Sharing food is one of the most basic ways that humans bond with one another.
We celebrate our religious holidays with food.
Family gatherings are centered around food.
We get to know potential romantic partners by going to a restaurant for a meal.
When we have an office party: food.
When we have a block party: food.
The rite of passage closes by gathering around the food.
Our first bonds with other humans are developed through food: mothers breastfeed their babies.
But food can also be the basis of social conflict, especially when you start saying “no” to unhealthy foods, in part because of our strong attachment to one another.
There are family conflicts, such as, “Why don’t you eat my chocolate cake, I made it just for you?”
There is an unspoken friendship conflict: “If you don’t want to make me uncomfortable, you will still eat the same food we used to eat together.”
And there is the silent vampire conflict. “I don’t like him thinking he’s better than me with all the healthy food choices he makes.”
Because food is so social, it can be difficult to make choices that are different from those around us.
Some people may be supportive when you make an important change from unhealthy eating habits to healthy ones. Some may even be inspired by your choice and decide to follow it.
Others may take your choice as personal to them. They react as if your healthy food choices are a negative reflection of the choices they make.
The “dark side” of food as a medium of social bonding is full of social judgments. People judge themselves and each other for what they eat.
And it’s not just a “healthy versus unhealthy” type of judgment.
If you say “no” to a food that symbolizes love or friendship to the person offering it, they probably won’t think you’re saying no about the effect the food has on your body. They may assume you are saying no to what the food represents to them.
Things are tough to deal with, especially given the fact that the transition to a healthy food lifestyle is already tough enough.
But dealing with the social complications surrounding food doesn’t have to get you involved. You don’t have to give in to social pressures, 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 can be for some people, and prepare in advance.
Usually all it takes is to prepare some explanations for your food choices.
By setting up an explanation for your consistent “no” to certain foods, you can safely bypass the social minefield by presenting your explanations in a way that minimizes the tendency for some people to interpret your choices as personal to them.
For example, let’s say you visit your parents, who consider refined sugar to be one of the great inventions of the modern world, and Dad pushes cookies.
Dad: “You don’t want a piece of your mom’s cake? She spent the whole afternoon making it!”
You: “I know, it looks delicious. I ate so many good dinners. I’m so full!” (Little lie – it’s not very tasty, and you’re not too full.)
Father: “Well, here, just a small piece.”
You: “Well, I want to eat it when I can appreciate it, so not now, or it won’t taste as good as I know it to be. I better take it home. So dad, I heard you got a new one…!”
If you are not comfortable with polite lies, then find your truth to present. Just frame it in a way that makes people feel safe, and they are likely to think that your choice is a reflection of them.
Of course, they shouldn’t take it personally. But reality is not what it “should be”. That’s what it is.
People are what they are. To keep their emotions out of your personal eating choices, it’s a good idea to have a strategy for each social situation.
If you stick to carrots and hummus at office parties because everything else is loaded with sugar and chemicals, you can briefly explain to anyone who asks why you don’t try the hydrogenated-oil-high-fructose corn syrup delight, that You’ve noticed that sugar makes you feel tired, and you want to see if you start to feel better if you cut it down.
This explanation makes problems and solutions all about you. It’s not about weight. It’s not about will power. It’s not about “good food” and “bad food”. No, “Are you crazy, do you know what’s in it?”
Especially at this time – when junk food abounds, and people everywhere struggle with their weight – food can be a very emotional topic.
Unless you want to engage with people about your “weird” healthy food choices, be prepared with short, impersonal explanations for your rejection of certain foods, which respect your choices and distract from distracting reactions.
If you prepare in advance, dealing with the complex social dynamics around food can be like carrying an umbrella when it looks like it’s going to rain. With a little forethought, you can have a completely different experience in challenging weather.