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Food, family and diabetes: how to say no politely

It can sometimes be hard to resist persuasive family members...

Eating together as a family or with friends is often an enjoyable social activity and a great way to bond. But if you’re trying to maintain a healthy, balanced diet to help manage your diabetes, it can get a bit awkward sometimes, as you might not want to eat something but feel that you can’t say no without causing offence.In the first of a new series about the psychology of food and eating, Dr Jen Nash shares her tips to identify when social eating is having a negative effect on your diet – and what you can do about it.

If you cast your mind back over the last few weeks and think about the reasons why you ate, it was likely that many of your decisions around food had little, if anything, to do with how hungry you were.

This is because hunger is only one of many reasons why we choose to eat. In our food abundant cultures, there are lots of layers and meanings to eating, and the family and social context is a key one. We celebrate, bond and commiserate over food. Food connects us.

More than this, food has become a way of communicating. We can say things with food that might be difficult to say in words. In many of our families, it may be challenging to say, ‘I care about you’, ‘I’m worried about you’ or ‘I love you’, but it can be so much easier to say ‘You’ve had a hard day, let’s get a takeaway tonight’, or ‘I’ll cook you your favourite meal to take your mind off it’.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with using food in these ways; in fact it is very human to – the difficulty is when the tendency to use food for reasons other than hunger becomes the default and is done unconsciously. If you’re living with diabetes and trying to manage both your blood glucose levels and your weight, you may need help to say no, or to make a different choice.

Food in the family

To help you think about food in your household, here are three types of family members you might recognise:

  1. People you feel you can’t say no to.
  2. People who seem to derail your efforts to change.
  3. People with whom you connect through food.

Do you notice any of these types of people in your life? Or do you recognise yourself in any of the descriptions? There is no blame attached to becoming aware of this. We are all generally doing the best we can, and the aim is to raise our awareness of the impact others might be having on us, and make different choices, if we wish to.

So, how do we decline food when it is offered within our families? Here are some ideas to try:

People you feel you can’t say no to 

In many of our cultures, food is used as a way of showing love and care. So, if there are people in your family who often offer you food, it’s more than likely they’ll be doing so for positive and loving reasons. It can be useful to think about what might be motivating your family member, so that you can use this motivation to help you both get what you want and need. Here are a couple of examples:

  • Someone may offer you food so they can nurture or care for you.
  • Try: saying ‘no, thank you – but what I’ve had was delicious and I feel so well-fed, thank you!’ Make and maintain eye contact as you respond and use a firm/assertive tone.
  • Someone may offer you food so they feel like a good host.
  • It’s the job of the host to ‘give’ to their guests, so try allowing the person to get you something else: say ‘no thank you but I would love a top up of my drink’.
  • You could also try taking what is offered but leaving it on your plate.

People who seem to derail your efforts to change

There is often a reaction in the family when one person starts to lose weight. Weight loss can be threatening – change of any sort involves risk and a feeling of not being in control of the outcome. Family members may both love us and feel threatened when we change for the better. Partners may worry ‘will they still find me attractive?’, or ‘will they start to judge me if they lose weight and I don’t?’ So, how can you say no to family members who may be preventing you from making progress by continuing to offer you food?

  • Remember that they are not likely to be acting maliciously, but are rather feeling threatened by or fearful of the changes you are making.
  • Consider whether it’s possible to talk to your loved one. Pick your moment – better to wait until neither of you are eating or preparing food. You will find your individual style of expressing yourself, but here is Robert’s story

Robert’s Story

Robert was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes a year ago and wanted to lose a lot of weight. He had set a realistic weight loss goal and was pleased with his progress. His wife, Linda, who also wanted to lose weight but hadn’t made any changes yet, was supportive of his efforts. However, she decided to take up a course in cake decorating, so every week she’d return home from her class with her beautiful creations, which of course, Robert found hard to resist. Not only did they look delicious, but he felt that by refusing a cake he was not being supportive of her new interest. He felt quite unsure about what to do, and for the first few weeks it was easier to just eat the cakes than say anything (and they were wonderful, so it wasn’t too difficult!).

After a while, he decided to talk to Linda and broached the topic when they were out for a walk. He told Linda that, although he loved that she was enjoying her cake decorating class, he felt a bit torn each week. He really enjoyed eating the cakes, but he was also proud that he’d been losing weight, and felt that he was getting a bit off track when he ate the cakes. He explained that he wanted to support her, but wanted to find another way to do so. He wasn’t much of a photographer but had been thinking he would like to get better, so suggested he could just have a taste, and then take photos of the cakes that they could share with family and friends. Linda was quiet at first, but agreed that this was a good approach for both of them.

Even if it’s not possible to find a creative solution like Robert’s, just naming what’s going on is often enough to create different conversations and outcomes in the future.

People with whom you connect through food

For many of us, as much as we may love our relatives, we might not actually have very much in common with them! And that’s ok; family is more than simply shared interests. However, this means that food and eating may easily become one of the few ways we can relate.

  • Try: following Robert’s example and think about having a conversation with your loved one about other ways you could spend time together. Try saying 'I’ve noticed that whenever I come over, we generally spend our time eating. I wonder if there are other things we could try out doing to spend time together?'
  • Try: thinking about other ways you could relate – what are some shared interests you could re-discover or try out? That way, you can pre-empt the offer of food by making arrangements to do something else.

No vs Yes

Sometimes, you might find it difficult to refuse food because it can be hard to say no, rather than because a family member is often offering food. You might find that you aren’t always as skilled at saying ‘no’ to food as you are at saying ‘yes’! The word ‘no’ might be one of the shortest in the dictionary, yet it can also be the hardest. Here are some different phrases to try instead:

  • "I’m really full thanks.”
  • “It looks delicious but I just can’t manage any more.”
  • “I’ve already eaten thanks.”
  • “I literally just ate before I came over.”

You could also try experimenting with gently putting your hand up, palm facing the person, in order to signal ‘no thank you’ non-verbally too. Smiling helps, too!

Remember, these ways of relating using food have been around for a long while. You may need to ‘teach’ your loved one to behave in different ways around you and food. It will take time to change habitual ways of doing things, but developing these skills will help you to feel in control of your diabetes management, health and weight, rather than the food.

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