These days, there are so many nutrition philosophies out there it’s hard to keep up. And because nutrition science is still so new, the effectiveness of one over the other can be difficult to nail down. In truth, nutrition is only one facet to a long, healthy life, and human beings have successfully adapted to all sorts of dietary traditions. That makes it more difficult to rank one way of eating as more superior to another.
For those of us who feel we’ve found a nutrition philosophy that works best for us, listening to how someone else thinks about food can completely baffle us. Depending on how the information is being communicated, it can even come across as threatening, or make us feel defensive in our food choices. This can break down communication, when we have an opportunity to build mutual support around fellow friends, family, or coworkers who are committed to making positive nutrition choices for themselves!
In truth, we all have the right to interpret nutrition information out there to the best of our ability and eat however we want. While we can feel strongly compelled to educate others on why their nutrition philosophy seems flawed to us, or to correct someone who completely misinterprets our own philosophy, these conversations can be vulnerable and end in hurt feelings. It can even shake our own commitment to our nutrition practices. Here are a couple of ways to navigate them with grace.
The 1-2-3 of Taking Down Conflicts in Nutrition Conversations
1) Take it as an opportunity to learn.
You may believe you already know everything there is to know about the philosophy or the diet a coworker or friend is following, but it may be an opportunity to get more concrete information than you’ve learned from other sources in the past. Ask open-ended questions and treat the responses as objective information (rather than a pitch that person is making for you to eat like them). Respond with neutrality: “Oh, I’ve heard that before, so that must be effective,” or “I’ve never heard that before, so thanks for bringing that up.” If you want to learn more, ask them for good resources to get further information.
This can help you build trust and mutual respect in a relationship, rather than judgment which can strain or shut down communication.
2) Shift to more common ground.
Sometimes the way someone else chooses to eat can be triggering to us – for example, if we have had challenging experiences with dieting and someone talks about their diet frequently. Create ways to branch into commonalities that are related to that person’s diet monologue but are not directly related to food choices. Topics to insert include meal prep habits, favorite places to grocery shop, asking whether they’ve ever gone to local farmer’s markets or food events you know about, favorite kitchen gear, etc.
Steering conversation into a direction that’s more accessible to you will empower you to change talk that is hurtful to you. That person is more than likely not trying to be hurtful, and you can guide them away from doing so without overtly alerting them to their painful misstep (which could elicit either an embarrassed apology, a defensive retort, or worst – a judgment on how sensitive you are).
3) Don’t let someone’s choices influence yours.
We’ve all been in a situation where we’re out with a friend or family member, they say what they’re ordering, and it immediately makes us second-guess what we were going to get. It can be uncomfortable ordering a big meal when everyone else orders a small one, and vice versa.
This is about honoring your own hunger signals, your nutrition philosophy, and building trust in yourself. Otherwise, you allow yourself to be swayed by another, you end up eating something that doesn’t feel good to you, and then risk growing resentful of them for something “they did to you.” Own your decisions, stay authentic to yourself, and avoid creating passive-aggressive conflicts that don’t need to be there.
When in doubt …
The graceful sidestep.
This can be the most uncomfortable of all, especially for moments when our hackles are particularly raised (for example, when a loved one is directly challenging our nutrition choices). If at all possible, ignore the statement completely and change the topic to something completely unrelated. It will feel like an obvious and deliberate tactic, but it can send a quiet message that your boundaries are being crossed and you’d like to preserve the conversation without asserting them directly. Ideally, the person will take that cue and follow your lead to new topic matter.
If you have people in your life who consistently and actively challenge your nutrition philosophy and ways of eating:
Then direct, deliberate boundary setting is absolutely required to maintain a healthy relationship with them. You can practice saying something like, “I appreciate that we have different ways of looking at health and nutrition, but I’ve been really thoughtful about my approach to how I eat, it’s really important to me, and I ask that you please respect my decisions.”
If having that conversation turns your stomach, consider seeing a mental health professional for a short period of time to gain the confidence and language you need to set clear boundaries with the people in your life. They are pro’s at this! Working on setting boundaries will help you maintain healthy relationships with your loved ones and stay committed to your own unique approach to nutrition.