The words can come from a parent, a close friend, or a romantic partner — a comment about your weight or (worse yet) an offer to help you lose weight. Though often prompted by a person's own concerns about their weight, these well-intentioned remarks can do a lot more harm than good.

The messages women get from loved ones about their weight can make a big difference in whether they lose, gain, or maintain their weight, according to a new study. “Acceptance messages” express positive regard for someone’s weight and reassure the person that their weight is okay.

“When we feel bad about our bodies, we often turn to loved ones — families, friends, and romantic partners for support and advice. How they respond can have a bigger effect than we might think,” said Christine Logel, lead author, in a statement.

Women who reported pressure to lose weight or responses that dismissed their concerns about weight gained an average of 4.5 pounds.

The Canadian study looked at college-age women because as a group they are often unhappy with their weight. At the beginning of the nine-month study, each woman was asked about her height and weight and her feelings about her weight.

Five months later, each woman was asked if she had talked about her weight concerns with family members and, if she had, what was the response received. After three more months, researchers again checked for changes in the women’s weight, as well as their feelings about their weight.

On average, the women in the study were at the high end of Health Canada’s BMI recommendations. “So the healthiest thing is for them to maintain the weight they have and not be…hard on themselves,” Logel said in a press release. “But many of the women were still very concerned about how much they weigh, and most talked to their loved ones about it.”

As a whole, the group of women gained some weight over time, and that is not uncommon for young adults. But women who received positive comments about their weight from intimates tended to maintain or even lose a small amount of weight.

On the other hand, comments like, “Well, you might feel better if you lost a few pounds,” from close friends and family members may seem minor to those saying them, but even these comments led women who weren’t concerned about their weight in the first place to gain some weight. And women who reported pressure to lose weight or responses that dismissed their concerns about weight gained an average of 4.5 pounds.

The research suggests that women who receive positive comments about their weight from loved ones feel better about their bodies, encouraging them to be more active and eat better. And feeling accepted unconditionally may reduce stress, a known cause of weight gain.

The research underscores other findings demonstrating the power of social support to improve our health, according to Logel, a professor at the University of Waterloo. An important part of social support is feeling loved and accepted just the way we are by those who matter to us.

Perhaps these findings can help to change the communication with women into a more positive approach about their weight concerns as part of weight-loss interventions.

The study is published in the journal Personal Relationships.