to lose weight.
Negative social support can take different forms, including intentional sabotage, where individuals actively work against someone’s weight loss efforts, sometimes by encouraging them to eat even when they don’t want to. However, there’s another type of negative social support that appears less harmful but can still hinder progress, known as collusion.
Collusion involves maintaining conversations and avoiding conflict but can ultimately have detrimental effects. It’s a concept recognized in various disciplines and relates to the idea of “killing with kindness,” a phenomenon explored in fields like literature, drama, veterinary medicine, international aid, and obesity research.
Social Support as Part of a System
As individuals embark on their weight loss journeys, they might face adverse social interactions from their nearest and dearest, which can take the form of actions like sabotage, collusion, or encouraging unhealthy eating habits. This intriguing phenomenon can be better understood by examining it through the lens of systems theory and the concept of homeostasis.
From a systems perspective, relationships are seen as dynamic systems where the members are inherently driven to maintain equilibrium and the existing status quo. In 1985, Minuchin conceptualized this system as an error-correcting process that operates to control behaviors that deviate from the expected patterns within a family. It does so through corrective feedback loops.
In our research, we’ve delved into the concepts of sabotage, “being a feeder,” and collusion. People embark on weight loss journeys for various reasons, including enhancing their overall health and boosting self-esteem. The support of friends and family plays a pivotal role in their success by providing valuable assistance.
However, it’s essential to recognize that, at times, those closest to individuals may inadvertently hinder their progress. This can occur when they offer tempting, unhealthy food choices or inadvertently create obstacles that make it challenging to adopt a healthier lifestyle.