How To Own Your Food Choices

Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
Ever asked for salad dressing on the side at a restaurant and been scoffed at by friends at the table? Teased by your family for willingly waking up early on vacation to fit in a run? Or, maybe you're the one who "ruins it for everyone" by saying no to another round of drinks?
Yeah. We've been there.
Sticking to healthy habits can be hard, so it definitely doesn't help when your commitment is met with jabs from your own personal peanut gallery. And, while we all have sassy comebacks up our sleeves, responding to negativity with negativity is not the smartest tactic. Not only will it get you and your naysayers nowhere, but it could end up causing more resentment, even damaging relationships. And, it’ll definitely kill the vibe at brunch.
It's important to remember that most of these critiques are a result of people who are misinformed but well intentioned — or feeling insecure or disappointed about their own health-related decisions. First, pause to consider whether they could have a point. All healthy lifestyles need balance. But, assuming your choices are sound, you should stick to your guns with grace.
With the help of our trusty network of experts, we’re offering up some alternative, sensible, and much more productive ways to fend off that unwelcome flak in almost any situation.
The Situation: Thanksgiving dinner. Although your family is well aware of your healthy-eating style, they remain hell-bent on pushing food on you: “Just eat it, it’s not going to kill you!” “You could afford to have some.” “But, I made this just for you!” The final straw is when pushy Aunt Agnes simply plops a generous heap of her congealed sausage stuffing onto your plate without asking.
What You’re Tempted To Say: You made this just for me? Really? Clearly you don't know me as well as I thought you did!
Do This Instead: It’s tricky when you’re dealing with an older family member you don’t want to disrespect, but you don’t need to just give in either, says Sherry Pagoto, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and associate professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. “Aunt Agnes is of a different generation, where expressing love for people means cooking for them,” Pagoto says. “There’s no point in trying to change the way she thinks.”
The quickest way to end this interaction is to say "thank you” with a smile and eat what you originally planned to. If Aunt Agnes (or anyone) actually insists on seeing you finish the portion, make an excuse about feeling uncomfortably full and ask if you can take it home. You’re free to do with the food what you wish later. (Read: Chuck it.) Auntie feels appreciated; you eat what you like — everyone’s happy.
The Situation: You’re the only non-carnivore at your friend’s annual barbeque, and while he is thoughtful enough to grill you up a veggie burger, fellow guests aren’t as considerate: “I feel bad for you — how can you live without bacon?” “Isn’t fake meat kind of gross?” “How do you get any protein if you don’t eat meat?”
What You’re Tempted To Say: Here’s an idea: How about you don’t ask me about my protein, and I won’t ask you about your cholesterol?
Do This Instead: While trainer and registered dietitian Erica Giovinazzo keeps an animal-protein focused diet, she understands the frustration of her vegetarian clients and reminds them that they make their own choices. “Pressure is likely to come from everyone around us telling us what we should do, and sometimes we forget we’re in charge of our lives,” she says. “Once we remember that we make our own decisions and must deal with the results, we’re able to deal much better in any situation that challenges those decisions."
Giovinazzo says the trick is to stay positive rather than defensive. We recommend something like, “My veggie burger is da bomb! You should try one! You’d be surprised at how good it tastes!” They may or may not take you up on it, but they’ll know not to argue further with someone so confident in their choices.
The Situation: You’re home for a family reunion, which means you’re instantly fair game for unsolicited commentary on everything from your love life to your career choice by parents, uncles, cousins, and step-grandmothers. And, today's hot topic is your body: “You must work out ALL the time — you've lost so much weight!" “You’re so thin — how much do you even weigh?” “Looks like someone could stand to eat a cheeseburger!”
What You’re Tempted To Say: I weigh somewhere between “buzz off” and “mind your own business!"
Do This Instead: Often times people become judgmental of others’ healthy eating habits when they feel threatened. “The criticism can really be just a veiled expression of jealousy,” Pagoto says. Rather than biting back, diffuse the situation: “Thanks for being concerned about my health, but there is nothing to worry about. My doctor said that my weight is in the healthy zone and to keep up my good eating and exercise habits.”
Giovinazzo also suggests taking the focus off your appearance and enthusiastically sharing how your habits have helped you in other ways: “I feel better and more energetic than ever since I started working out more regularly! Can you believe I can actually do pull-ups now?”
Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
The Situation: You’re at a dinner party, and while the spread is lavish, it’s also a butter-laden, deep-fried, meat-tastic, carb-dense hail of nutritional bullets — whatever your digestive system’s kryptonite. In short, it’s something that’ll leave you with a massive food hangover. You help yourself to what you can, but when the host looks at your plate, he insists on calling you out: “Why are you barely eating?!”
What You’re Tempted To Say: Because I don’t quite feel like committing gustatory assault on my system!
Do This Instead: “You really shouldn’t have to explain to others what you do or don’t put into your mouth,” says Lindsey Joe, RD. So, don’t feel pressured to justify your choices. Joe suggests simply stating, “Oh, this is plenty for me. Thank you for preparing all this!”
Another tactic, recommended by registered dietician and certified nutritionist Tina Gowin, is to smile, but then redirect the conversation. A question like, “I’m just pacing myself with this great spread! Hey, how was that vacation you just went on?” is bound to get the host chatting and gently steer the focus away from the food that is or isn’t on your plate. No matter what you say, both Joe and Gowin stress that the key is to be polite.
