We know about the “diabetes police”—those folks who, while trying to be helpful, can come across as bossy and even hurtful when addressing other people’s health issues. Then there are the food police—the people who can’t help but ask, “Should you be eating that?”
The holidays can be a particularly tricky time for anyone to navigate food situations: You’re more likely to be surrounded by treats and large meals laden with fat and carbohydrate, as well as family members and loved ones with good intentions and a long history of commenting on other people’s plates. We’ve all encountered them—and maybe even been a member of the food police at one point or another.
What to Do
So what’s the best way, as a caregiver, to make sure you’re supportive without smothering, offering help without offending? Some simple steps can help you make holiday meals go down smoothly, without a side of tension. Here’s how to help your loved ones without policing them this holiday season:
♦ Know Your Boundaries. No one is entitled to take charge of what or how much another independent person eats, says Ellyn Satter, MS, RD, LCSW, BCD. “It’s a thankless task, it doesn’t help anybody, and it makes the person’s eating worse, not better,” she says. “If you say, ‘I’m only doing this for your own good,’ you are being the food police.” So if no one has asked for your opinion, it’s best to keep it to yourself. You know that the question “Should you be eating that?” is loaded with criticism.
Grandma giving you a “judgy” look for taking a slice of pumpkin pie?
Did your second piece of turkey come with criticism? There are plenty of
ways to respond when someone asks, “Should you be eating that?” Pick
your favorite and practice now so if the situation comes up, you’re
ready to address it head-on.|
“You could give them a kiss and say, ‘I love you too.’” Ellyn Satter, MS, RD, LCSW, BCD, says some food policing comes from a place of genuine worry or concern.
“My body’s not your problem. ... My health is none of your business. Your health is none of mine.” Lesley Kinzel, MA, fat acceptance advocate and author of Two Whole Cakes, sums it up on her blog, twowholecakes.com.
“I know you mean well, but this is not helping.” Blogger Michelle Allison advocates making the asker feel a little awkward. After all, he or she put you in an awkward position already.
“My wife … sometimes refers to me as her ‘Jiminy Cricket’ when it comes to certain foods. She just ignores me!” Reader Panel member John Greller’s wife chooses not to address food police—and that’s OK, too.
♦ Set the Table for Success. Maybe your loved one or his or her health care provider has asked you to help set food guidelines together. If that’s the case, you can provide plenty of food options that work with your loved one’s personal dietary needs, says Michelle Allison, creator of the website The Fat Nutritionist (thefatnutritionist.com). “That doesn’t mean you don’t provide stuff you wouldn’t normally eat around the holidays,” she says. “It just means you provide options. Make slight modifications, and make stuff that is accessible to people with diabetes.” Yet there’s no need to single out the individual—healthful foods are a gift for all your guests. For some recipes for holiday dishes with healthful twists, click here.
♦ Ask Questions to Learn More. Sherry Reynolds, RN, who has type 2 diabetes and is a member of the Diabetes Forecast Reader Panel, says her loved ones don’t scrutinize her eating but have genuine concern about her health and diet. “I have very supportive ‘food police’ friends who don’t criticize but inquire about how and what I eat and how my blood sugar does with different foods,” Reynolds says. “They encourage me and support me.”
What to Say
So you know what to do to avoid becoming the food police—but what if you’ve been food-policed yourself? There are a few ways to handle it:
♦ Shut It Down. You can do this in a few ways. Reader Panel member Abbie Loa has her routine down pat when faced with “You shouldn’t eat that.” “I smile and I say, ‘Aww, I know,’ and walk away. Then I avoid them completely until I have no choice. Repeat steps one through three,” she says.
Other people may turn the question around, asking, “Should any of us be eating this?” It’s OK to say something, even if you think it might lead to a confrontation. “When somebody oversteps a boundary or is kind of being a jerk to you, they’re the ones who are causing the scene when you enforce the boundary,” Allison says. Practice your response, even if it’s just saying, “I love you,” and ignoring the comment altogether.
♦ Educate Others. Reader Panel member Sarah Howard knows that people often have an inkling that sugar can be a problem for people with diabetes but tend to be clueless about carbohydrate sources in general. Sometimes Howard explains why she’s eating foods that contain sugar. “I explain that any carbs increase my blood sugar and I have to eat something,” she says. “A little sugar now and then is not a huge deal.”
♦ Permit Yourself to Avoid Pitfalls. The holidays are supposed to be a joyous time, but who can get into holiday cheer when they’re anxious about a meal and what someone might say about their plate? So if Great Aunt Gertrude always gives you grief about dinner, you’re allowed to stop by her house for coffee only. “There’s nothing that says you have to eat in an environment that makes you feel uncomfortable,” Satter says.
♦ Fuel Your Body. You might think you can just avoid food, period, for the holidays, but most likely your family—and your body—don’t work that way. Michel D. Harris, RD, a member of the Reader Panel, says one of her clients once had a hypoglycemic episode because he was afraid to eat in front of some family members. Don’t hurt yourself; treat and eat as needed.
♦ Plan and Practice. Throughout the year, keep in mind that you’re in charge of what you eat and when you eat, and stick with the structure of the meal plan that works best for you. “No matter what kind of a modified diet you’re on, structure is the backbone of it,” Satter says. “Being positive and stable and self-respecting with your own eating is so important, because it’s you most of all that you have to satisfy.”