Learn to say NO!

You know you’ve been there. You decide on making a change in eating habits and go steady for a while. Then you visit some relatives/friends and boom! All hell breaks loose! You know you want to stick to your new eating plan/diet, but you also want to not hurt anyone/be embarrassed. You think about what can be done. You play scenarios in your head. All said and done, finally, you aren’t able to come up with a plan of action because refusing food is rude and eating that food will set you back! Holy sheeeet!

About 2-3 years back, my cousin had visited my parents house and I happen to be there on vacation. The dude was just recovering from a motorbike accident and hence had been super sedentary for many months which had packed the pounds in him. It looks like he realized this and decided he had to eat less. So when he was offered dinner at my place and this is what happened…

He: “I just want to say that I’m on a diet since I really need to lose my weight and hence will not be eating as much as I normally do. Please don’t mistake that as being rude.”

My mom: Yea. We’ll figure it out once you start eating.

He: No seriously. I shouldn’t be eating much.

My mom: Yea ok.

So this is the scene – He’s at the table, my mom is in the kitchen (attached to the dining) making dosas and my dad and his mom (my dad’s sister) are sitting next to him talking to him as he eats.

He eats two dosas with chutney and sambar and…

He: OK I’m done. I feel fine so I think I’ll stop here.

My mom: What?????? Two dosas??? Are you kidding me? Eat one more at least!

He: No no. I’m really good but just to not hurt your feelings I’ll have one more.

Number 3 goes down and…

He: Thank you athai (aunt).

My mom: Heyyyy! Thats it??? Ok one more! One last one! I’ve already made it! Please eat just one more!

His mom: Shut up and eat one more! Athai has already made it.

He: (very reluctantly) oooookayyy

Number 4 goes down and he stands up to take his plate and wash his hands and my dad jumps into the action!

My dad: Wait. What are you doing?

He: I’m going to go wash my hands. I can’t eat anymore!

My dad: At your age we used to eat 5 times this! You have to eat more!

He: No mama (uncle). I really need to stop. I’m starting to feel full already.

My dad: You know what? I’ll make the dosas for you! I don’t ever do this… but I’ll do it for you! Will please be very kind and eat some to make your mama (uncle) happy?

Just so you guys know – up until the last generation, its very rare that an Indian man cooks or does anything cooking related in the kitchen and when he decides to do so… it is special… special like its you wouldn’t believe it!

His mom: See!! See how much they love you! Mama is cooking for you!! How can you say no to this??? Stop being rude and eat! Who cares about the diet! How often will you get this chance?

Him: OMG! Mama… you’re cooking for me? Wow! I have nothing more to say!

And… 5, 6, 7… and it ended at somewhere in the teens if I’m not wrong! And of course the meal ended with ‘something sweet’ because theres always place for dessert right?

I swear to God I’m not being an ass by counting morsels. I described this incident because I know extremely well that there is a reason why relatives/friends/hosts shove food down our throats and I want you to understand that first before we move on to talking about tacking such situations.

In the above story, my parents’ intentions were perfectly good. As a matter of fact… beyond good (trust me – there are very few people who mean better than they do!)! They wanted to doubly make sure that their nephew ate to his heart’s content without the slightest feeling of shyness. They wanted to be excellent hosts and the loving uncle and aunt who cook the best food and serve it with great love and pride! This, in my language Tamil, is called “virunthombal” and it means to take care of one’s guest to an extent that exceeds their expectations and Indians (and I’m sure many other cultures) take this very very seriously.

Once again, if I wasn’t clear, the intention here is comfort, health, happiness and wellness to the guest and it comes from unmatched love and purity at heart.

The Problem

While this concept (of ‘virundhombal’) was genius back then, it doesn’t quite hold water today mainly because of the following reasons.

1. While perfectly healthy folks who lived then could indulge without concern, we are so diseased today that we all have some form of dietary restriction or the other and expecting everyone to eat everything is no longer appropriate.

2. Back in the day this was common practice because it occurred infrequently. Folks visited relatives who lived in a different city once in a while and when they did it called for celebration and that meant food… and lots of it! So the hosts brought their best game with respect to taste, quality and quantity. But today, meeting relatives (in countires like India) is a twice-a-week thing at least.

3. Folks were super duper active back then! They walked multiple miles everyday, lifted heavy weights frequenty and transported loads across distances… all as part of daily living. Today, most of us are sedentary spending 12-14 hours a day sitting!

4. Consumption of sweets and other rich foods (anything that required multiple ingredients, time and effort to prepare) was rare and was reserved for festivals and when relatives/friends visit. Today, sweets and dense foods are available anywhere and at anytime.

