Here’s a couple of comments you might be familiar with, especially if you’ve experienced noticeable physical changes since starting Paleo:
- “Why can’t you just eat pizza like a normal person? This Paleo thing is so extreme. Just eat in moderation." (5 minutes later) "Why are you taking the croutons off your salad? Stop being so weird; it’s not going to kill you." [Rinse and repeat for every single thing you eat]
- (While you’re still nowhere near your weight goal) “You’ve lost enough weight already. You should stop now. You’ll get too thin and waste away!”
- “You’re already skinny; just shut up and eat it” [puts junk food on your plate or pushes it towards you]
- “You know Paleo is just a fad diet; you’ll never lose weight that way. You really need to count calories like my nutritionist says.”
- “Ooooh, look who’s got a ~Paleo~ lunch today! How’s the mammoth steak?”
Of course, not all comments about your food or diet are intended to put you down or control you. Some people are casually curious; some people are impressed by your progress and want to know how you did it; some people are just making conversation on the first topic that comes to mind. But if the comments are obviously invasive or rude, or if the person just won’t let it drop after you ask them to, you’re probably dealing with a Food Jerk.
It’s Not About You
Food Jerks are (unfortunately) talking to you, but their comments really have nothing to do with you. Everything a Food Jerk says is all about the jerk.
Emotionally secure and well-adjusted adults do not make intrusive comments about other people’s food or bodies. They don’t harass people about their food, give uninvited critiques of their diet, or try to push them to eat things after an initial refusal. They can accept that what works for them might not work for you, and vice versa, and they don’t feel the need to control your weight or diet, because they recognize that it’s really none of their business.
On the other hand, people who are insecure will try to control you or bully you into agreeing with them so they can feel validated. Maybe they feel guilty about eating something they think is unhealthy, so they’re trying to get you to eat it too because that gives them “permission” to eat it. Maybe they’re jealous of the healthy changes you’re making, because it makes them feel inadequate for not doing the same, and it’s easier to tear you down than build themselves up.
Maybe they feel insecure in their relationship, and you represent the theoretical “hot other man/woman” who might “steal” their partner if you get more attractive. Maybe they’re just miserable for some reason, so they put you down or try to control you as a power trip so they can feel good about themselves.
Whatever the reason, a Food Jerk’s behavior is all about them. It has nothing to do with you.
If You Didn’t Cause it, You Can’t Fix It
The natural response to a Food Jerk is to argue with them. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work, because the root cause of their behavior is insecurity, and you can’t fix their insecurity with an argument about Paleo nutrition.
It doesn’t matter how good your arguments are. If they have a compelling psychological need to believe the way they do, you can’t change their mind with facts. They will always find a way to refuse to believe you.
What to do instead? Disengage. You’re not responsible for their feelings or food issues. If they’re going to be nasty, controlling, or cruel as a result of their insecurity, you can’t change that. Your job is simply to protect yourself from their behavior.
Refuse to engage on their terms.
A Food Jerk wants to engage with you on the premise that they have some kind of legitimate say in what you eat. But they don’t. It’s your absolute right as an adult to eat whatever you want, for whatever reasons you want. It doesn’t matter whether or not it’s healthy by anyone’s definition. You don’t need to justify your dietary choices to anyone but yourself. If you want to get involved in a nutritional debate, that’s fine, but you never have to.
Unfortunately, if they’re making controlling or intrusive comments in the first place, they probably don’t understand that, so here are some tips on Jerk Management:
Deflect with I-Statements
Start by phrasing everything in terms of how you feel and what works for you (also called “I statements”).
Don’t say “Paleo is healthy” (even though it is). Say “You might love whole-wheat toast and that’s totally fine, but it makes me feel sick and I feel better without it.” This cuts down on their defensiveness (since you’re very clearly not threatening their right to eat whatever they want), and it’s very hard to argue with that without sounding insane.
For extreme busybodies who just won’t accept “I would rather not eat that food,” hint at traumatic gastrointestinal consequences. Nobody wants to hear about your bloody diarrhea, particularly at the dinner table.
Change the Subject
Another great skill to have when you’re dealing with a Food Jerk is the ability to change the subject. They don’t understand that your food is none of their business, and they won't ever understand it, so just refuse to talk about food.
Remember that this is already after you've tried the "I'd rather not talk about my diet" line once (if they're fine with that and move on to other topics, they're not a Food Jerk to start with), so it's OK to be a little blunt about it.
- If they think they know the One True Way to Eat, use…the appeal to authority: “Thanks, but my health/weight/diet is between me and my doctor” [change the subject]
- For an all-purpose response to comments on the healthiness of your diet, use…the noncommittal subject change: “That’s interesting.” [change the subject] If they call you out on the obvious subject change: "I just told you that I'd really rather not argue about diet." [change the subject again]
- For food you don’t want to eat, use…the polite but non-negotiable refusal: “No, thank you.” [Change the subject]
- For repeat offenders, use…the dog-training method: give them positive attention and enthusiastically engage when they talk about anything else; be brusque to the point of rudeness when they talk about food. Is it offensive to “train” a person like a dog? Possibly. But you know what else is offensive? Constantly making rude and invasive comments about your food.
Again, don’t justify anything you eat for any other reason than “I’m an adult; I eat what I want.” Nothing else is relevant. Refuse to engage on their terms.
If you can’t disengage, make specific requests.
With very determined bullies or busybodies, changing the subject doesn’t always work. And sometimes you can’t escape (you can’t just quit your job because your coworker is a Food Jerk). Here are some tips for getting even more direct.
- Make specific requests for them to stop a specific behavior, phrased in neutral language. Don’t say “Stop being a jerk about my diet.” Instead, say “Please stop commenting on my lunch.”
- Keep using I-statements. “I would appreciate it if you…” is not something they can argue with.
Sometimes, even that doesn’t work. If you really can’t escape, remember that your success is the best revenge you could ever get on a Food Jerk, and surround yourself with other people who support you. Minimize your contact with them and get the support you need to focus on your goals and keep the negativity out of your life as much as you can.
Summing it Up
Making positive changes in your own diet often brings out other people’s weird fears and insecurities about food in the form of intrusive comments, weird and controlling behavior, or even attempts to sabotage your way of eating.
This is all about the other person's insecurity, and you can’t change that by arguing on their terms - refuse to let them suck you into an argument based on the premise that they have any say in what you eat. You're an adult; you get to eat what you want. Use I-statements like “this works for me” to make it hard to argue with you. Then change the subject and just refuse to engage. If they don’t get it, ask them politely but directly to change a specific behavior. Describe the behavior in neutral language to give them fewer reasons to get defensive, and then minimize your exposure to that person as much as possible.
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