Sharing food is one of the most basic ways that human beings bond with one another.
We celebrate our religious holidays with food.
Family get-togethers center around food.
We get to know potential romantic partners by going to a restaurant to eat food.
When we have an office party: food.
When we have a block party: food.
Rites of passage are brought to a close by gathering around food.
Our first bond with another human being is developed through food: the mother breastfeeding her infant.
But food can also be a basis of social conflict, especially when you start saying “no” to unhealthy food, partly because of our strong attachments to each other.
There’s the family conflict, such as, “Why aren’t you eating my chocolate cake, I made it just for you?”
There’s the unspoken friendship conflict: “If you don’t want to make me uncomfortable, you will keep eating the same food we are used to eating with each other.”
And there’s the silent vampy conflict. “I don’t like her thinking she’s better than me with all those healthy food choices she’s making.”
Because food is so social, it can be hard to make choices that are different from the choices of people around us.
Some people might be supportive when you make that important shift from unhealthy to healthy eating habits. Some might even be inspired by your choices and decide to follow suit.
Other people might take your choices as personal to them. They react as if your healthier food choices are a negative reflection on the choices they are making.
The “dark side” to food as a medium for social bonding is that it is loaded with social judgements. People judge themselves and each other for what they eat.
And it’s not just “healthy versus unhealthy” kinds of judgements.
If you say “no” to a food that to symbolizes love or friendship to the person offering it, they might not think you are saying no to the effects of the food on your body. They might assume you are saying no to what the food symbolizes to them.
Complicated stuff to deal with, especially given the fact that making the transition to a healthy food lifestyle is already hard enough.
But dealing with the social complications around food doesn’t have to do you in. You don’t have to cave to social pressure, and you don’t have to isolate yourself from people who have unhealthy eating habits.
You just need to remember how loaded the topic of food is to some people, and prepare for it in advance.
Usually all it takes is having a few prepared explanations for your food choices.
By having a prepared explanation for your consistent “no” to certain foods, you can safely make your way through a social minefield by presenting your explanation in a way that minimizes some people’s tendency to interpret your choices as personal to them.
For instance, let’s say you are visiting your parents, who think refined sugar is one of the great inventions of the modern world, and Dad is pushing pie.
Dad: “You don’t want a piece of your mother’s pie? She spent all afternoon making it!”
You: “I know, it looks so good. I ate so much of her delicious dinner, though. I’m so full!” (Slight lie – it wasn’t that delicious, and you’re not that full.)
Dad: “Well, here, just a small piece.”
You: “Well, I want to eat it when I can appreciate it, so not right now, or it won’t taste as good as I know it is. I better take healthy food some home with me instead. So anyway, dad, I heard that you got a new… !”
If you’re not comfortable with a polite lie, then find your sliver of truth to present. Just frame it in a way so that it makes people feel safe, and they’ll be less likely to think your choice is a reflection on them.
Of course, they shouldn’t take it personally. But reality isn’t what it “should” be. It’s what it is.
People are the way they are. To keep their emotions out of your personal eating choices, it’s good to have a strategy for every social situation.
If you are sticking to the carrots and hummus at the office party because everything else is loaded with sugar and chemicals, you could briefly explain to anyone who asks you why you aren’t trying the amazing hydrogynated-oil-high-fructose-corn-syrup delight, that you’ve noticed sugar makes you feel tired, and you want to see if you start feeling better if you cut back on it.
This explanation keeps the problem and solution all about you. Not about weight. Not about will power. Not about “good food” and “bad food.” Not, “Are you crazy, do you know what’s in that stuff?”
Especially nowadays – when junk food abounds, and people everywhere are struggling with their weight – food can be a very emotionally loaded topic.
Unless you want to engage with people about your “strange” healthy food choices, just come prepared with a brief, impersonal explanation for your refusal of certain foods, one that both honors your choices and deflects intrusive reactions.
When you prepare in advance, dealing with the complicated social dynamics around food can be sort of like bringing an umbrella when it looks like it might rain. With just a little forethought, you can have a totally different experience in challenging weather.