But though this is obvious, this remains a delicate topic to address. In Indian families, it is still considered rude and/or fussy to refuse a second serving or refuse/request certain types of food. For example, if you went to your aunt’s house for dinner and refused to eat rotis, people would either force you to eat it (if you’re the kinds that breaks easily) or wouldn’t know how to react and an awkward silence will follow (if you’re the kind that people dont want to mess with). Either ways, it is weird and uncomfortable and thats not really what you’re going for when you visit relatives!

The Logic

As a part of tackling this situation, I’m going to give you some situations to consider.

1. If you’re diabetic, will people force you to eat sugars (dessert etc.) just because they want to be nice? If they do, are you going to consider being curteous and eat ’em ad libitum?

2. If you’ve just quit smoking, will your (real) friends force you to have a smoke with them? If they do, are you going to break and give in?

3. If you have a severe back problem forcing you to sleep only on the floor, will your relatives/friends force you to sleep on their super cushy bed just because they want to be nice? If they do, will you consider being receptive and spend the night (and the next week) in pain?

4. If you have a liver problem that prohibits you from ingesting any alcohol (or if you are a non-alcoholic), will your hosts offer you their finest scotch in an attempt to be great hosts? If they do, will you consider downing it and suffering later?

5. And finally, if you are a vegetarian, will people ever force you to eat meat? And if they do, will you consider the option of eating meat?

If the answer to all that is NO… then…

If you know bad food messes you up and you are overweight/flabby/diabetic/chronically fatigued/systemically inflamed today because of that, should you consider going crazy on it just to be nice?

Get your priorities right people! Making people happy is one thing, but killing yourself with bad food is a whole different thing!

OK before you guys get your knickers in a bunch here, allow me to explain – This is definitely not even worth addressing if it is a one off thing. But it turns into a pretty big deal if it becomes a frequent phenomenon.

The Tackle

While some are easy and smooth and others are hard and weird, every situation can be tackled and this is no exception.

If it is not a life and death situation..

(Eg. You’re on a low carb diet or you dont eat lentils ‘cos it makes you feel bloated or you’re staying away from sugars etc.)

1. Talk it out – Make it clear to your loving hosts that you normally dont eat, say, wheat and sugars, but you will eat a small portion today just for them.

2. Choose alternatives – If there is wheat and rice, choose rice. If there is sugar and fruit, choose fruit. If there is fried and baked, choose baked. You get the idea.

3. Lay low – Just eat a small portion of whatever has been made and dont worry about it.

4. Make a difference – If the hosts are the kinds who will listen, talk very briefly about why certain foods should be eaten in moderation. Never ever use phrases like’ its poison’ or ’causes heart attack’ or ‘destorys your health’ (because no food does when smartly consumed). Always, emphasize that some foods are more nutritious than others and hence needs to be consumed more frequently and some other foods contain anti-nutrients and hence should be very rarely consumed. If they are interested in learning more, point them towards this or some other relevant website.

5. Plan and fail – If this is about fat loss and you are aware that such a situation is about to occur, plan your diet and/or training such that you get to cheat on that day.

If it is indeed a serious situation…

(Eg. You’re diabetic or you’re celiac or you triglycerides are super high or you are preparing for an event that is just a few weeks away or you have leaky gut etc.)

You have one choice and only one choice…

1. Make it extremely clear to your hosts that you have a medical condition that prevents you from eating certain foods and as much as you appreciate their efforts and welcoming nature, you just can’t safely consume those foods. If these hosts truly care about your health, they will find a work around and remember this medical condition of yours the next time you visit them.

The Summary 

The truth is that, however I twist it, this is a tricky situation and it needs to be dealt with very delicately so no one’s emotions are hurt. For that, you need to realize that people do this only to make you comfortable and people need to realize that if a certain food or act is going to make you uncomfortable in anyway they have to be open to you making your choices/substitutions. And the only way this can be done is by you expressing your concerns in an appropriate fashion.

And if it isn’t obvious, this is the same deal with your parents. If you parents have a medical condition but are hesitant to say no to food pushers, you have got to say No for them!

I agree none of us want to be ‘that person’. But it all depends on who ‘that person’ is. I don’t want to be “that person who is picky about what he eats ‘cos he doesnt like certain foods“. But I’d anyday want to be “that person who saved me from diabetes!

Its not just about saying NO folks. Its about knowing when and how to say it! What are your experiences? How have you guys tackled such situations? Please post in the comments section ‘cos plenty of other readers can benefit from it.

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16 responses to “Learn to say NO!

