How Can I Get Other People To Understand This?

In most cases, I think it’s a mistake to even try to get anyone else to understand what you’re doing.  I generally recommend that you refrain from discussing, justifying or defending this diet with anyone—except (maybe) your doctor. Instead, when offered diet/nutrition “information” or criticism from anyone else, respond: “Hmmm, interesting” with zero further engagement.  You can’t win arguments like this and you are wasting your precious time and energy trying to.

A bottom line: Not a single other person needed to know or understand anything about—or approve of—this way of eating in order for me to get to goal and stay there.

The longer and more quietly consistent you are about staying with the changes you’ve decided to make in your eating, the less difficult it will be for others in your life to adjust and the more effective and painless for everyone the change will be. Keep in mind that the way to jerk others around and demonstrate that you should not be taken seriously is to keep wavering on and off your supposedly permanent commitment to this change.  Another good reason to keep your mouth shut and follow the diet without discussion.

I think we are prone to discussing things like this with our friends because as a culture, we have slowly become more and more blurry with our personal boundaries.  But like so many other facets of this simple eating style change, the why’s aren’t really that important, and frankly there’s not much that we as individuals can do about the confusing and sometimes contradictory forces in our society.

That’s not what has to change anyway.

Although it may seem crazy at first, because most of us eat with other people often, no one else, including the people you regularly eat with or prepare meals for, needs to understand much about your decision to eat differently (whatever that might mean for your body) for you to make big changes in the way you eat. Essentially this has nothing to do with anyone else, and perhaps more importantly, generally you do no one, including yourself, any favors by inviting them into a discussion of your decision by attempting to (over)explain it.  Discussion, especially early on, most often leads others to the assumption that you are seeking their input and opinions—even some kind of permission or approval. But assuming you have truly made a decision, you don’t want or need any of that.

In this context it’s usually a good idea to approach this more like an incidental little change than a big deal when it comes to mentioning it to others.  The fact is that it’s about as announcement-worthy as the fact that you are switching brands of laundry detergent…except of course we don’t all gather regularly to do our wash.

All anyone else needs to understand about this is that you decide exactly what goes into your mouth 24-7-365, which, when you get right down to it, this has always been the case. All that is changing are the criteria upon which you are making those choices.  If commented upon, “I’m trying to eat a little healthier” is a truthful general, response and works really well if you’re eating simple, healthy lowcarb fare.

All we are really doing when we make and then enforce this decision for ourselves is setting a personal boundary. This is an unusual and somewhat firmer boundary than others generally set for themselves within our culture. Still, that’s all it is.

But because this is an unusual one, and because as a culture we have become so blurry with our boundaries, most of us will get some reactions from others when we first begin enforcing these new boundaries. Others are entitled to their reactions, to their feelings; we simply decide (by our actions) not to let their reactions, large or small, overt or covert, impact our decisions. In fact, that’s exactly what being an emotionally mature adult entails. Emotionally mature people can set and calmly enforce appropriate boundaries on themselves and others, emotionally immature individuals cannot.

In setting about to calmly enforce these new boundaries, what’s most important is that we assume total responsibility for fulfilling them. We can’t insist that others eat how, when, what or where we eat, or even that they eat only at establishments where we can effectively take care of our own needs. We can only insist on or take care of that for ourselves. And doing so is going to translate into some occasional social limitations and awkwardness. Enforcing these boundaries involves some skills that will take some time and some trial and error to learn.

For instance, let’s say you’re traveling out of town with a group and the plans for the evening come up late one afternoon. Someone in the group suggests a popular bread bakery.

CALMLY: “There’s nothing I eat at Tony’s Bread Shoppe, so that’s not going to work for me. How about I meet you guys at the movie after dinner?” First, I don’t say there’s nothing I CAN eat there. This may seem niggling, but I think it draws an important distinction—this is not something I want anyone to try to work on or give me approval or permission that I can eat there. In some cases I can “manage” through a not-great-for-me restaurant, but I usually need time/preparation to do that well (such as eating beforehand and only having some coffee and/or a side salad at the restaurant with the group.)

