How To Refuse Food Politely
By Nutritional Weight & Wellness Staff
December 19, 2023
In case you missed it, we hosted our first ever 28-day Break Up With Sugar challenge this fall. One of the components of the challenge was a Live Q&A session with the challenge guide, our very own dietitian Teresa Wagner. A question asked by one of the participants was so good, we think it would be beneficial to share with you ahead of the holiday parties: WHAT DO YOU DO ABOUT SUGAR PUSHERS?
If you are choosing to not eat sugar at any given time, social gatherings can feel like a challenge, especially if there are sweets and treats around. Celebrations usually revolve around food and our culture is often one where we reward ourselves with some sort of indulgence, whether it be food or drink.
How do we navigate those situations, so our bodies feel good after we leave without experiencing FOMO (fear of missing out) and without hurting the feelings of our friends and family members? Is it polite to refuse food? And how do we respond without feeling guilty? How do we deal with the food pushers in our friend group, at the office, or in our family? We polled our nutritionists and dietitians to give you possible strategies to try on for size for those potentially tough conversations.
What Are Food Pushers?
The conversation in class was centered on sugar specifically because that was the goal of the challenge: to break the habit of eating sugar. We all know someone in our lives (maybe that someone is us?!) whose love language is to feed you comfort food. Sometimes that food contains ingredients that don’t align with what makes your body feel good or makes you stray from your health goals, like weight loss or managing a specific health condition.
These well-meaning humans in our lives aren’t just sugar pushers but food pushers! They try to get you to taste all the food or seconds on food even when you’re full or aren’t hungry. Maybe they make comments on your food choices and eating habits, maybe they keep passing around the cookie tray, or maybe they gift you goodies. Maybe they push food by saying something like, "oh just try a few bites", as an example.
While there isn’t a specific definition for food pushers, in general, the meaning of a food pusher is someone who pressures you to eat something after you’ve said no or encourages you to indulge in something you don’t want to. Food pushers can be a family member or a co-worker or a person who comments on what people eat.
Why Are People Food Pushers?
Our first suggestion when dealing with people who pressure you with food is to remember that for some people, this is their way of showing you love and care. It's not you; it's coming from a place inside them. Typically, it’s from a place of good intentions, so if we take a moment to receive and acknowledge their intention of loving us up, that’s a good first step. Then you get to be creative with a response that feels right for you in that particular situation.
Here are some other reasons to give you insight on how you might deal with food pushers:
- Often, encouraging someone to eat can come from an unconscious place. If this is how family has shown their love over generations, it might just be what they know and not realize it’s creating a challenging conflict for you.
- Sometimes the sharing of food is out of wanting to showcase their culinary skill and to celebrate the success of a new recipe or dish. Maybe baking is meditative, and they want to share the outcome. Maybe recreating a recipe for dinner they saw on a cooking show was an exciting achievement and they want to know what you think of the meal! Maybe Grandma made the favorite dinner you've always loved and eaten in the past. Doesn’t mean you have to partake, but it helps you craft how you want to respond.
- Food is social and cultural. Food becomes the centerpiece of gatherings and is a way to bring people together to connect. Because of this, life will be full of food opportunities where you might feel the push to eat foods not on your diet or nutrition plan. Remember that folks just want to bond with you when you feel peer pressure around food.
- While “gluten-free” and “dairy-free” are pretty popular phrases nowadays, not everyone will understand the ins and outs of these dietary needs. Family and friends might not be aware of sugar quantities, blood sugar reactions, oil qualities, body inflammation, and gut issues.
Strategies To Politely Refuse Food At Social Gatherings
Rejecting the offering of food can feel impolite, so planning a few thoughtful phrases which align with your healthy choices and how you want to feed your body can support you in the moment:
- Just use a simple “no thank you” or “I’ll pass today”. Having healthy boundaries means you don’t always have to give an excuse or a reason.
