Committing to a healthy diet isn’t easy. It requires constant meal planning, careful shopping and the willingness to try new things. And that’s just at home. Eating in public comes with an entirely new list of challenges and pressure to cheat.
How does one balance dedication to a healthy eating style with the nauseating prospect of explaining your dietary restrictions to everyone at the table?
When I decided to try the paleo diet, I didn’t necessarily shout it from the rooftops. After all, I didn’t know if I could do it, if it would help me achieve my goals, and if I would stick with it afterward. So when friends wanted to go to dinner or stopped by with snacks for some weekend porch-sitting, I found myself in an awkward predicament: Explain my weird order, or why I’m eating carrot sticks while everyone else crushes potato chips, or just keep my mouth shut and be “normal”?
It might seem stupid to the less introverted reader, but for me, this awkwardness was the first step toward diverting from the plan. And I really wanted to stick with the plan. If you’ve recently adopted a new style of eating, you know what I mean. So here are some of my best tips for explaining (and maintaining) a special diet in public, without being that person who’s constantly preaching your edible truth at the dinner table.
How to Maintain Your Special Diet Without Being a Jerk
1. Be Prepared…
Come up with an elevator pitch-sized explanation. I’m serious. Be able to explain your dietary choices in two or three sentences. If you start spluttering about gluten or dairy or whatever, people aren’t going to take you seriously. They may then laugh and dismiss your well-researched decision as a joke. Which will likely make you mad. No bueno.
2. …But Only Share When Asked
Having an elevator pitch in the hopper doesn’t mean you should bring it up in small talk. “Hi, how are ya?” “Funny you asked, I recently went paleo and here’s why you should too.” No, no no. If people aren’t asking a direct question about your diet, consider yourself lucky and continue on your merry way.
3. Don‘t Be Defensive
The best part about having a prepared response is that it eliminates emotion. Many of us are very passionate about the food we eat, and why we eat it. If someone approaches you with a plate loaded with crap and makes fun of your salad, you may be tempted to unleash the full wrath of Michael Pollan on them. But making people feel small or stupid about their own choices isn’t going to convert them. Just smile, and share your short, sweet explanation.
4. Make it About You, Not a Philosophy
OK, let’s talk about exactly what that explanation should look like. The best way to start is by explaining the reason you chose to make a change in the first place. Maybe you’re really trying to lose weight. Maybe you’re tired of feeling sick every time you eat dairy. Maybe you’re striving for healthier skin and hair. Very few of us choose a diet for purely altruistic reasons.
Example: ”I‘ve realized that dairy products don‘t agree with me, so I‘m learning to replace them with other foods.“ Or “I‘m trying to eat mostly plant-foods right now and cut back on my meat intake. I‘ve noticed an improvement in my energy, my skin and my overall well-being. I feel good so I‘m sticking with it!”
5. Have a Backup Plan
Traveling? Bring a backpack full of acceptable snacks so you won’t be tempted by convenience foods. Going to a restaurant with a big group? Scope out the menu online beforehand. That way, you’ll already know how many choices you’re working with, and can order in a timely fashion without much searching. If you’re concerned about a lack of choices, call them up, share your restrictions, and ask what alternatives or substitutions the can make. If you’re headed to a friend or family-hosted function, contact the host privately to ask about options. If they’re not planning any that fit with your diet, eat a big meal beforehand or be prepared to bring your own snack/side dish/dessert.
6. Sometimes a Bite Won‘t Kill You
If you’re vegetarian or vegan, having a bite of sausage isn’t an option, but there are sometimes when a tiny concession will go a long way toward keeping the peace. “If you say, ‘I’m stuffed, but this looks so delicious I can’t pass up a bite,’ you’ll avoid peer pressure by turning the situation around—you’re indulging, not depriving yourself. And you won’t make your friends feel bad by rebuffing their generosity. Besides, one bite of dessert won’t make a dent in your diet, says Lacie Peterson, a registered dietitian with the University of Utah.”
Do you adhere to an unfamiliar or restrictive diet? How do you survive in the real world? Share tips in the comments below.
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