Help! My sister just gained 50 pounds. Can I mention it?
Our elder shares her own experiences to help a letter writer.
Hi. I’m 17, still living at home. My sister is 24 and lives several states away. I hadn’t seen her in almost a year until she recently came home for a visit. I was shocked to see she had gained probably 50 pounds or more since I had last seen her (she used to be quite thin.) She hasn’t said a thing about it, so I assume it’s a sensitive subject for her. I don’t want to embarrass her, but I’m worried about her. I’m afraid she may have a medical issue, or be severely depressed. How should I bring it up? Or should I just keep my mouth shut?
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that every elder here would probably give you a different answer to your question, so you may want to ask for a second opinion after you read my advice.
I will begin by sharing a bit of my background. I was a very skinny, sickly child. The doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. From all accounts, I’m lucky to be alive. I only weighed 17 pounds when I started kindergarten, and only 40 pounds when I started the 5th grade. I had a healthy appetite, which my parents encouraged. A normal breakfast for me was either two sausage links or two pieces of bacon, two fried eggs, 2-3 pancakes, and hot chocolate with either whipped cream or marshmallows.
The school encouraged my parents to let me take hot lunch in the cafeteria. The janitor watched for me as I came in, and signaled the cooks that I was in line. The cooks gave me larger portions than the other kids received. The janitor stood behind me and watched me eat. I was not allowed out of the cafeteria until I had been back for a second helping of at least one item.
Dinner was always meat, potatoes, salad, and a vegetable. There was always ice cream, cookies, or cake around the house.
Somehow, I lived to see my 10th birthday. For some unknown reason, I doubled my weight in the 5th grade. I went into the 5th grade weighing 40 pounds, and came out weighing 80 pounds. Everyone said how wonderful I looked, and that I could now stop eating huge portions of food. Yeah, right. All my eating habits had already been formed, and I loved food.
I was overweight all through school. I graduated at 17, worked full-time for a year, and then left home at 18 to go to business college in a different state. Money was extremely tight, and I often didn’t eat. I lost a lot of weight, and looked great. I married my husband two days after my 22nd birthday. Since he is 12 years older than I am, we did not wait to have children. I got pregnant on my honeymoon. While I was single, I never had a vehicle, so I walked everywhere. Suddenly, I was married with a car, and I was no longer getting the exercise from walking. I gained 80 pounds with my first pregnancy. I then learned that children eat all day long. Every time the kids put something in their mouths, I thought I had to eat too.
As a result, I’ve been overweight most of my life. Frankly, I would rather be overweight than underweight and sick like I was before, but I know I’m not as healthy as I could be. I’m now 63 years old, with a 75-year-old husband. I know at some point I will be his caregiver, so this year I am losing some weight so that I will be healthy enough to do that. I have lost 47 pounds since January, and I’m still losing.
Why do I tell you all this? I’m telling you my story so that you know that I have had lots of experience with this issue. In addition, one of my children (my youngest) has a significant weight problem that we’ve dealt with her entire life.
So, now that you know where I’m coming from, here is my advice regarding your sister.
Every time your sister looks in the mirror, she sees that she is overweight. She doesn’t need anyone to tell her that. The decision to lose weight has to be her own. Every time someone points out the extra pounds, she loses a little self-esteem. If too many people talk to her about it, depression will set in. She will completely lose her self-worth, which will be counterproductive to her weight issue. She will just eat out of stress and depression and put on more weight.
This is especially true if the harassing is done by family members, even if it is done out of love and concern. Since you are the younger sister, she wants you to look up to her. She wants to feel like a good big sister who is setting a good example for you. Pointing out the obvious weight gain will make her feel bad for not being that good example.
Now, at some point, your sister might mention her weight problem to you. If that happens, then gently tell her that you are worried about her health. Don’t mention her looks. Words to avoid are “fat,” “obese,” “ugly,” “out of shape,” “chubby,” etc. Just tell her that you love her and are concerned about her health. You might offer to help her find a nutrition and exercise class in her area. Medical facilities often offer these for free, or for a small fee. You might offer to help her find nutritious recipes. The size of plates that Americans use are ridiculously big. If she were to use a salad plate instead of a dinner plate, then the amount of food is often cut down to a better proportion. The first 15 pounds that I lost this year was just by giving up soda pop and ice cream. After that, I had to start eating a bit healthier diet to lose more. When I reached 45 pounds, I had to step away from my laptop and start taking a walk around the block or a walk in the park.
A lot of people are into these “Fit Bit” programs now. I know nothing about them, but I have friends who have been successful with them. Usually, they are more successful if they have a buddy to do it with and they are accountable to each other. You could offer to be her healthy eating and exercise buddy.
Remember, however, that your sister needs to make the decision on her own and come to you. Just sit back, love her, and wait for her to get to a point in life where she is ready to do something about this. That is the only way she will have success. She has to want to do it. She has to be motivated. You never know what is going to motivate a person. You didn’t mention if your sister was married, or if she has children. Some people get motivated when they want to find someone to marry. Some get motivated because they want to be healthy for a pregnancy. Some get motivated because they want to be healthy parents and live to see their grandchildren. As I said, my motivation was wanting to care for my husband as he ages so I don’t have to put him in a nursing home unnecessarily.
The key is love. Love often equals patience. Love her unconditionally. Look at her mind and her spirit; not her body. See her from the inside out. She doesn’t need to be told she is fat. She sees it in the mirror, in her clothes, in store windows, in her friendships (or lack thereof), and often on the job site or in job interviews. What she needs from her little sister is love and admiration.
I hope that helps. If you have questions or problems in the future, please write to Elder Wisdom Circle. If you feel so inclined, please tell others about our service.