On Nutrition

Food can be many things. It can be nourishing or comforting, a source of pleasure or a focal point of a holiday celebration. It can also be a catalyst for awkward feelings when someone at Christmas dinner or the office holiday party tries to push food on us that we’re not hungry for, or that we simply don’t want to eat.

Most food pushers are simply trying to be a good host — or looking for validation of their culinary wizardry — while others view sharing food as an expression of love and caring. Other pushers might have conflicted relationships with food, and can only feel “OK” about having dessert or a second helping if others do, too.

As we progress through the winter holidays, setting and defending your food boundaries firmly yet graciously is a skill worth cultivating. I take my cues from the wisdom of Evelyn Tribole, co-author of “Intuitive Eating,” who created an Intuitive Eater’s Holiday Bill of Rights, including four points that relate to food pushers:

  • You have the right to honor your fullness, even if that means saying “No, thank you” to dessert or a second helping of food.
  • It is not your responsibility to make someone happy by overeating, even if it took hours to prepare a specialty holiday dish.
  • You have the right to say, “No thank you,” without explanation, when offered more food.
  • You have the right to stick to your original answer of “No,” even if you are asked multiple times. Just calmly and politely repeat, “No, thank you, really.”

To deflect food pushers without stepping on toes, I also like the strategy of starting with a compliment and finishing with a deflection: “That looks delicious. I’m not hungry right now, but I’ll have some later” — helpful at an office party — or “The food was so fabulous … I literally could not eat another bite” — useful at a sit-down meal. If needed, nicely but firmly add, “No, really … I just wouldn’t be able to fully appreciate it right now.” If you have people-pleasing tendencies, it can help to rehearse what you’ll say in advance. What if you really would like to try the dessert, but know it would leave you feeling uncomfortably full? Ask if you can take a serving home to enjoy the next day.

One strategy I don’t recommend? Saying, “Sorry, but I’m on a diet.” Not only is diet talk not cool — especially at the holiday table — but the pusher may feel like you’re calling their food unhealthy, or calling them unhealthy for preparing it. They may push even harder with lines like, “Come on, you have to enjoy yourself sometimes.” As if that’s your only chance to enjoy food, or life. In any case, feeling too full can dull the pleasure of an otherwise enjoyable meal.

Another strategy to avoid? Pretending to have a food allergy. You run the risk of being caught out (“I thought you said you were allergic to chocolate”), which makes it harder for those who truly have food allergies to be believed. That said, if you have to avoid nuts because of an allergy, or those wheat dinner rolls because you have celiac disease, say so!

It takes a little practice to say “no” to good food intentions, but stick with it. Setting boundaries is a form of self-care, a way of making sure your needs are met. When you learn how to honor your needs — food-related or otherwise — while respecting the feelings of others, everyone wins.