While the holiday season brings another year to an end, it also brings the power to derail any of our previous dietary improvements. For those of us easily seduced by abundant holiday treats, we rationalize that January’s resolutions will come soon enough—for then we will make our health a priority. But for those of us who are determined not to let the holidays interrupt our healthy strides, it can be a time of particular frustration.
The social pressures to partake in holiday goodies can be relentless. We run the risk of being ridiculed dare we decline the hallowed Christmas sugar cookie: “Oh, come on, get in the spirit!” What we choose to eat (and not eat) is more open to comment during the holiday season than at any other time of the year as we find ourselves surrounded by others at holiday office parties and family feasts.
I mean really... Why do other people care if we’re trying to eat healthier, and why do they insist on offering their two cents about it? This interaction can often be frustrating to the person on the receiving end of the two cents. However, it’s helpful to understanding a little bit about why others feel the need to question and correct our food choices, as well as how to tactfully reply to them.
There are two groups of people likely to question your attempts to maintain good health during the holidays. The first group includes people who want to rescue you from dietary deficiency. Ironically, these folks are often very unhealthy themselves and/or usually know very little about which foods are truly health-promoting for humans. The second group includes the people closest to you for whom your dietary choices may signal a departure from them and may remind them of their own dietary shortcomings.
The first group is usually comprised of people outside of our immediate family and friends, usually acquaintances or coworkers. Their well-intentioned inquiries most commonly stem from health messages they’ve heard in the media or read in fad diet books (both suspect sources).
Additionally, when they see us eating differently than them, it makes them uncomfortable. Most humans find comfort in sameness, this is why it can really take a lot of courage to change your diet, and break out of comfort zones. When others pressure us to conform to their ways of thinking and eating, their discomfort is somewhat alleviated.
One approach to inquiries by this group is to avoid discussing your current health philosophies and actions in any real depth. The Pleasure Trap, an insightful book that looks at our behavior psychology in regard to food, written by Dr. Douglas Lisle, suggests that instead, you can say something like, "I am experimenting with a healthier lifestyle and am still learning, but it seems to be working well so far." Even though there may be a lot more to it for you, this allows the inquirer an easy retreat and doesn’t put you in the awkward position of having to defend your food choices right then and there.
As for the second group of inquirers, mainly family and friends, their motivation is to also keep you anchored in familiar ways that feel safe, but also to not place them in a position of having to reflect on their own dietary habits. Seeing you move forward toward better health can trigger such feelings and cause them discomfort and/or embarrassment.
The Pleasure Trap suggests that we can, in our own words, relay to those we care about that we still value them and that we don’t feel we are better than them because we eat differently. These Interactions can be especially trying since: we care for those closest to us, we want to continue being a part of their group, and we do not want to stir up conflict. By staying true to our path while explaining that we are a work in progress (a tactic the book calls “integrity with humility”), discomfort for all involved can be lessened or eliminated.
If you are dedicated to upholding your dietary goals over the holidays, keep the above thoughts in mind when challenges arise, and try to exercise kindness in your responses. And if you happen to be the person who is prone to well-intentioned comments to others about their food choices, try framing your inquiries in ways that are respectful and with an open mind: "So you don't eat ham? That's interesting; what brought you to that decision?" As opposed to: "How on earth are you going to get all the protein you need if you don't eat meat?"
For all concerned, it is important to remember that each of us becomes educated, finds enlightenment, and pursues change in our own time.