Holiday get-togethers can be dicey, even uncomfortable, for those of us who eat a “weird” diet. Everyone has an opinion or a biting remark. As tempting as might be, you can’t just holler, “I’m not weird, YOU’RE weird. I’M eating a SPECIES-APPROPRIATE DIET!” in Aunt Martha’s face when she tries once again to put a biscuit on your plate.
You have to say something though, right? Or do you? When do you have to explain your food choices?
I’m tempted to say: Never. End of post.
By and large, your diet is nobody else’s business. But communication is vital in relationships, and here’s where it gets tricky. On the one hand, you don’t owe anyone an explanation, and it’s disrespectful on their part if they expect you to justify or defend your choices. Often, though, people are just concerned, confused, or simply curious. You don’t owe these folks an explanation, but in the spirit of open communication, you might choose to offer them one.
General tips for keeping the peace:
Keep it personal. You won’t get as much pushback if you focus on how your diet makes you feel. Don’t launch into a lecture about phytates or how soda is ruining our country’s health. Nobody’s looking for a lesson on leaky gut and inflammation during dinner.
Don’t overexplain yourself or get defensive. Keep it short and sweet, then move on.
Don’t try to convert them. If you start to proselytize, you’re doing the same thing to them that they’re doing to you. Your simple explanations will plant the seeds for anyone who’s interested in learning more later.
Don’t get sucked into an argument. State firmly that you’d rather not discuss your diet. If the other person continues to challenge you, walk away (or, in 2020, leave the Zoom).
Beyond that, the best strategy for dealing with diet queries depends on who’s asking and why:
This is the “I don’t get it…” and “Wait, so you’re not going eat stuffing?” crowd. There’s no malice. They just can’t grasp why someone would give up bread and pasta.
“Haha, I know, I thought it was crazy when I started, too, but I can’t believe how much better I feel. Plus I get to eat all the turkey. Ooh, will you pass me a leg? Hey, how’s work going?”
“No stuffing for me, thanks. I’m trying this experiment for a while longer. Did I see on Facebook that you’re writing a book?”
“It’s true, I’m eating Primal/paleo/keto/carnivore now, but you don’t want to hear me ramble on about my diet. Let’s go see if Mom needs help setting the table.”
You can tell these folks from their tone of voice. They are genuinely interested in hearing what you’re doing (and maybe even trying it for themselves).
Strategy: Lightly educate
It’s up to you how deep you want to go here. My advice is to stick to basics and offer to talk more later. Avoid launching into a diatribe about why they should cut out grains and sugar while they have a bite of pie halfway to their lips.
“I kept hearing people say how much better they felt after cutting out gluten and dairy, so I decided to try it for myself. They were right. It helped so much with some health issues I was having. It was hard at first, but every time I eat bread now, I remember how much worse I used to feel. I’m much happier eating this way.”
“Really, it just means that I’m eating tons of plants, meat, eggs, and stuff like nuts and cheese, and dark chocolate. Easy. The big thing I’ve noticed is how much more energy I have. My skin cleared up, too. If you’re ever interested in trying, I can tell you more.”
“Some of my friends wanted to try keto, so we all read this book called The Keto Reset Diet for our book club. It’s been five months, and I’m still going strong. The book made it easy if you ever want to borrow it.”
Good-natured teasing is one thing, but ridicule is another. Keep your cool and get out of these conversations as quickly as possible. There is nothing to be gained from engaging. Depending on your relationship with the person, you might use humor or directness, but either way, shut it down.
“Good one, Uncle Greg. Hey, I’m going to get some egg nog.”
“Isn’t it great how we don’t all have to eat the same diet, yet we can still be friends! I’m going to go check the score of the football game.”
“I’d rather not get into an argument about this, so let’s change the subject.”
This one’s a little more complicated because criticism can come from very different places. Some people are just mean-spirited grinches who like to find fault in others. With them, use the escape strategy above. Don’t let them bring you down to their level.
