Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Avoid Cliches Like The Plague

Apparently I have pushed through to the dark side...

For a long time, my friends and family would see me and see my progress and ask how I had achieved the visible improvements to my body and energy level. Sometimes they would notice that I'd brought nothing but a hard-boiled egg and some butter to work for lunch. They might hear my alteration requests at a restaurant.

These scenarios usually lead to a discussion of the information I had and have been engaging with, the changes I made to my lifestyle, and - not that I guided the conversation towards my conversation partner - towards what they could also be doing to improve their health. I always felt uncomfortable at this point, since that's when you start feeling like you're passing on a dogmatic view. Anyone who has been reading my blog for any period of time would know that I'm not about endorsing any one set of rules, but encouraging individuals to tailor their lifestyle to their own personal goals, priorities and bodies. Do what works for you.

However, of late, it seems like some of my social network has slapped me with the label of 'the healthy one'. Whilst I don't reject that label per se, I have noticed that certain people now imagine that I judge them on their food and lifestyle choices. They feel guilty about acting against their own understanding of health anyway, but they see me as an embodiment of their doctor/nutritionist/etc - I remind them of the potential harm they could possibly be doing to themselves. I don't have to say anything. I don't even look at them. God, half the time I wouldn't have even noticed if they were shooting up heroin. But my presence sits there in their subconsciousness and brings up those years of the mass media stuffing health warning and scientific (and some not-so-scientific) findings down their throats.

Now, I do notice when people I care about make poor choices, or when they are not offered a healthier option - especially when trouble is taken to ensure that option is provided to me. I've had 18 months of practice so I'm comfortable making my preferences known, but the pressure to avoid offense in the average social situation is stifling for everyone else. We've grown up being told to 'eat what we're given', resulting in a bizarre world of fake food allergies and artificial medical conditions whipped out at gatherings to avoid humiliating the host when they offer you that slice of birthday cake. Everyone knows that sugary, gluten-filled birthday cake is not healthy, yet to refuse a slice on general wellness grounds would be akin to pissing in the pool. When I have commented in the past that I felt horrible watching my loved ones politely eating food that they knew wasn't good for them (and in one case, would cause them digestive discomfort later on!), the response has been that others are just as able as I am to make their preferences known. This attitude completely ignores the social pressures of accepting and eating whatever is given to you. I have even seen cases where an individual has spoken up about a particular preference, and been harassed for having been rude and unappreciative. It's lose-lose.

When I throw dinner parties, I do what I can to remove the social pressures of eating.

1. I always ask about dietary preferences (stressing the preferences angle, not 'needs').

2. I inform my guests that the meals will be sugar-free, wheat-free, and will not involve any artificial foods such as refined vegetable or seed oils.

3. I make a range of dishes, always including something to cater for vegetarians, unless there has been a detailed discussion beforehand.

4. a) I would encourage a buffet-style serving arrangement if it can be performed quickly without the food changing temperature significantly.

4. b) However, I tend to serve directly onto plates (except at larger gatherings) and I overload the plates. My reasoning: guests can choose not to eat a particular aspect of the meal without going hungry or having to publicly reject one of the dishes; guests with large appetites avoid the awkwardness of going 'back for seconds', and; the aesthetic appeal of the meal can be controlled by me, rather than sloppy spooning from platters. Never underestimate the importance of aesthetics.

5. Dessert is always tricky, but I always make a healthful dessert. The large portions give the guests a feasible 'I'm too full' excuse, and I try to make desserts that can be portioned by the individual. If I'm not going to have the dessert, I consider not making one - not to be selfish, but to avoid my guests feeling guilty!

It's a tricky tightrope to navigate safely. Social events continue to be centred around food. Acceptance or rejection of food is seen as acceptance or rejection of the host/chef. It is a ridiculous scenario.

I you accepted the invitation to my dinner party or weekend away or whatever, that's the signal to me that you like me. If you like the food that I make, wonderful, but I don't take it personally if you don't. If you think it could use more of this or that, tell me and I'll know for next time. My brother was once embarrassed to tell me that he wasn't a fan of coconut oil. He could have avoided coming over when I invited him to avoid having to eat food cooked in coconut oil. Or he could tell me that he wasn't a fan of coconut oil. If he's a guest, I know now not to use coconut oil. It's not a big deal. And it's easier to make everything the same way than serve him up his own special portion of coconut oil-free veggies. If one of my guests was allergic to almonds, I wouldn't use almonds in anything. Minimise the social discomfort, maximise the options and enjoyment.

It's no accident that I'm in one of the nurturing professions. I loathe to see people suffer or struggle. I worry when I see someone behaving in ways that may cause their future suffering. I am powerfully driven to help people. I teach Drama because I was social awkward as a child (and still am, in certain situations such as meeting new people or staying afloat when faced with conflict), and I want to help others find effective means of communication. I teach both Drama & English because I only know who I am when I'm being creative, and I want to help others find their creative talents and learn how to extend them. Growing up, I always attracted the misfits and always took them under my wing. I have never been one to judge others on anything except their treatment of others. Even then, I can usually see the subtext of their actions and forgive that as well. I write this blog for the readers, since I know from my life how important it is to find someone who feels the same way as you do, to give you validation for your efforts and ideas to help you extend your achievements. Even though the blogging medium is a broadcast situation with minimal dialogue (though I do respond to comments), I imagine you sitting there, reading my words, responding with your own experiences, empathising, shaking your head when you don't agree, and adding my text to the marvelous inter-text against which you derive your understanding of health, well being, and the world at large. If I didn't think you were out there, I wouldn't do this.

Even when you/I feel like we're the person sitting at the table wearing the invisible "The Health Nut" name tags, imperceptibly impacting upon the way our associates think about themselves and their actions, we can think about all the others sitting around the global cyber-table, with similar interests and knowledge, quietly encouraging each other and supporting our efforts, not selfishly condemning us for it.

Don't cross over to the dark side. Don't let your psyche fall into the trap of finding pleasure in the schadenfreude of that carboholic friend breaking out in zits on her wedding day, or struggling to suppress an eye-roll as your colleague polishes off a Subway sandwich as a 'healthy lunch' after his lunchtime jog around the block. Don't damage your own self-confidence by wondering whether your social circle is quietly pleased that you've regained a bit of weight, or that the caterers forgot your gluten-free order and now you'll have to go hungry.

Do what works for you.

NB: Whilst this post has been inspired by recent interactions with people in my life, it is not intended to criticise anyone in particular, but to reflect on general society's connection to food and ego/acceptance, etc. I'm not trying to make anyone feel bad for being products of their society, but instead I'm reflecting on how primal folks find themselves at risk of offending in social situations when we reject food, and how difficult it can be to make healthier choices or even stick to personal preferences in situations where it's difficult to do so without drawing awkward attention to yourself. This blog is anonymous and should be treated as such.


Anonymous said...

I like how you think.
The way you set up a meal for your guest is just fine! A meal is a social experience. While it's important to be healthy, it's also important to be comfortable with the food and what's going on. Sounds like you are able to achieve both.


Anonymous said...

I applaud you for ignoring the social pressure to stray away from what works for you. I make a great effort to adapt to any food preferences when entertaining but find that the same is not always done when I am the guest. I often cave as to not call undue attention to myself (I have an intolerance, not an allergy). This, I realize, is a big mistake. If we don't transmit the importance of sticking to certain food guidelines, how can we expect others to do the same for us?

AndreAnna said...

It's funny, I wrote about something very similar a few days ago, being typecast as Primal and automatically assumed I'm judging someone else. Post is here if you're interested.

I think you have a great outlook on it and I'm sure your guests are grateful.

MrsEvilGenius said...

I'm absolutely shameless when it comes to resisting social pressure. I think it's just my OCD personality. In my world it's on/off, black/white, yes/no.

I went paleo cold turkey (2 1/2 years ago) and never cheated. At social gatherings I try to be as low key as possible but I refuse to break my lifestyle to fit in or please people.

I feel like if I apologise and explain my diet that it's the OTHER person's problem if they are offended. I've turned down special dishes and gone without eating at all, much to the consternation of friends and family, but it's MY health, so i stick to my guns. :)

ButMadNNW said...

I haven't quite made the switch to being fully low-carb/primal, but being MSG-intolerant, I know whereof you speak. In recent years, I've gotten much more 'demanding' about knowing ingredients and wanting to see labels, whether I'm at a restaurant or a friend's house. I've stopped caring about being a bother or offending people; they're not the ones who'll spend the night doubled up in the bathroom!

I've also started a 'subset' of entries on my blog, calling out or praising restaurants not only for whether or not they use MSG, but how they handle the question when I ask.

EKSeattle said...

Great post! I came for the reciepes and stayed for the great writing!
I went primal cold turkey back in Jan of this year. It was a surpisingly easy change for me.
I do travel a lot for business and so there are a TON of social dinners that I attend with either co-workers or vendors or clients. Those that know me are very interested in what I am doing as they have seen the almost 50lbs of weight loss that has happened in the last 7 months. I can't say I feel any guilt telling others about the way I eat but I do not go out of my way at this point. I think my actions can speak louder than my words. BUT I have noticed that if I am at the table, bread isn't touched as much, pasta isn't ordered quite as much...its quite interesting actually

Sandy said...

Thank you for acknowledging the social pressures surrounding food. I am an aims-to-please kind of person, I hate to offend, and so I find social situations difficult. I already had the label of "The Healthy One" before I started my primal journey, and now in some ways I've gotten the label "The Weird One." It's not just us primal or paleo people, too. Vegetarians, especially vegans, go through so many of the same problems. I think the only difference really is that vegetarianism/veganism is more mainstream than paleo (although paleo isn't far behind). It would be so much better if we all took your suggestion that accepting the invitation is the sign that you like someone, not that eating the food is the sign. Still, that doesn't mean that I wasn't a little insulted when hubby made some delicious primal chili for his mother when she came to visit, and she used it as sauce to put on top of a heaping bowl of beans and Fritos. Oh what a tangled web this food world is!

Anonymous said...

I never eat off plan. I am Zero Carb, so it is easy to not eat at all. My health and lean, fit body comes before anyone's feelings, even if that is not social.


Lady Rois said...

Found my way here courtesy of MDA... so glad I did! :)

It's interesting because I've found myself on the same 'dark side' of late, and once in a while it rears it's ugly head. When I got started on my journey to 'healthy' a few years ago, everyone (including me to an extent) that it would be like everyone elses... start strong then fall on my face and go back to 'normal'. Well, 3 years and 75# of fat loss later, I figured out my happy food, exercise, and mental place to help me make that transition to 'lifestlye' rather than 'diet'.

I've now come full circle in the attention of oh-so-caring folks (not!) here at work: Started with, "Oh, it will never last/you look fine" then moved to "WOW! You look great! What are you doing?!?! Look at you being so healthy" now back to "You're getting to skinny, better stop!" (funny how a 140# body with a lot of lean muscle is too skinny... but a 100# frame of nothin' isn't... but I digress.)

These same oh-so-caring folks seem to also be experts on what I do and don't eat... I'll comment about bacon which usually elicits responses like, "But you wouldn't eat that... you're so healthy." I've gotten used to the neck craning from the oh-so-caring folks to see what I brought for lunch, which is usually huge, while they huddle over their tiny frozen meal and wonder why they aren't making any progress.

Like you, I wouldn't notice what other people eat unless it bit me. I don't judge, I just do my thing and move on. I only notice when they point things out. Mainly, I prefer to lead by example rather than bully someone to my way of thinking. I'm happy to share what I know, but it usually doesn't jive with what folks are willing to hear. I've tried to keep the eye rolling to a minimum, usually resulting in me being thought of as antisocial. But that's ok... it works for me.

I just wish that being called healthy didn't sound so insulting some times.