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Social Sabotage: How to Respond to Criticism About Your Food and Exercise

Disclaimer: The following is written assuming that you’re participating in healthy behavior. If you are over-exercising, or being far too restrictive with your diet, there is a good chance that people are worried about you and have valid concerns about your health, and that is a completely different topic.

 

Several years ago I was dieting for a Figure show. I lived in Las Vegas at the time, which is a wildly social city, and my friends got together for dinner and social events regularly. While I usually cherished this time with my friends, I slowly started to dread these dinners during my contest prep. It wasn’t because of temptation to eat or imbibe; I was locked into my diet, and didn’t really struggle much in that department.

 

The problem was the peer pressure, and trying to gracefully deal with all of the inevitable comments I would get over what I was or wasn’t eating.

 

On countless occasions we would all sit down to eat, and I remember nearly whispering my order to the server, because I knew the second they heard me ordering my chicken or salmon with steamed vegetables, I was going to get a ton of grief.

 

“Oh, come on. One bite won’t hurt!”
“You’re such a killjoy!”
“You need to live a little!”
“Geez, you’re so obsessed.”

 

I know my friends cared about me very much, and that they didn’t necessarily mean any harm with their remarks, but it didn’t change the fact that it was really difficult to deal with.

 

Nowadays, I no longer compete, but I’m still fairly picky about what I eat. I know which foods make me feel great, which foods to avoid because they’ll make me feel like garbage, and I indulge only when I believe it will be totally worth it. I also insist on daily movement, whether it be in the form of the gym, doing yoga, or taking leisurely walks.

 

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Yup. That burger was totally worth it.

 

Eating foods that help me feel fantastic, along with moving my body in a healthy way every day is my self-care—it’s crucial to my productivity, along with my well-being, both physically and mentally. Interestingly enough, it’s often been some of the people closest to me that have the hardest time understanding this.

 

People close to me seem to fall into two categories. There are those who completely respect how I eat and my need for movement, and don’t question it. Then there are those who don’t seem to understand at all and do their best to get me to eat things in which I truly have no interest, or they tease me about the way I eat or exercise.

 

This is not uncommon.

 

I’ve worked with hundreds of nutrition clients, and the #1 stressor for almost all of them is how to navigate social situations with some of their very closest friends and family.

 

It goes something like this:

 

A woman starts to make healthy changes. She starts to eat better and prioritizes exercise and movement. She passes on dessert when she doesn’t believe it will be mind-blowing, and cuts down on her alcohol intake. Her friends and family cheer her on wildly for the first couple of weeks. But then, something funny often happens. Some of her close friends and family start acting a bit strange about her new healthy habits, and sometimes, they go so far as to try and sabotage them, whether they realize it or not!

 

What could possibly cause the people closest to us to behave in such an unsupportive manner, especially when they know we’re making positive changes? Several reasons, actually, and none of them have to do with us. However, learning to understand why they are acting this way can help you navigate these conversations and formulate a response with grace and understanding, helping them respect your choices.

 

Let’s take a look at the most likely reasons behind their behavior first, and then we can discuss the most powerful ways I’ve found to respond.

 

Bonding Over Food and Drink

Many of us have rituals that revolve around food and/or drinks with friends or our partners.

 

For example, we gather for Taco Tuesday and margaritas. Friday is happy hour for appetizers and cocktails. Or, a personal favorite among my friends and me: wine night on the patio at our girl’s house every Thursday during the summer.

 

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It’s how we have come to bond with our close friends. It’s what we do! Will it be the same if our friend isn’t grubbing on tacos every Tuesday with us? Will things change if she chooses water instead of wine on Thursday? When someone in our crew starts to drastically change their eating and drinking habits, it’s natural for us to start to worry how it will affect us, and our time with them.

 

We are creatures of habit. We like our routines, but even more than that, we like to stay nice and cozy in our comfort zone. It can be scary when one of our close friends makes big changes that we feel could affect our routines with them.  If you have friends that are not being very supportive, try to understand that it’s not necessarily about their lack of support for you and your new healthy habits. They are concerned about how your new behavior could possibly affect their time with you.

 

Jealousy and Guilt

When we are actively taking steps to make positive changes, it can inadvertently cause some people to become hyper-aware of areas in their own lives where they feel are lagging. While none of us try to make positive change in our lives with the intention of making someone else feel bad, this happens all of the time.

 

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Maybe your new eating habits are making your sister more aware of the nutrition choices she is making that make her feel crappy. Or perhaps, the fact that you’re hitting the gym three days a week is making your partner realize that they may feel better if they did the same.

 

Whatever the reason may be, when we start to take action to improve ourselves, people close to us suddenly become aware of their own behavior, which often brings up a bit of guilt.

 

Additionally, some people allow our progress to make them feel self-conscious. I have found this to be especially true in females, because so many women commiserate regularly over their perceived “flaws”. When one of the women starts making physical changes and no longer wants to focus on talking negatively about herself, it can drive a wedge between them.