Often, though, when people criticize your diet, it comes from a place of fear or insecurity, not hostility. Fear because what you’re doing goes against everything they believe to be true about health. All they may know about your keto diet, for example, is that a fitness celebrity told them it is dangerous. Or, they may feel threatened by the uncomfortable realization that they could be doing more to be healthy themselves.
Put yourself in their shoes and try to understand where they’re coming from. You’re not going to unpack all the layers of flawed conventional wisdom, self-esteem issues, and complicated family dynamics in this one conversation, but at least you can respond with compassion and grace.
Strategy: Acknowledge, reassure (for fear-based criticism), change the subject
“Thank you so much for caring about my health. My doctor knows how I eat, and my labs are great. Let’s go see what the kids are up to.”
“People do say this is a fad, but honestly, it’s how everyone used to eat in previous generations. It’s nothing new, and I’ve never felt better than I do eating this way. But anyway, I heard you guys are adopting a puppy!”
“Yes, I know they say that whole grains are important for health. I’m always open to changing my diet again, but I’m going to try this way of eating for a little while. Do you think anyone would like to go for a walk before dinner?”
“Yes, that ‘documentary’ caused quite a stir, didn’t it. To be honest, there were a lot of problems with the science. I don’t want to bore you with all the details, but I can send you a blog post. It outlines all the flaws and provides a bunch of journal citations if you’re interested. Just email me to remind me. Do these green beans have bacon in them? So good!”
The Guilt Trip
These people act as if your diet is a personal affront to them. “You’re not going to have any of the pie I worked so hard on?” “What’s Christmas without cookies?” “But you always loved my cornbread stuffing!”
You don’t need them to understand or approve. They just need to respect your choices or at least be quiet about them.
Strategy: Flip it back on them
“Oh Aunt Mildred, I do love your pie! At times like these, I wish I hadn’t discovered how sick gluten makes me. I know you’d hate for me to spend the rest of the evening in the bathroom!”
“Cookies are great, but the only thing I really want is to spend time with you. Family is so important to me, and we don’t see each other enough.“
“You’re right, but I’ve learned that I feel so much better when I eat this way. It’s hard to say no, but I’m sure you’ll support me like you always have. Thank you so much for understanding!”
The Exceptions to the Rule
I said you never have to explain your food choices, but it’s just common courtesy to let your hosts know ahead of time. Explain your situation, and make it clear that you are not expecting them to change their menu to accommodate you. Offer to bring a side dish or dessert.
If you are hosting, and you plan to make only options that suit your diet, you aren’t required to give your guests notice. However, if that means you’re not making traditional dishes that your guests will expect, you might give them a heads up. Let them have the option of bringing their own Hawaiian rolls.
Lastly, remember that while you don’t owe it to anyone, it might be ok to chill on some of your diet rules for one night. A few bites of pie could be a small concession to keep the peace (as long as it won’t make you sick). Of course, if your family or friends are going to make it that unpleasant, you’re also free to decline the invitation.
Have you had to deal with less-than-supportive friends or family since you changed your diet? How did you handle it?
About the Author
Lindsay Taylor, Ph.D., is a senior writer and community manager for Primal Nutrition, a certified Primal Health Coach, and the co-author of three keto cookbooks.
As a writer for Mark’s Daily Apple and the leader of the thriving Keto Reset and Primal Endurance communities, Lindsay’s job is to help people learn the whats, whys, and hows of leading a health-focused life. Before joining the Primal team, she earned her master’s and Ph.D. in Social and Personality Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, where she also worked as a researcher and instructor.
Lindsay lives in Northern California with her husband and two sports-obsessed sons. In her free time, she enjoys ultra running, triathlon, camping, and game nights. Follow along on Instagram @theusefuldish as Lindsay attempts to juggle work, family, and endurance training, all while maintaining a healthy balance and, most of all, having fun in life.