In doing this, I haven’t insisted that it’s my way or the highway, I’ve just stated my facts, and a way I will accommodate my own needs if that’s the group’s decision.  If they are—and often they are—willing to make an adjustment that will work for me, fine. But if not, that’s fine too—I didn’t turn this into an emotional issue because it’s not about my emotions, it’s only about my body’s needs. I only stated why I’m rejecting that part of the plans.

One of the simple but BIG changes I had to make was stop agreeing to whatever anybody else wanted and just meekly go into an unsuitable restaurant at dinnertime, HUNGRY, just HOPING I could find something that was marginally okay, even though I already knew that wasn’t possible, especially as the basis for an entire evening out with friends, which is my most vulnerable time of day.  That’s what always spawned the internal bargaining that eventually led to the oh-what-the-hell-I-might-as-well refrain stumble then tumble.

Here’s another example: “Gosh thanks. You know, dinner parties are tricky for meI’m tough to feedI have some fairly peculiar food requirements.  How about we meet sometime at a restaurant instead?”
This would be in the getting-to-know someone better socially stage, and if this relationship is going to move forward that way, sooner or later they’re gonna need to know this about me.  If this “costs” me socially, if it stalls or ends the relationship, so be it.  I don’t believe it has yet….but if it came to that, well I guess this just isn’t going to be a workable social match.  That’s okay. There are and will be ample others.

Yes, occasionally dinner parties come up in some of our lives that are almost impossible to decline (although I am seeing less and less of that in my own life, in this sense the trend of pot-lucks and eating in restaurants together is helpful, not harmful). Nonetheless, there are a few strategies you can put into place to manage through those if you have to. #1 is to enter with a full stomach!  I call that defensive eating.

This brings up the type of person that I have found the most challenging to deal with along this journey. There is this “Martha Stewart” driven cultural practice of it being considered an obligation or even a “gift” to decide and provide food for others on certain occasions or situations.  To momentarily (and “festively”) take the supposedly heavy burden of deciding what we will eat off our supposedly weary shoulders.  This cultural practice has morphed itself into a way some people, especially women, have come to elicit praise and stoke their own self-esteem—by providing “special” foods for us to eat.  Choosing not to accept these “gifts” will often seem like an affront to the giver, it can be a socially risky, scary thing to do at first. So for a time at least, we have to buck some pretty basic elements of our own culture.  We congenital pleasers have to learn to temporarily DISplease others, and that is no small task. But again, this is what setting boundaries is all about, and as part of the learning you will find that these “Martha Stewarts” really can eventually come to their own terms with you.

My strategy with these types depends somewhat on the situation. Sometimes I’ll take a food gift and tell them I’ll save it for later “to have with my coffee” (if, for instance, I don’t know them very well.) If I encounter a situation where I’m pressed to eat something right away, I’ll say in a disappointed tone something like: “Oh darn. That looks so good! But I don’t eat sugar. Or I don’t eat grains. Which will often surprise or fluster them a bit, that usually leads to a little diet small talk, but whatever, I don’t eat the offering and hopefully I’ve let them down gently.

Then there are the little day-to-day eating landmines, such as several co-workers inviting you to come with them to a restaurant lunch. “Gosh, I brought my lunch with me today, I’m already set.  Why don’t you two go pick something up for yourselves and come back here and we can eat together? (Assuming they say no?) Thanks!   We’ll have to do that another time then!” You already had a plan; all you need to do is follow it.  Will your whole social life really fall apart or change in any significant way if two of your co-workers go out to lunch together leaving you sitting in your office eating alone? Again, emotionally mature folks can abide that type of occurrence, that type of “rejection”.

