Making the decision to eat healthy can trigger tension with family members or friends. Healthy-eating expert and author Darya Pino Rose shares her strategies for finding peace at the dinner table.
Expert Source: Darya Pino Rose, PhD, runs the healthy-eating blog SummerTomato.com. She’s the author of Foodist: Using Real Food and Real Science to Lose Weight Without Dieting (HarperOne, 2013).
You’ve embarked on a new, healthier way of eating that makes you feel great about yourself and your body. But important people in your life — spouse, partner, family, friends — are having a hard time with the changes. They’re still munching the old bad-for-you standbys, and they either can’t understand why you won’t join them in a doughnut-fest or think you’ve become a health-food snob who hates joy. For your part, you’d love to be able to share your new food insights with the people you love, but you don’t want to make them feel more defensive than they already do. You also want to stay faithful to your new values without coming off as a judge or an oddball. It’s a recipe for stress, but there are ways to cool down food fervor and find an eat-and-let-eat solution, says Darya Pino Rose, PhD. Here, the food blogger offers advice on bringing calm back to the dinner table.
Barriers To Overcome
- Your own rigidity. It’s natural, especially in the early stages of a new eating pattern, to try to obey every food rule to the letter and do everything perfectly — which can lead to a sour, anxious attitude on your part and trigger defensiveness in others. In your enthusiasm, you may become so absorbed in your new habits that you don’t even notice that your eating routine strikes others as rigid and extreme.
- The urge to convert. “Though you may be justifiably excited about your new eating habits, don’t offer unsolicited nutrition advice,” says Rose, with emphasis. The urge to recruit others to your newfound cause can have the opposite effect — putting them off and even making them more likely to load their plates with the bad stuff. It can also add to their sense that you’ve become holier-than-thou on food issues, and make it harder for you to find common ground at dinnertime.
- Feelings of ambivalence. Another source of negativity on your part might be lingering uncertainty about whether you can stick to your plan. Do you have what it takes to say goodbye to sugar forever? If you ditch dairy, will you be leaving behind the bonds you’ve built with your family on Friday Ice Cream Nights? This uncertainty can feel especially pronounced when you’re surrounded by people who aren’t on your plan.
- Fear of not fitting in. Taking your own food to a dinner party, or being out at a meal with friends and not being able to partake in the communal appetizers, can tap your insecurity by making you feel excluded. Food and community are closely connected, and it can be hard to maintain your resolve.
- Difference of opinion about what’s really healthy. Healthy-eating issues are fraught with debate, and well-meaning friends and family may try to recruit you to their side — all with an armload of science (or pseudoscience) in their arsenal. “You say you’re vegetarian? Where are you going to get your protein?” Or “You’ve given up dairy? Won’t you miss the probiotics in yogurt?” You may feel so overwhelmed by competing nutrition perspectives that you are tempted to just toss in the towel and return to your old habits.
- Reluctance to get support. Given how important food rituals often are in relationships, you may be hesitant or unsure about getting support for — or even just revealing — your new food commitments within your family or group of friends.
Strategies for Success
- Realize it’s not about you. “People who approach you antagonistically about food are probably insecure about their own eating habits,” says Rose. “Their animosity may have a lot more to do with them than with you.” Compassion is called for and will help keep you from counterattacking.
- Explain yourself without judging. Talking about your motivations in a friendly, nonthreatening way can defuse tensions, says Rose. This involves making it clear that your convictions don’t add up to a judgment of anyone else. “One of the best ways to do this is to use what psychologists call the framing effect,” she says. “If you frame the explanation of your eating habits in terms of ‘I don’t eat that awful stuff,’ you’ll antagonize. But if you frame it as ‘I’m eating differently as a kind of experiment to see how I’ll feel,’ you take the value judgment out.”
- Lead by example. “If you want to influence your friends, the best thing you can do is set a good example and let them see you lose weight and get in shape,” says Rose. Lectures and long explanations are no match for the glowing skin and eyes, shiny hair, improved energy, and weight loss that often accompany healthier eating.
- Tell your hosts ahead of time. Letting hosts know about your food needs and limits before a gathering can feel like an awkward proposition, but it’s the most considerate approach. People host because they want to make something you can enjoy, and most will be relieved to know about your limits and preferences in advance so they can prepare. If you need to take your own food, a quick call ahead of time is also usually appreciated; opening your own Tupperware as six people are sitting down to dinner could cause embarrassment and frustration.
- Emphasize pleasure. Rose suggests that, in an effort to be nonjudgmental when you tell people about your new eating habits, you talk more about pleasure than duty, and let your friends know that you understand why they like what they like: “You can say, ‘Hey, pizza is great, but so is this salad, believe it or not. I love how it makes me feel. I’m not trying to restrict myself or show off my willpower — I am really into this.’ Emphasizing happiness can really disarm a critic.”
- Stick to your values. “There’s no doubt that most of us are eating in ways that make us sick,” says Rose. If complaints have shaken your resolve, she says, remind yourself that eating better really is good self-care and worth defending. “It’s highly unlikely that you’re actually being so extreme in your changes that you’ve turned into a food extremist.”
- Choose your battles. “If it’s my grandmother’s birthday and someone whips up her favorite apple pie and everyone is having some (and it’s not a proven allergen or won’t trigger a negative physical reaction), that might be a time for me to have a piece,” says Rose. “There’s definitely something to be said for being somewhat flexible at those times when nutrition isn’t the main value — when it’s a matter of love or tradition.” Of course, if your food plan has absolutes due to allergies or other non-negotiable factors, you can sweetly outline your needs to Grandma. Explaining it in terms of negative physical reactions can be the most helpful in these tradition-laden situations.
- Be firm with persistent critics. If, despite all the goodwill you’ve projected, someone just won’t stop being critical or belittling of your food plan, it may be necessary to take him or her aside for a conversation in which you lay out very fully and calmly your reasons for eating as you do. “I know you have some real doubts about how I’m eating, but I’m serious about it, it’s important to me, and I don’t have the slightest wish to make anybody who isn’t eating like I do feel small or wrong. I’d really appreciate it if you’d help me stick to this plan.”