The Situation: It’s lunchtime in the office, and everyone wants to order from the fast-food chain you can’t stand. You don’t want to be disagreeable, but also hate having to pay for an unhealthy, unsatisfying meal. You decide not to make a fuss, but then your coworker shows up with your portion of the bill and a box of the sugary churros you didn’t order: “Come on, you can be unhealthy for a day!” “If we split dessert, we can split the calories!”
What You’re Tempted To Say: Hey, you can make poor choices all by yourself, like that haircut, for example.
Do This Instead: You don’t have to feel hesitant to pass on something you genuinely don’t want, but remember, you’re working with these people five days a week, so it’s key to keep it civil. Joe uses a simple, “Thanks for offering, but no thanks. I’m stuffed from lunch!”
One of Gowin’s go-to responses is “I’m going out for a nice dinner later and want to have wiggle room for a juicy steak!” White lies are okay, Gowin says, as long as they aren’t too complicated or could get you into trouble later (e.g., don’t say you’re going gluten-free and then get caught eating pita chips). To avoid awkward moments in the future, she also suggests having a game plan ahead of time. “Keep paper menus of the restaurants you and your coworkers order from most often and highlight your best options,” she says. “This way, you know what to get no matter what.”
The Situation: You text your workout buddy to confirm tomorrow’s post-work running date, and he bails for the third time in a row: “Let’s play hookie! Netflix and takeout beat pounding the pavement!” “I really just don’t feel like it. Can’t you take a break too?” “What’s the big deal? We’ll just reschedule.”
What You’re Tempted To Say: Sure. First I’ll just remind your boyfriend/girlfriend what you think of commitment.
Say This Instead: While it can be frustrating to have a friend cancel on you repeatedly, there’s no need to blacklist someone for flaking on workouts, says Justin Robinson, a registered sports dietitian and strength and conditioning coach. Acknowledge the fact that balance and rest days are a part of any fitness plan, but then stick to your guns: “Actually, I do need to catch up on House of Cards and Thai sounds pretty awesome, but I took a day off earlier this week, and I'm booked tomorrow. So, I really need to get this workout in today. Let me know what your weekend plans are and we’ll meet up then.”
Moving forward, Robinson suggests shopping for a new fitness buddy who shares your dedication.
Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
The Situation: Mexican night with the family. When your burrito arrives, you pull off the tortilla (rice and beans are carbs enough for you) and dig in with a fork instead. You look up and are faced with eyebrow-raises and jabs from your fellow diners: “That is so weird.” “Can’t you just eat it the way it is?”
What You’re Tempted To Say: I’m sorry, food police! I didn’t realize I was driving over the limit in the no- tortilla zone.
Do This Instead: Your family’s comments may actually have nothing to do with you, Pagoto says. Watching your healthy habits may remind them of their own struggles to do the same and bring up feelings of resentment. Keeping that in mind, she recommends responding with a light comment: “You guys have known me my whole life and are only now discovering I’m weird?! I just don’t want to fill up on tortilla when it’s the filling I really like.”
Giovanizzo’s tactic of turning their questions back to them also works here: “I always get too full if I eat it with the tortilla. Don’t you hate feeling so stuffed?”
The Situation: It’s happy hour on Thursday evening and you’re out with your coworkers, but you’d rather just enjoy their company and skip the booze. When you pass on the alcohol, your colleagues start in with a mixture of disbelief and disgust: “You’re so boring!” “Oh, come on, just have one drink!” "Are you anti-alcohol now too?"
What You’re Tempted To Say: Well, no, but this interrogation is going to drive me to drink!
Do This Instead: Over the years, Robinson’s experience in this situation has revealed that the more you talk about it and make excuses, the more your friends will pry. His advice? “A short answer is best when discussing why you choose not to drink on a particular night: ‘No, I just don’t feel like drinking tonight.’”
Limiting your behavior to that moment (versus a lifestyle choice) deflects any larger debate. If that doesn’t do the trick, humor is another great option: “Hey, now you have a sober driver to make sure a lightweight like you makes it home okay!” To appear social, Robinson suggests ordering a club soda and lime or even an iced tea with lemon. Both look like cocktails, help you hydrate, and may get people off your case. Win win win.
The Situation: You’re at a restaurant where it’s slim pickings for healthy options. While the rest of the table starts with fries and onion rings, you opt for a salad. Turns out it comes with a side of sass from your fellow diners: “Of course, you always get the rabbit food.’” “Are you on a diet or something?” “Ugh, I can’t imagine eating just a salad for dinner.”
What You’re Tempted To Say: Don’t worry. I’ll ask the waitstaff to batter and deep-fry it so we can all match. Twinsies!
Do This Instead: It’s frustrating to feel attacked by your fellow diners, and as tempting (oh, so tempting!) as it may be to criticize their choices in retaliation, it’s better not to be judgmental, Gowin and Joe say. Their comments often reflect disappointment in their own decisions. If simply laughing it off and changing the subject won’t work, give them some insight on why you’re eating the way you are: “The grease upsets my stomach and I’d rather feel good instead of ending up in a food coma and having to go home early!” If you’re with true friends, Gowin says, you can honestly talk to them about your lifestyle preferences and ask for their support.

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