One of my clients, who came to me to lose about 30 pounds, has a real problem. He loves to eat, and he loves to please people. In fact, he said pleasing people is the main reason he overeats. This tendency becomes especially troublesome during the holidays when friends, family and colleagues invite him for meals. My kind-hearted client literally cannot say no.
As a result, he says holidays are a time of joy but also frustration, because his need to be polite is in stark conflict with his goal of trimming down.
Many of us can appreciate his dilemma. Holiday delicacies can be difficult to navigate, especially if you're trying to avoid gaining weight from Thanksgiving to the New Year. And that can bring out the best and the worst in people.
We all know hosts who aren't satisfied until they convince us, beg us, to eat more, more, more. Their entreaties are hard to resist, if only because we want to be polite.
To be fair, "food pushers," as I call them, aren't necessarily bad people. Your mom, your spouse, your friends -- they just want to please you. They are people who think they have your best interests at heart and know more than you do about what and how much food (and drink) you should be consuming.
My clients and I have tried various tactics through the years, most of them utter failures. I've tried explaining that I wasn't hungry. I even went through a phase of telling people I was allergic to this or that. That didn't work, either. And I learned that the worst thing you can say to a food pusher is, "No thanks, I'm on a diet" or "Thanks, I'm watching it."
You might as well say, "Talk me into it!" Your excuse is giving the food pusher a double signal -- that you really want it but have to refuse. It might also sound insulting, implying that the food isn't good enough for your refined tastes. And finally your response might make the pusher feel guilty, as if he or she should be "watching it," too. All of these things challenge the food pusher to seduce you.
But I finally began to make headway when I learned the most basic rule of all: Never give excuses. I'm delighted to say that one of the foremost authorities on etiquette told me that this approach is both appropriate and wise.
"The best answer is a simple but firm 'No thank you,'" declared Judith Martin, the syndicated columnist who writes as Miss Manners. "Once you give an excuse, you open yourself to argument."
Martin also offered clear advice in her column to food pushers, and their "endless patter of coercion -- 'Oh, come on, one won't hurt you . . . I made this especially for you . . . it doesn't have any calories . . . you're too thin anyway . . . it's good for you . . . you're not going to make me eat leftovers tomorrow.' Miss Manners asks them to cut it out."
"To offer and provide food is lovely, but to badger people into eating it isn't pleasant," Martin told me. "Politeness consists of offering food and drink without cajoling or embarrassing people into taking it."
While "no thank you" is fine for hosts, I learned I had to use a different tactic with my family.
During visits to my grandparents in Sweden, for instance, every day I felt overstuffed from too many fattening (and, yes, delicious) Swedish meatballs, cheeses and cakes. Inevitably with each visit I came home several pounds heavier.
I decided I'd drop subtle hints and compliments to guide them into serving me food that wasn't going to make me look and feel like a Swedish meatball.
This technique of continued positive reinforcement took several years (in psychology, it's called "shaping"), but it eventually worked. When they served seafood, salads, fruits -- food I wanted more of -- I complimented lavishly. "Sweden has the best fish in the world!" or "I just love your salads!" (which was all true, by the way). Over time, whenever I'd visit, they'd feed me what they learned I loved: seafood, salads and fruits. (Yes, I also loved the fattening stuff, but that was easily obtained, and I wanted to limit my indulgences without announcing it.)
The same technique can work with your colleagues, friends and family, and it doesn't have to take years. At Thanksgiving or during the holidays, instead of focusing on what you don't want or can't have, and using turn-off words such as "healthy" or "diet," simply compliment your hosts and stay positive. Instead of saying "I can't have dessert, I'm watching it," say "The meal was so satisfying, I can't have another bite!"
When given a choice at, say, the Thanksgiving meal, a work party, a potluck, or in restaurants, instead of, "I don't eat mashed potatoes and gravy," say: "The green beans look fabulous!"
My client tried these tactics with his family and friends and has been losing weight ever since. He was surprised at how a simple compliment could stop food pushers in their tracks.
Even Miss Manners agrees that this approach is okay as long as you don't go into too much detail. In the end, no food pusher can resist a happy guest.
Of course, as a guest, you have obligations, too, which I'll discuss in my next column.
Katherine Tallmadge is a Washington nutritionist and the author of "Diet Simple" (Lifeline Press, 2004). Send e-mails to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.