It's Fuel, Not Personal

Why people fight about food, and what to do about it.

Article by Mandy Pagano | 25 Oct, 2020

Article originally published on on 8/19/16. It has been lightly edited for re-publication.

Food is our fuel. Pretty much the whole of humanity knows this. So why on earth do we fight over it?

This is something about which many of us frequently wonder. The number of encounters various ketonians have had with others who belittle or berate us, or just become flat-out angry with us, all because our fuel choices are different from theirs can be pretty substantial. As unfortunate as it may be, dealing with people who are outright nasty about our way of eating can be a regular thing on keto. But why does it happen at all?

To understand this phenomenon, we have to understand a bit about human psychology, as well as the nature of nutrition science. Today, we will deal with the former.

Why So Angry?

People are social creatures. We like to fit in and belong. This is a pretty strong driving factor in human emotions and behavior. Many, if not most, aspects of human socialization tend to revolve around food. The feast, for a holiday, special occasion, or just as a social activity, is pretty ubiquitous amongst all cultures. Couple this social tradition and all the emotional highs that go along with it to our drive to belong to our group (family, friends, etc.) and you've got a big old cauldron of emotion and instinct surrounding food and food culture just waiting to bubble over onto someone who steps out of line.

Taking this into consideration, we've developed a sort-of pet theory about the anger and negative reactions we can get when we change our eating habits so as to no longer align with those whom we socialize. Essentially, people are very emotionally threatened by someone making a lifestyle change that (a) might change the dynamics of an established group, and (b) might imply a rejection or a judgment, even if only subconsciously, about the advisability of their own choices.

Group Dynamics

As silly as it sounds, drastically changing a part of your lifestyle can be incredibly threatening to other people because it presents the risk of change. People tend to get very stuck in their habits and change can be frightening. This is especially true when it comes to the dynamic and make-up of a group.

An example of this would be the anger or upset at the keto family member during Christmas who won't have that bite of grandma's famous pie, or brings their own low-carb food, or even (gasp!!!) suggests some changes to the traditional menu to make it a little easier for the keto relative to eat. The keto person has, in a nutshell, upset the apple cart of this family's celebratory ritual.

Regardless of whether or not you intend it, you're asking people to change something they're accustomed to, and many people find that threatening. This is especially prevalent in celebratory situations because, over time, people begin to associate and substitute the trappings of the ritual with the reason for celebrating, and the people and events the gathering is about can be unintentionally pushed into a secondary position of importance. Whenever you hear someone exclaim, "Well it just isn't X holiday without this dish!" you're dealing with someone who has mentally substituted the incidentals of the holiday for the holiday itself. So when someone introduces a change to that ritual, many people may feel like you're ruining their holiday, and subsequently get very upset about it.

An Issue of Judgment

Another common problem is when people seem to be generally offended that you have changed your eating habits. It could be the aunt who is miffed that you suddenly won't eat her cookies, the brother who constantly nags you to have "just one bite" or berates you for not taking cheat days, or the good friend that spends a large amount of time talking down your eating habits and/or trying to convince you keto will kill you!!!

This is a problem within the psyche of the individual. Whether or not your aunt or brother or friend realize it, they have internally interpreted your new lifestyle as a rejection and judgment upon their own, which explains why some people can get so personally offended and angry over lifestyle changes others make that have little-to-no effect on their own lives. It's important to remember that this is very largely subconscious. Most people don't realize this is what they're doing. At the same time, it is a real phenomenon and it can cause a lot of strife in the life of the ketonian. When people feel, rightly or wrongly, that something they do or think is being rejected and/or judged as wrong or dangerous, the first and most instinctive reaction is to get defensive and belligerent.

What to Do About It

  1. Stand up for your health
    • The best way to handle these things are to confront them head-on. Do not- we repeat, do not- just sit idly by and take it. Don't meekly eat the offered goods, or have just this bite because people are pressuring you. This doesn't mean you need to argue with your loved ones, but you do need to keep in mind what is important and assert yourself accordingly. We don't adopt a ketogenic lifestyle because we're healthy eating the same old junk that's been pushed out there for decades. We go keto to reclaim our health and well-being. For those with more severe medical problems, this way of eating may quite literally be a matter of life and death. Don't compromise your health to make other people happy.
  2. Tell them, "I still love you."
    • People who react negatively to your new lifestyle need to be reassured that you still love and appreciate them, you're not judging them, you're not trying to force this lifestyle upon them, and this doesn't change your relationship one bit. The important thing to stress to people is that even though humans tend to gather and celebrate with feasts, the food itself is not what is important. The most important part of all relationships, be it groups of ten or two, are the people. If we are making it about the food then we have lost sight of the reasons we're together at all.
  3. Be honest
    • Don't be afraid to tell people no, but also be sure to tell them why. If mom offers you a slice of your favorite cake and you say no, she might be mad. When a simple, "No, thank you," won't cut it, you might explain to that you do not want to undo all the progress you've made and that yes, even one bite is just too much and could throw you off track completely. Alternatively, you could describe the very nasty symptoms- gastric, inflammatory, etc.- we tend to experience when we eat off plan, and explain that you'd prefer to spend your visit feeling your best. After all, you can't give your best to someone else if you feel awful. Regardless of how you choose to approach the issue, being honest with your loved ones about your reasons for avoiding these foods is likely to elicit an understanding response.

These issues can be very hard to navigate, especially considering the psychological nature underlying this kind of conflict. When we understand why people give us a hard time about our food, we can start handling it with grace by assuring our loved ones that our rejection of the traditional diet is not a personal rejection of them. The ketogenic lifestyle is about what we choose to use as fuel for our bodies, not with whom we choose to share our lives. The choice of fuel does not need to be a source of conflict as long as we are patient and kind enough to help others gain understanding as well. 

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