Once, when discussing the social challenges of traveling a poster in a lowcarb forum remarked: I’m thinking of just not going. It’s just too soon to expect so much from myself. I’m just now back into the full swing of lowcarb day in and day out. Of course some of this depends on the situation. I AM a little more socially choosy now, and I don’t know that that’s a bad thing. There are some good reasons (financial, for instance) for avoiding excessive or unnecessary dining out.   And yes, when you are in the first few weeks of lowcarb eating, perhaps it is best to avoid unnecessarily difficult challenges such as going out of town with a group of friends.

But beware, decisions like this can make this “diet” you’ve chosen a kind of punishment, a prison sentence, and long term that is not likely to be a workable solution. In some situations it might seem appropriate to lightly mention your concerns ahead of time to the people you will be with.  If this is, indeed, going to be a permanent change in you these people are going to need to be aware of it, and maybe even make some tiny little adjustments of their own about their ideas and expectations when you are with them.  For instance: “I have been struggling so long with my weight, I have just gotten myself rolling on lowcarb eating.  I feel SO much better when I eat this way.  This trip is going to be a little tricky for me that way. I hope I can count on your support with this.”  Again, it’s not necessary to dwell or wax dramatic with it, just state your truth, your facts. And be aware that in the end, it’s you who needs to set and enforce the boundaries, even it if is temporarily difficult, awkward or even painful.

Another perhaps surprising but really important thing about traveling and other challenging social eating situations—especially the winter holidays!: I had to learn to be certain I had an eating plan (and the food to fulfill it) set for the 2-3 days after I returned home.  Over and over I’d do just GREAT navigating through the challenge—the trip, the party, the funeral, the hospitalized relative, whatever.  THEN I’d come home and have such huge emotions about having made it through it unscathed that those strong feelings would provoke what I now call a “relief binge.”  I see people struggling with this a lot.  Interestingly, if there’s a single thing that sets emotionally addicted eaters apart from their more physiologically addicted counterparts, it’s that non-emotional eaters have no idea what I’m talking about when I refer to a “relief binge.”  Addicted eaters know exactly what I mean.

To come through the social challenges of changing my relationship with food, all I could do was, as calmly and unthreateningly as possible, continue to hold my eating boundaries steady until my family and friends made whatever internal adjustments they had to make to come to their own terms with the simple fact that I don’t participate in a lot of the common ritualized eating activities anymore.  That’s ALL I don’t do…I still attend the occasions, I still love, admire and respect the many terrific people in my life. I do most everything else that is culturally expected—I send cards, give gifts and show up at the gatherings. I don’t expect them to forego the foods or activities they enjoy, and I don’t expect them to provide me with what I need to eat on these occasions.  I take care of myself—sometimes by bringing an acceptable dish to the pot-luck, and other times by eating before I go, sometimes a combination of both.

If you calmly stay the course, the feelings and attitudes of others toward you will simply have to adjust.  What is sometimes hard for us to accept is there is little we can do to hasten or take charge of their adjustments in any way, that’s beyond any healthy boundary.  Isn’t it even a bit arrogant or insulting to take on the responsibility for others’ perceptions and feelings? Isn’t that operating on the assumption that they’re not capable of figuring it out for themselves?

These are not challenges most of us expected to be facing when we decided to go on a diet or change our eating. After more than  years of participation in various internet lowcarb forums, I can see that trying to mediate (or bargain) our responses to these situational and cultural challenges is what ends up thwarting a lot of what would have otherwise been success.

We can either ride all of this out, including all the uncomfortable and surprising feelings that go along with it, or we can go back to using sometimes—whether we use the excuse to spare the feelings of others or the excuse to please ourselves since we are “done” now and shouldn’t NEED to be so strict.  In emotional/addicted eaters, waggling the diet, no matter what excuse we give to ourselves or others, no matter where we are in the weight loss journey, opens that all-too-welcoming door to that all-too-familiar abyss where we used to dwell.  The place that beckons, “come on in honey.  Gosh, we’ve sure missed you down here.”

adele@leadwiththediet.com