 

Whether they do it consciously or not, by trying to convince us to eat the fries or have that third cocktail, people are sometimes simply attempting to feel less guilty about their own decisions regarding nutrition and exercise. This isn’t as much about trying to sabotage your goals as it is just them trying to feel better about their own choices.

 

Again, though it’s never our intention to make someone feel badly about themselves, but be aware that this can happen. Try to find peace in the fact that this isn’t about you; it’s about them.

 

Confusion

Another big reason that our close friends and family might try to convince us to eat the dessert or skip the gym is their innocent lack of understanding about the bigger picture and how that “small” choice fits into it.

 

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While it may seem like “just a few bites of dessert,” they may not take into consideration the subsequent cravings that you know you’ll feel for the next few days. For example, I love frozen yogurt, but it wakes up “the sugar monster” living inside of me, and sends him into a roaring frenzy for several days afterwards. I know that when I eat frozen yogurt, I’m going to be battling cravings for the next two or three days, and because of that, it’s typically not worth it for me.

 

Or, they may not understand that a few slices of pizza will leave you reeling in stomach pain for the next few days, or feeling sluggish, which could potentially cause you to miss some workouts. That dessert, or few slices of pizza, can have a landslide effect that they may not be aware of.

 

Give people the benefit of the doubt, because they may not understand the unique repercussions that we each deal with when it comes to certain types or amounts of food or drink.

 

Action Steps

Now that we have discussed a few common reasons why you’re getting so much push-back from your friends and family about your healthy changes, let’s explore a few ways to handle it.

 

Never Talk Diet Over Food

As I discussed in my article about dealing with food pushers, it’s best to never discuss diet or nutrition changes while enjoying a meal with friends or family. This is a hard and fast rule for me, for which only exceptions are meals with my colleagues. If diet and nutrition are discussed over food, you risk changing the tone of the meal experience for the worst. People may feel compelled to justify their food choices or give you a hard time about yours, and it can make things really awkward.

 

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If somebody wants to talk about diet with me over a meal (and they often do because of my line of work), I always say, “I’m more than happy to discuss this after we eat!” with a positive tone and a big friendly smile. Then I quickly change the subject. If they continue to push the issue, I will say something like, “I prefer not to discuss nutrition over meals, but let’s dive into this topic out on the patio after we are finished!” Or in the living room, or anywhere away from the food. I have found this to be most impactful when I say it as a statement, and do not ask their permission to discuss it later. Be friendly, warm, and firm.

 

My Body, My Choice

I like to use phrases that remind people that this is my body, and what I do with it is my choice. A statement like, “This is what is best for me right now,” can be very powerful. You’re owning your behavior, and you aren’t pushing it on anybody.

 

I’m also a big fan of expressing gratitude for their understanding… even if they don’t exactly understand just yet. Saying something along the lines of a heartfelt, “Thank you for your support; it means a lot to me.” Or, “Thank you for respecting my decision.” Both are really powerful. Again, always friendly, said with a genuine smile, but firm.

 

Resist the Urge to Defend Yourself

This is the hardest one of all. Once in a while, we will encounter that person who just doesn’t know when to let up. They have an opinion about everything and give us a hard time about the way we eat, the fact that we go to the gym, and anything else that they can poke at. I’ve been there, and it is the ultimate test of my patience.

 

Know now that you do not owe anybody an explanation for what you do with your body. They can goad you all they want, and in this type of situation, your best response is often no response. Their want you to argue with them, and they’re dying to give you all of the opinions on what you’re doing. Trust me when I say that there is no way you’ll “win” with them.

 

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So, what can you do here? I typically look these people in the eye, smile, and then go about my business, whether that means I continue to do whatever I’m doing in silence, or chatting up somebody else.

 

You do not owe them an explanation. If they continue to prod, it may serve you best to be very honest with them by saying something like, “I prefer not to discuss this. Thanks for understanding,” and then keep the conversation movin’ in a different direction.

 

It’s Not You—It’s Them

As you can see, when somebody has a hard time with your healthy eating or exercise routine, it’s often because of their own stuff that they are dealing with.

 

It can be disheartening to feel like some of your close friends or family aren’t being supportive of your new healthy habits, but it’s important to understand that we can’t control how they react. The best we can do is stand in our power by owning our choices and finding joy in our own journey.

 

Some of the people in your life may love to talk about this with you, and be really supportive, while others may not be. I encourage you to learn your audience and know who is open to discussing these things with you, who will be cheering you on, and with whom you may be better off talking about other things. It’s not about you; it’s about them, and that’s okay.

 

Be unapologetic about your choices. It’s your body, your life, and your decisions. Own them.

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About Mehmood Esmail

Mehmood Esmail
Hi, I am Mehmood Esmail, there have been severe health issues in my family, like cancer, heart attacks, stroke, kidney stones, IBS, etc. Where we live, in Africa, health facilities are basic. Thus it becomes imperative that we hnow what is happenining to us and how to look after ourselves, and where possible, how to prevent serious illnesses.

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