A paleo, a keto, and a vegan all walk into a bar…I don’t know the punchline, but I’m quite sure a lively debate ensued. Like face masks and social distancing, diets can inspire passionate opinions about what is right and wrong.
But why? Shouldn’t what we eat be our own business, like our choice of profession or favorite Star Wars movie?
Food choice is a funny thing. It’s intensely personal yet ingrained in every cultural and social norm in our lives. From your first birthday when you plunged into the sugary icing on your cake to school lunches, sleepovers, ball games, barbecues, holidays, weddings, and funerals, food defines the activities of our lives.
We learn how to eat from our parents and pass those traditions on to our children. Traditionally, familial patterns were influenced by geography, resources, religion, ethnicity, culture, and health. Your parents may have grown up personally harvesting their vegetables or knowing the animals that ended up on their plates, but our modern food supply chain and brand marketing have vastly changed what we learn about food choices and where our food comes from.
Today, we are bombarded with advertising campaigns that tell us how many calories and how much protein, fat, and carbohydrate we should eat, what time of day we should eat, and what supplements we need. Instead of getting diet advice from nutrition science, we get it from social media influencers, weight-loss gurus, the fitness and supplement industries, and the big food brand marketeers.
It’s no surprise that everyone is confused about how to eat.
Do Your Own Thing
The bottom line is, there is no one right or wrong way to fuel your body. Eating is bio-individual. What works for one person may not work for another.
There are diets that experts agree are healthier than others. It’s generally agreed that everyone should eat a diet high in fruits and vegetables and low in saturated fats. But which diet you follow and for how long depends on what your goals are and what fits your lifestyle.
If you want to lose some weight before your high school reunion, you can make some short-term sacrifices and follow a high protein, low carb diet to achieve that goal. But if you want to keep the weight off forever, you may need change tactics and make long-term lifestyle changes to remain healthy.
Following a diet plan is hard work. You may have to eliminate certain foods, keep track of calories, grams, or points, learn to say “no” more often, and explain your choices to others who may not understand or support you.
It’s funny how people would never dare to ask you how much you weigh but have no problem arguing with you over why you choose not to eat potatoes.
People get defensive about their diet choices because they want very badly to believe that the one they are following is best. When we jump on a bandwagon, we want our friends to jump on with us. We become pseudo-experts on diets and tout our own like we support our hometown team.
And people get defensive about other peoples’ food choices because it either makes them question their own choices, or they worry it will change their relationship with others.
Anger Is About Them, Not You
If someone in your life is critical of your choices, realize that they may feel threatened. Either they feel you may be judging their choices, or they feel insecure about their inability to make better choices, or they fear your new lifestyle will change your relationship with them.
What if your diet choice is not a short-term plan, but a way of living? If you are eliminating certain foods from your life forever, expect people to question your motivation. No one asks you to explain why you don’t like heavy metal or plaid, but everyone wants to know why you are gluten-free or vegan.
This may come from innocent curiosity or it may come from their fear that you are changing into a different person. It’s not uncommon for your partner or family members to try to sabotage your diet efforts if they feel it threatens your relationship.
How To Handle It
If your dietary choices are cause for debate in your family or social circle, try not to get on a soapbox. Answer questions, but don’t preach. Don’t expect others to change for you or to go out of their way to accommodate you. Bring your own food to gatherings if necessary or eat before you go. Encourage your friends and family to engage in holiday or party activities that aren’t food-centered. Finally, have patience with others. The best way to influence others to adopt healthy choices is to lead by example.
Deb is a health coach and award-winning health and wellness writer covering plant-based nutrition, fitness, sustainable living, mental health and relationships. Deb also writes for the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies and manages YouOnPlants.com, helping people eat more veggies. She lives near her daughter in St. Petersburg, Florida, and travels often to Southern California to visit her son. Deb enjoys nature parks, restaurants with vegan options, movies, and the end of hurricane season.