- If you feel comfortable, share about your health goals or food sensitivities as it might bring up awareness or good conversation. An example would be “oh that cake looks delicious, but gluten doesn’t agree with my digestive system.” Or “Sugar really creates havoc with my blood sugar and I don’t like how my body feels after eating it, so I’m trying not to eat dessert these days.”
- When the dessert is getting passed around, be one of the ones to help pass it out! Be part of the action of getting everyone a slice and cleaning up as no one will notice if YOU don’t have one. It won't draw attention if you're the only one not eating AND you can be sure to not push sugar or food on anyone who politely declines, which helps create a different culture around sugar and personal food choices.
- Ask if you can bring a tiny bit to take home instead of eating it there. Then when you get home, you can toss it without hurting anyone’s feelings.
- One of our dietitian’s says, “I tell my clients to use me as an excuse! I tell them that you can simply say, ‘I'm working with a dietitian to make better changes for my health. She has given me instruction to not eat sugar or it can derail the progress I'm working on with her right now.’”
- Simply say "maybe later." This allows you to avoid saying no if you feel uncomfortable on the spot. If the host persists later by food pushing again, one of our dietitian’s suggests, “I tell them to ask for it to go as they are too full to eat another bite. Later they can throw it away in the garage and not let it in the house!”
- Eat a meal or snack before you attend an event so you truly are not hungry when the food pusher insists. Then you can say you already ate and are there to focus on the people and quality time. This will also help you hold to your decision on what foods you don't want to be eating, even when there's a little pressure from food pushing.
- Bring food to share so you know there will be food at the gathering that is delicious and fits in your diet. We often suggest this when going to a holiday function so you know there will be a component to the meal that will have quality nutrition. If you know pizza will be served in the breakroom, bring a salad! If watching the big game usually involves a lot of junk food, make a batch of crockpot drummies or put together a healthy charcuterie board with a mix of proteins, veggies, and healthy fats. If dinner usually involves a glass or two of wine (and you decide you don't want to drink your calories), opt for a Bitters & Soda Mocktail instead.
Melissa Urban, founder of Whole30 and author of The Book Of Boundaries: Set The Limits That Will Set You Free, shares her expert advice about setting boundaries (including boundaries around food!), “Practice your boundaries out loud! If they don’t sound authentic and conversational, reframe until they do. Get comfortable, so when it comes time to set them, they feel natural and sound confident.”
Are You A Food Pusher?
Time for some real talk: do YOU push food? Sometimes it's not until we are on our own weight loss journey or we are re-evaluating the foods we are eating that are hindering our fat loss or we decide to cut out poor choices after we talk to a dietitian about our diet, when we realize we ourselves have been food pushers.
Now that you're aware of your own food choices, you get to do things differently. Next time you are meeting up with a friend, maybe go for a walk rather than going to happy hour. Next time it's your turn to host an event, rather than doing a dinner or focusing on eating meals, pick a different activity. Talk to the friend or person in your life who you love to brainstorm ways to show your love that isn't food (gift flowers, plants or other non-food goods, focus on quality time, share words of affirmation, etc.).
It's Worth It To Feel Good
Because of the tradition and emotion surrounding food, having to reject someone’s offer for food or treats can feel challenging. Set the intention for yourself FIRST for WHY you are honoring your choices. You deserve to feel good. You can still participate in gatherings and receive the love from family and friends while also staying true to yourself.
This holiday season, we encourage you to plan ahead and think about your current goals. What do you want to eat and decide what type of food you want to skip, despite the food pushers. The first couple times you say no thank you to food pushing will be the hardest, but soon it'll be second nature to honor your own food choices and the people around you will recognize it as just who you are. Change is always hard, but it's worth the effort.
If you find these conversations to be helpful, you’ll find our Nutrition 4 Weight Loss Foundations to be life changing and just what you’ve been searching for. Learn More about Foundations and get the support you need. If you’d like help coming up with a plan specific to you, schedule a nutrition counseling appointment with one of our talented dietitians and nutritionists.
For more information on food and social situations, check out these resources: