When we think about food, we tend to focus on what it is and the calories involved rather than what it means to us, but it is the meaning behind the food that is usually what’s driving us to eat. Food has psychological and social meanings to us. When we think “cake” we tend to think “celebration.” When we think about consolation or solace, it’s usually things like “ice cream” or “chocolate.” Or if it’s just plain comfort, it can be something warm and hearty like “soup” or “mac & cheese.” For me, even today, “enchiladas” means family holidays and gatherings. My mom said the word to me and instantly I envisioned my grandma’s house with a laden dining room table! We’ve begun to think of the food itself as the actual event. How can we have a birthday without cake? What kind of Thanksgiving doesn’t have stuffing and pumpkin pie? We can’t watch a football game without beer and nachos any more than we can envision New Year’s Eve without champagne or alcohol. For us, the FOOD has become the EVENT!
Our brains know that’s not the case, but somewhere in our psyche, the two have become almost inseparable. We’ve convinced ourselves that if we don’t have “THE” food associated with whatever event is taking place, then we’ve missed out on the actual event. How can we go out with friends without having drinks? How can we celebrate Fourth of July without hot dogs, burgers or beer? Hanging out with friends doesn’t require alcohol any more than the fireworks and parades on July 4th need burgers and beer in order to take place. While it seems like it’s easy to disentangle the food and drinks from the celebration or holiday, it’s only easy on a physical level. Anyone can show up at Thanksgiving and not eat the pie and stuffing just like no one is going to shove cake and ice cream into your mouth at your granny’s birthday party. You can attend the events without being forced to eat everything that’s there, but our psyches don’t understand that.
Our minds– not our brains–have intertwined eating with celebrating, so while you can go to a family holiday and not eat the pie, the enchiladas or the stuffing and the cake, your mind is not only telling you that you missed out on all the yummy goodies, it is telling you that you missed the big celebration because it “doesn’t feel right.” You may have brought a gift, given Granny a big birthday hug and sang “Happy Birthday” as she blew out the candles, but because you didn’t have a piece of her cake, you “missed the birthday.” Logically, our brains roll their inner eyes and shake their figurative heads at this foolishness, but our minds are confused: something is missing! It doesn’t feel like a birthday party!
Obviously, part of this comes from changing our routines (not eating all the stuff you normally eat) and part of it is our own awkwardness at being seen as different from the others. Since we didn’t “do like everyone else did,” we feel like we are standing out like a sore thumb and “everyone” must have noticed that we said no to the beer, the birthday cake or whatever is being served. Somehow, it makes hanging out with friends feel less like socializing and more like an ordeal. Saying no to the beer, appetizers or cake can feel rude, almost as if you need to explain why you aren’t joining in with everyone else.
Normally, this is where I would just be a b*tch about it and tell you to tell everyone else that what you eat or drink is not their business, but when Granny offers you a piece of her birthday cake, you really can’t tell her to mind her own business (especially on her birthday!) In all honesty, if most of your friends ask why you said no to the fried calamari or fried cheese, tell them the truth: you are trying to eat healthier; you are saving your calories for the entree (or dessert or whatever); or that you aren’t hungry. Your friends might tease you about “going healthy” on them, but they should support your decision to improve your health. (They are your friends and want you around for a long while!)
The same thing is true with family and Granny. Even if they do push you to have a piece of cake (“One slice won’t hurt you!”), it’s up to you how much you want to push back. Granny may not understand that the sugar-carb combo will completely jack your blood sugar but if telling her “no thanks” is going to be traumatic for you or her, then discretion is sometimes the better part of valor. Most of your family will support your decision to be healthier even if it does feel a little awkward at times. I was fortunately blessed with a family of such different eaters that not eating the carbs was barely noticed at my family gatherings and when it was noticed, the exchange went something like this: “did you want any rice?” “No thanks.” “Okay,”(sets the bowl of rice on the table).
Changing your ‘celebration routine’ takes practice. I know no one likes to hear this but the more you practice, the easier it gets. Giving in to the cake, the appetizers, the alcohol or the carbs might make you feel like you ‘celebrated’ the occasion, but it also sets you back from your goals. Is that really what you want? There were reasons you chose to eat healthier. For most of us, those included feeling better physically and mentally. improving your health and generally living better longer. When we deviate from our weight loss and nutrition plan to ‘join in’ at the movies with popcorn and candy, we not only delayed our progress, but we make ourselves feel worse overall. We feel guilty for eating the foods that aren’t good for us and for some of us, we feel worse physically. That sugar-carb combo is going to spike your blood sugar and then dump it way below your baseline, so that mood-energy roller coaster is going to do you any good! Once we get home, we start feeling the physical effects of eating the foods that aren’t good for us and we feel the emotional effects as well: those feelings of guilt and failure. We’ve also made it harder for us to say no to those foods and our friends the next time this happens!
Virtue is its own reward, which is a fancy way of saying that when you say no thanks, you’ll feel better about it in the long run. Being upfront with family and friends is the simplest way to handle these situation. “That doesn’t agree with me” or “that makes me feel tired/ wired/ bloated/ [insert adjective here]” are the easiest and most truthful explanations. In an age when everyone is gluten-free, lactose-intolerant, or just plain allergic, most people won’t question your choices. The more you change how you think about socialization and food, the easier it is to stay with the changes and keep eating healthy even at a party. The food is part of the fun, yes, but it’s not the purpose of the party. Aren’t you really there to spend time with Granny?