  1. SG June 9, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    I’m probably not someone with a lot of tact…On my India trip this time , everywhere I went, I’d to tell everyone that the doctor has asked Dad to stop taking oral drugs and go on Insulin twice a day, so please don’t offer him anything sweet he’s not the one to say no for the fear of offending (he’s well known for his soft and pleasing nature and no one’s ever heard him being rude), so please don’t offer it to him …Most of them understood-but there were some who still gave him sweets, or added little sugar to his tea and said “bus thoda sa hi to hain” (only a little bit), these were the times when I had to repeat myself and if still nothing worked, raise my voice in front of the elders- and the awkward silence followed….
    As you said Raj, I choose to be ”that daughter who wants her Father to live a healthier life” instead of “that guest/niece/sister who’s so polite and sweet”

    • RG June 10, 2011 at 11:09 am

      Sheetal,
      Tact is better with aggression! 😉
      Very very nicely done! There are time when you just have to step it up. Cos like I said… being nice is one thing, but not at the cost of hurting yourself or a dear one!

      “I choose to be ”that daughter who wants her Father to live a healthier life” instead of “that guest/niece/sister who’s so polite and sweet”” – This!

  2. Sam June 9, 2011 at 8:20 pm

    Well said Raj, I am from North India, and the scenario you played out will be identical in my area, only dosas substituted with several other things. I have just decided to say a firm no. It upsets some people, but they have seen me fat, and now they see me much healthier – so I hope they understand. The only time it went too far was when my aunt called in her dog, and told me that she is going to give all the food to him if I continue in my ways. I relented, but just a bit.

  3. na June 9, 2011 at 9:00 pm

    Ha! What happens when you say a polite no to these foods and give good explanations( all the while showing your muscles/toned body as proof) and YET these people insist on mocking you and sometimes not just mocking you but calling you unhealthy because in their minds eating 1800 to 2000 calories for a 100 lb girl is wayyyyyyy too little??!!

    • RG June 10, 2011 at 11:11 am

      Well, if they’re mocking you… then you mock them too. They dont give a crap about your preferences and feelings, you dont give a crap about theirs!

  4. Vizeet June 9, 2011 at 11:42 pm

    Raj, you have hit the right nerve. I do face similar circumstances couple of times. Being North Indian it looks odd to everyone that I don’t eat anything made from wheat or maida. Truth is I always preferred rice over wheat and I can now say my instinct was always right.

    • RG June 10, 2011 at 11:12 am

      We cant always (or ever) make everyone happy and thats what all this comes down to. You know you’re doing the right thing by staying away from wheat… it dodnt matter if anyone mistakes you for that!

  5. anand srivastava June 10, 2011 at 1:27 am

    I have had the same problem. Never being able to say no. Or rather I should say that never knowing when to say no ;-). My body does not tell me when to stop. I have that problem. I will go on eating till I am near bursting. The paleo diet has helped me somewhat, but still I end up over eating many times. Wheat I have given up, but Rice is the other demon I have to tame. That is part of the problem why I am still 10Kg overweight at around 23% body fat. I have a friend who used to remind me that I was eating too much ;-).

    • RG June 10, 2011 at 11:13 am

      The thing is, your body does tell you when to stop. But by the time ‘satiation’ kicks in, we’ve probably eaten too much. One way to tackle this is to wait 10-15 min before going for seconds.

      And rice is definitely a demon! Add ghee and theyre a team almost too hard to beat!

  6. Madhu June 10, 2011 at 3:35 am

    Ha!! thats so typical indian family where love is expressed by dumping food down the throat.. 😛 and its sad that when I refuse to eat certain food, they complain that i don eat much and hence i’ve become thin (when i’m well overweight, that is) !! they were the same ppl who said straight at my face that i was fat.. 😛 sort of contradictions these guys are.. 😛 I still struggle saying no without hurting them.. esp since it is considered not giving respect though that was never the intention 😦

    On a side note.. what is ur opinion on dates(palm fruit?)? i was anemic and was asked to take 2 dates everyday and now after 1 yr, now my haemoglobin count is normal..

  7. Chanthru June 10, 2011 at 5:03 am

    I also got same thing (Virunthombal) from relatives/friends as a Tamil in Sri Lanka while I am on remission from Crohn’s without any drugs by following (Paleo – Nightshades) + Parboiled White Rice Diet.

    • RG June 10, 2011 at 11:17 am

      thats amazing that you got Crohn’s into remission with diet! great job Chanthru! i have some folks who can learn from you. Shoot me an email when you get a chance – raj.hbfser@gmail.com. Thanks!

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  9. shrmaj August 9, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    Great post! stumbled upon your blog from another blog. Here are some simple hacks I perform to avoid pigging out in social situations –
    1) If I’m visiting India and I have a number of dinner invites, then I have one golden excuse everytime – “Thanks for having me over. Whats for dinner. Awesome I love it, but do you mind if I don’t eat too much? I have an upset tummy because I ate too much street food yesterday”
    2) If it’s a potluck party, I always drink a fruit smoothie before I even go to dinner. In addition to that, I’m a very slow eater and I take small portions, so people usually think that I eat a lot because I’m usually the last one to finish.

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