One of the most common complaints I hear from my patients is that it's hard to be healthy when they're surrounded by friends who have unhealthy habits. My patients' feelings are consistent with research showing that the company we keep may greatly influence our choices – especially food related – and not just in our teenage years. I consider myself lucky. All my friends seem to care a lot about the same things as I do, including healthy eating and regular exercise.
I can't realistically suggest you simply find new friends if your current ones are holding you back, healthiness-wise. But if they are interfering with your health goals, you need to do something about it. Here's what I suggest:
Create a goal, and don't forget it. It is very important that you have a goal in mind when trying to lose weight or simply be healthy. Maybe you want to avoid having diabetes or heart disease like others in your family. Maybe you want to look sexier in a pair of jeans. Whatever your reason, it's individual to you, and you must remember that at all times. Stay focused, and don't let those around you interfere with your commitment. If you do, you might end up resenting them.
Be a leader, not a follower. This is an especially tough challenge, but sometimes you need to be the one who steps up to the plate first. When you do, you might be surprised that some of your friends will follow. When dining out, be the one to choose the restaurant so you know healthy options are available. If someone else does the choosing, and it's simply not up to your liking, stick to your guns and ask nicely that she reconsiders the place. If you have an exercise class you want to go to – go! You can even ask your friend if she'd like to join you. If it's a group of friends, and you're the odd man out, perhaps you still hang out, just not as frequently. I know that may be tough, but remember: You're focusing on your specific health goal.
Plan ahead for difficult situations. If your friends like to go out on Thursday night for happy hour, and they always end up ordering bar appetizers you wish didn't exist, you need to be prepared. Make sure to grab an easy snack beforehand, like a handful of almonds and a piece of fruit, so resisting the bar food is much easier. If you're going to a friend's house for dinner, and they tend to forget what a vegetable is, offer to bring a mixed green salad. You can still eat what they are serving but less of it, because you have the salad to help fill you up. If you and your friends are avid movie-goers and it's a ritual to share a large popcorn, how about popping your own and sneaking it with you? Your friends might actually prefer the taste and be glad they saved money.
Create new ways to spend time together. Meet your friends where food and alcohol is not the main focus. Visit a museum, go to the movies (but don't forget your home-popped popcorn) or find something cultural to do in your neighborhood. Meet at a nail salon for a manicure and pedicure, or – if up for a splurge - have a spa day. Another option is finding a cause that you both care about and sign up for a charity walk. If you really think about it, there are many ways to spend time together that don't include your usual bars and restaurants.
No matter what happens with your friends, no one says you can't still make new ones. Personally, over the years I have made lots of new friends through yoga. And if you your old friends don't like the new healthy you, then maybe they weren't real friends to begin with.
Keri Gans, MS, RDN, CDN, is a registered dietitian/nutritionist, media personality, spokesperson, and author of The Small Change Diet. Gans's expert nutrition advice has been featured in Glamour, Fitness, Health, Self and Shape, and on national television and radio, including The Dr. Oz Show, Good Morning America, ABC News, Primetime, and Sirius/XM Dr. Radio.