Friends can be a valuable support system when you're working toward a health or fitness goal, but what do you do when you think a friendship is doing more harm than good?

By Jessica Cording, MS, RD, CDN
January 16, 2018
Photo: igor_kel/Getty Images

Friends can be a valuable support system when you're going through a transition or working toward a goal. When it comes to health and fitness, a gym buddy or accountability partner can help you stay motivated and on track. Surrounding yourself with supportive people helps you succeed, but what about when a friend is bad for your health?

Food is only part of the overall lifestyle equation. So as a nutritionist, I actually talk about a lot more than just food with my clients-this often includes their personal relationships. A couple common scenarios stand out: When a friend gets competitive or jealous and tries to drag you down instead of supporting your goals. Or when you begin to make better lifestyle choices for yourself, and you start to realize that certain people don't fit into that healthier, happier life as well as they used to. In these cases, sometimes moving away from a toxic or unhealthy friend is the only solution. I know it because it happened to me.

When I was first studying nutrition, I was spending a lot of time with a woman who had some issues around food. Every time we got together, she'd recount what she'd eaten that day, and the conversation always somehow wound up centering on how much she weighed or what size jeans she wore. If we went to a restaurant, I would watch her pick at her food and feel bad about eating mine. (Related: Why You Have to Stop Comparing Your Eating Habits to Your Friends')

On the one hand, it was fun exploring New York's vegan restaurants with her (she happened to be vegan). My vegetarian boyfriend, who was really hoping for me to convert, loved that I had an herbivore friend. (Spoiler alert: Going vegetarian for my boyfriend didn't end well.) Also, it wasn't like food was the only thing we talked about-there was school, dating, other life stuff. I think that's why it took me so long to notice something was off.

There wasn't anything outwardly competitive in her behavior, but it still triggered uncomfortable feelings in me. Logically, I knew I shouldn't let it get to me. But it was hard, even for a dietitian-in-training-or maybe especially for a dietitian-in-training.

Perhaps it was because we usually met up for meals, but it began to feel like our friendship centered around food. My body and brain were also starting to show signs of wear and tear. I was mostly eating vegan because of who I spent my time with, and since I hadn't learned yet about other important nutrients to stay on top of besides protein, it didn't occur to me that my cloudy thinking, exhaustion, and aches were related to legit nutritional deficiencies.

I was taking a summer class about eating disorders when the things I was learning started to strike a chord. This friendship was unhealthy for me. The more I learned about the symptoms and criteria for various types of eating disorders, it started to dawn on me that my friend could potentially be on the road to serious health issues. And I was scared knowing how easily a person can tiptoe into unsafe territory without realizing it.

I got even more nervous when I suffered a painful bone injury in both forearms. My doctor called it a "stress reaction" (a near-miss stress fracture, basically). It was so painful that I could barely hold a pen, much less do yoga, my favorite form of stress relief. It was around this time I was diagnosed with vitamin B12 and vitamin D deficiencies. I couldn't ignore the fact that I needed to make some changes to my diet. The problem was, I didn't feel like it was emotionally safe to eat meat around my friend (never mind the boyfriend at home who strongly preferred I not even bring eggs into the house). Someone in a clearer headspace could probably acknowledge that she had her habits and I had mine, but I was worried I wouldn't be able to escape the overthinking.

I finally reached out to a therapist to help me figure out how to clear the fog before it turned into a full-blown problem. The therapist helped me verbalize what I knew deep down: I had to stop spending time with this friend because she was triggering unhealthy thoughts. It wasn't my friend purposefully doing anything to set me off-it was more that I really needed to focus on my relationship with food and my body, and it was harder to do that with someone else's hang-ups in the mix.

Ultimately, I didn't feel ready to cut out this friend entirely, so we started doing stuff that didn't involve food. It helped a lot, but I gradually began to see less and less of her as I started feeling more like myself. Eventually, we naturally grew apart.

If you notice any similarities between my story and something you're experiencing, here are some tough but telling questions to think about that will help you decide if you need to phase out an unhealthy friendship, too.

1. Do you feel bad about yourself when you hang out with this person? Do you feel nervous about sharing your successes with them? Do you start obsessing over your diet/weight/body after being with them?

2. Having a health-minded buddy is really valuable when you share workout classes, an online fitness support community, or even a fitness tracker competition, but just watch out for when that competition goes too far. Does your friend obsessively compare stats, race times, measurements, or weight loss? Do they gloat about their success or act like a sore loser rather than give you a high-five for yours?

3. Food-shaming is also a very real and potentially dangerous thing that can happen with even the most innocent of friends. If your friend gives you grief about what's on your plate or you find yourself feeling like you have to hide your real eating habits around them, that's a red flag.

4. Does this friend give you a hard time about not wanting to stay out late or make you feel silly for forgoing alcohol because you've got a morning fitness class? It's one thing if it happens once when you're out for a special occasion. But if she's constantly on you about your healthy choices, that's an unsupportive friend-period.

In some cases, you may be able to talk to your friend about your feelings and see if you can work it out. Also keep in mind that some friends are wonderful in different ways. The way you may not be able to talk about your career or your sex life with certain friends, the same goes for food and fitness. If you have a pal whose food issues set you off, maybe they're your go-to person when you want to go see the newest chick flick.

Remember, you are the expert on your body, and it's okay to honor what is best for you.