All of us, at one point or another, have felt self-conscious about our weight. This shirt doesn’t fit anymore. Did I gain weight? These realizations can be hard for some people to handle, so they look to friends and family to calm their minds — and it usually helps, even if these people feel the shirt really did get tighter. For people who are actually obese, this support system is just as important, according to a recent study.

“When we feel bad about our bodies, we often turn to loved ones — families, friends, and romantic partners — for support and advice,” said study author Professor Christine Logel, who teaches social development at the University of Waterloo’s Renison University College in England, in a press release. “How they respond can have a bigger effect that we might think.”

Logel and her colleagues found that clinically obese women who received support from family and friends were more likely to maintain their weight or even lose some, when compared to women whose support system failed them, and instead criticized their weight. On average, these women gained 4.5 pounds over the course of eight months. The findings show the importance of not only accepting a person for who they are, but also encouraging a healthy lifestyle in a respectful manner — criticism only demoralizes a person, and worsens their insecurities.

The study involved a group of college-aged women who were asked about their height and weight, and how they felt when they saw their weight on a scale. These women were considered to be “at the high end of Health Canada’s BMI (body mass index) recommendations,” Logel said. They returned five months later to tell the researchers about their experiences with their loved ones; whether they had spoken about their weight and if their loved ones expressed concern, as well as how they responded. Three months after that, the participants returned for another weight-check, which is when Logel’s team found women who were criticized gained weight.

Having that support is crucial to even beginning losing weight. A study published in the American Journal of Medicine in 2013 found that women who were part of a Weight Watchers support group, which included access to group meetings, the Weight Watchers website, and the Weight Watchers mobile app, were able to cut five percent more of their initial weight than those who weren’t in a support group (that group lost less than one percent of their initial weight). In another study from 1999, participants who enrolled in a weight-loss program with friends lost more weight than those who did it alone.

It needs to be the overweight person, however, that becomes inspired to lose weight. Women who were concerned about their weight, but felt supported, were more likely to begin a weight-loss plan than those who were told they had gained weight, or were advised on ways to lose it. Although these suggestions meant well, Logel said they are “misguided.”

“Lots of research finds that social support improves our health,” Logel said. “An important part of social support is feeling that our loved ones accept us just the way we are.”

Source: Logel C, Stinson D, Gunn G, Wood J, Holmes J, Cameron J. A little acceptance is good for your health: Interpersonal messages and weight change over time. Personal Relationships. 2014.