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Q. I’ve always been a yo-yo dieter, and I’ve definitely had my fair share of food phases, from eating whatever I want to pretty extreme restrictions. I finally feel like I’m in a place where I want to really adopt a healthy lifestyle, and make lasting changes in my food habits. My friends aren’t exactly used to “balanced, healthy me,” so the social part of this lifestyle change has been challenging, to say the least. When out to eat, people constantly ask me why I’m replacing the side of fries for veggies, or not taking from the bread bowl. When I explain that I’m trying to be healthier, they roll their eyes, or say something about how I don’t need to lose weight. How can I just eat what I want in peace without giving up my social life?
A: Making lifestyle changes is very hard, even when people around you are cheering you on and encouraging you to make good choices. So I can imagine how much more stressful it is for you to hold on to your motivation and commitment to healthier choices in the face of criticism or teasing from your friends. You are not alone, both in struggling to stay connected to friends, participate in social events, and make good choices for yourself; or in holding on to your center and wisdom about what’s best for your body and health. So give yourself some pats on the back for being patient with yourself and your friends.
Let me introduce you to a couple of concepts that might help you understand this situation from a different perspective and stay firm in your boundaries and choices. My hope is that each of these ideas will help you gain a more positive view on your situation and help you not only stay strong on your path but also build some compassion for your friends who might be judging your choices.
First Order Versus Second Order Changes
The notion of first and second order change is an old one that was introduced in the 1970s in family therapy regarding how to create substantive and lasting changes in family systems. The concept has influenced thinkers in business, politics, and other fields of study because it’s an elegant way to describe how to produce change that is sustainable.
First order change happens when an individual within a system does more or less of some behavior, but doesn’t really change the rules or procedures of operation within the system. In your situation, this might be what you have tried in the past that you described as yo-yo dieting or going through food phases. Most of us begin here when trying to make changes in our lives. We try to drink less, eat less, or sleep more, hoping that this will be enough to create a better quality of life or more satisfaction or happiness. As you discovered, and many others have as well, first order change is often superficial, difficult to sustain because we slip back into old habits, and doesn’t really improve things enough to create better health or happiness. Diets, in particular, are very susceptible to this approach and dieters often find that when the plan doesn’t work and they give up dieting, they can rebound into worse habits or put on more weight than before.
Second order change is about shaking up the system. Not just doing more or less, but doing things radically differently, seeing the whole problem with a new perspective, and creating transformational change. Adopting a healthy lifestyle, addressing the root cause of a problem and disrupting the usual pattern are ways we create second order change. This might be what you are trying to do with your plan to be a “balanced, healthy” you. The challenge in creating second order change is that it causes disruption and discomfort, and friends and relatives might engage in “change back” behaviors. Change back tactics are used to bring a system back into the comfort zone where people can go on doing what they have done and not have to confront or challenge their choices. Your friends’ comments may be more of a sign of their discomfort with their own choices than a reflection on you.
Try to practice compassion and acceptance towards yourself as well as your friends. Their behavior makes sense if you think of it as anxiety or discomfort about things changing too much, or trying to avoid examining their own patterns of eating and drinking.
When a friend makes a comment about your food choice, try to respond in a non-defensive manner by simply acknowledging what they are observing. For example, if they say, “Why are you getting veggies instead of fries?” you could respond with, “You’re right, I’m trying to change up what I am eating these days. I’m happy with veggies as a side but definitely order whatever you want.” Another option would be to say, “Yes, I’m exploring a change in my food habits. What are you thinking and feeling as you see me do that?”
Small Things Often
The second concept I want you to reflect on is a Gottman motto that we use in couples therapy. “Small things often” creates more lasting and sustainable change than large things infrequently. This is particularly true in relationships where friends or partners are used to doing things a certain way and have developed some attachment to a certain lifestyle or ritual. Eating and drinking with friends and family is one of our most treasured American social rituals. If you and your friends are used to gathering at a certain day or time each week to participate in this social ritual, then one person choosing to do something quite different breaks the flow and rhythm of the social encounter. It might generate some anxiety that the group is not cohesive, or the ritual may not last. Your friends may be reflecting this worry in their comments. Again, it is not a reflection on you as much as a reflection of a social habit or rhythm that is being disrupted. Similarly, by watching you make healthy choices, and thinking you look healthy or fit already, some of your friends may experience some guilt or shame that gets projected onto you in the form of negative comments.
Consider doing one small thing at a time and do it on a frequent basis. For example, instead of refusing fries and bread at the same meal, pick one thing to change. In many restaurants, if you ask for a vegan or gluten-free menu, you may have choices that substitute nicely for what your friends have typically seen you eat, such as cauliflower bites instead of starchy potatoes, sweet potato fries, or bread choices you may be willing to experiment with. When you order something new or different, consider inviting your friends to try a bite, saying, “I am experimenting with new things, what do you all think about these cauliflower bites?” Inviting them to try it with you will seem less alienating and more inclusive while also giving others a chance to try something different and maybe adopt some of your choices in the future. Over time your friends will join you in the behavioral adaptation where the small choice repeated frequently simply becomes incorporated into the social ritual, and perhaps even opens the door for some of them to start emulating you. As one or two friends in your circle begin to order veggies instead of fries, that becomes the new normal.
Another meaning of small things often comes from the work of B.J. Fogg, who has created a research-based program called Tiny Habits. Through his research, Dr. Fogg was able to identify tiny, effective steps that people can take that will increase commitment, motivation, and growth towards a desired outcome. Instead of exercising for an hour, what if you exercised for five minutes but many times a day? Most of us would find that plan much more palatable as well as less taxing to accomplish, and thus more likely to keep doing it. By making changes imperceptibly, we are better able to persuade ourselves as well as others that nothing big has changed. These small, successive steps slowly shape your own behavior (and increase the chance of long term success) as well as shape your environment (i.e. friends) to accept the new you with less push back.
A way to implement this idea is to make changes that may not be really obvious to your friends. Arrive a little later or leave a little earlier thus avoiding the first alcoholic drink, the appetizer, or dessert round at dinner. If you time it right, people won’t notice that you’re avoiding eating something you didn’t want, they will simply focus on when you came or left.
Don’t hesitate to communicate with your friends about what you are changing and why. If you feel nervous about having a public or group conversation, build allies in the group by talking privately to one or two friends before the social gathering and ask for their support. Frame it as a positive request. “I know we have a ritual of burgers and fries and I want to eat a larger variety of foods when we go out. Can you speak up and support me if others at the table question my choices or judge me?” This private conversation also allows you to explain your thinking and wishes more fully instead of having to find a clever comeback in a public place while the server is hovering waiting for your order and everyone is watching.
Please don’t give up your social life in order to eat in peace. Relationships are very important to our sense of well-being and having a social community will increase your self-worth and happiness, which in turn will help you stay the course on your healthy journey. Finally, keep in mind that if your friends won’t accept your choices for healthy balanced eating, perhaps it may be time to find some friends who will.
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