That diet dilemma and food celebrations

Celebrating New Year’s eve with friends

“Let’s go get a donut!” My friend had a gleam in her eye. Three of us had just enjoyed a really nice, long lunch celebrating a birthday. We had laughed, giggled, and snorted for nearly two hours. We caught up on each other’s family members and talked of what we wanted for our futures. We took photos together and had simply enjoyed each other’s company. Now, they were calling for donuts to extend the celebration.

“It’s your birthday! We will walk it off later. If you haven’t been to the new donut place, you’ll have to try this. Those donuts are so good!” My friend’s enthusiasm was difficult to ignore. The friend with the birthday hesitated. They both looked at me for approval, so I said, “You should get one if you want.” I was caught in a difficult place. I do not eat high-carb donuts. Since I went keto over four years ago, I simply made the decision that I don’t eat them. I can if I want, which keeps me from bingeing on a dozen, but I choose not to.

As their enthusiasm for donuts grew, I struggled. I could not eat a donut. No way, but I could not ruin the fun. They both were looking at me for approval, so I said, “If you want a donut, you should get one!” Intellectually, I knew all of the reasons why I should not and would not eat a donut: high blood glucose, inflammation, out of ketosis, cravings. Emotionally, I struggled. Somehow, not eating a donut was not bonding. It was being a killjoy, a stick in the mud, a wet blanket. They needed me to be “fun” with them so that they could have fun. I could NOT eat a donut, but I did not want to withdraw emotionally.

Even after having successfully stayed on a strict ketogenic diet since June 2013, this was one of the biggest social/emotional struggles I remember. I did not even WANT the darn donut; it had no taste appeal to me at all, but I felt the need to belong. I wanted to be part of our trio.

My brain was spinning between “You cannot and will not eat a donut!” and “Holy crap! I can’t let them down. I can’t disappoint them. I can’t kill the fun.” Then reason would intrude and say: “The fun is not in the donut, dummy! You know that. Use your skills.” As I considered my ‘skills’ — those coping strategies that helped me handle similar situations before — I worried whether they would be sufficient. I was being pressured to eat a donut to show solidarity, and the last thing I wanted was to leave my small tribe over a donut, but I could not eat the dang donut!

As I searched for a happy compromise, I considered, “I’ll just order one, take a few bites, and then throw it away when no one is looking.” That thought was ridiculous. Why would I even take a few bites if I didn’t want to eat it? At one point, I even thought, “Well, I’m pretty much maintaining my weight loss. I could just eat a stinkin’ donut.” That thought got strangled pretty quickly as I became immediately mortified that the thought even occurred to me at all. Why on earth would I compromise what I know to be right for me?! I did not want a donut! What I wanted was to be part of our threesome. We had enjoyed each other’s company, and one of our trio was suggesting a splurge on a donut. How could I be a killjoy? A wet blanket? A stick in the mud? Somehow my not participating seemed to threaten that bond.

When we arrived at the donut shop, I finally found my voice. I went in smiling, commenting on all of the flavors, and very clearly supporting my friends’ decisions to have a donut. I decided that I would not judge, discourage, nor encourage, but rather support them just as I wanted, and needed, their support. My goal was that none of us would leave there feeling badly.

When we approached the counter to order, I waited to order last. When it was my turn, I said firmly and happily, “Oh that coffee smells amazing! I haven’t had an Americano in months. I think I’ll have that. It will be perfect since it’s so cold outside.” My enthusiasm for the coffee and my interest in, and support for, their decisions was sufficient. They ordered donuts. We continued laughing. I stopped sweating. It was okay.

Why is it so hard to stick with your diet in social situations?

In spite of successfully following keto for years and considering myself pretty hard core, I struggled. I struggled not because I was hungry or because the donut appealed to me, but because of the emotional connection that I was afraid of damaging. The need to belong is incredibly powerful. I spent much of my life not fitting in with others and feeling somewhat lonely. I didn’t want to make them feel bad about their decisions, and somehow when one person in a group makes the “healthier” decision, then it makes the others feel bad about their own “unhealthy” decisions. They needed and wanted my approval to eat a donut as much as I needed and wanted their approval not to.

Somehow it worked. I was determined to not kill their joy, so I never once commented about how the donuts were unhealthy or not part of my diet. I didn’t even say that I was afraid that the sugar or wheat would make me sick. I expressed very clear enthusiasm for what I wanted. I wanted an Americano coffee, and I was very clear that it was delicious. In no way did I come across as deprived, which is important. Had I verbalized my struggle, they would have been in the role of coaxing me to just “enjoy” myself and have a donut. Moreover, it was important in this context that I withheld judgement of their decisions. By marveling at the flavors (which was sincere), and taking an interest in their orders, I supported them. My decision didn’t cast a shadow of doubt or superiority over their decision.

Holiday parties are not unlike my experience in the donut shop. We use food to connect with others. Somehow eating unhealthy foods together bonds us — even when we aren’t attracted to poor food choices. If you’re walking through similar situations now, I encourage you to use some of the strategies I’ve used.

  1. Figure out how you can be part of the celebration without eating foods that are unhealthy for you.
  2. Don’t voice disappointment that you “can’t have” something, but rather voice joy or enthusiasm about an alternative food, beverage, or simply the joy of spending time together.
  3. If pressed, place the emphasis not on diet and deprivation, but on health (those donuts make me sick).
  4. Make your decision and articulate it without passing judgement. Support the decisions of others even when you don’t agree. In this context it is temporary, and they will be more likely to come to you later because you have been an example and they feel safe, not judged.

Intellectually, this is easy. Emotionally, it often is not. Thinking ahead to what foods you will (or won’t eat) can help you to have the happiest, and healthiest, holiday season yet!


Kristie Sullivan

 
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