Just Say No

Original Content: Washington Post

My client Julie used to fight every holiday with her family. She would unwittingly start the argument at the dinner table by mentioning that she was on some sort of diet and couldn’t eat this or that. Then other guests would chime in with their own dietary viewpoints. This would cause the host to worry whether her guests were really complaining about the lavish spread she had slaved over. And the negativity didn’t help Julie; she would feel so frustrated that she would just give up on her dieting goals.

I’m afraid this is a familiar scene. As the party season begins, many of us are fearful of the delicious yet fattening holiday foods offered at countless gatherings. Although we want to enjoy ourselves and be appreciative guests, there’s the little (or not so little) issue of the weight we don’t want to gain.

Our fears are well founded. Studies show we are susceptible to weight gain at this time of year. Just about every party revolves around food. And when there is a variety of tasty foods in the vicinity, many of us simply can’t resist them. In fact, the more food that is available, the more we tend to eat. You could say the holidays, with all these temptations — plus the pressure of wanting to please our friends and family — provide the perfect environment for overeating and weight gain.

So, the challenge is how to be a gracious guest yet navigate the minefield of delicacies.

Our first obligation as guests is visiting friends and loved ones with a generous spirit. If offered food that we don’t want or can’t have, a simple “no thank you” is perfectly acceptable. Forcing your likes, dislikes and preferences for certain foods on the host or other guests can be downright unappetizing.

“It’s important not to treat private hospitality as a restaurant and announce what you want or don’t want,” said Judith Martin, the syndicated columnist who writes as Miss Manners, via telephone.

Today it seems almost impossible to escape people on this diet or that, freely espousing their views and theories. Worse, some guests expect their hosts to cater to their particular dietary requirements: no carbohydrates, no fat, no white flour, no sugar, no dairy, ad nauseam. Although it is fine to be following a diet, and may even be essential for your health, expecting the host to be a short-order cook is unfair. And discussing dietary views at the table is a no-no.

“This attitude that other people haven’t seen the light and you have to make them see the light makes the experience of eating unpleasant,” Martin told me. “Cooking has improved enormously over the decades, but the experience of eating has gone downhill because people are so self-righteous and willing to boss other people around.”

Martin also warned against bringing your own food or drink to a party, even if you have a serious dietary need or allergy, unless that is requested by the host. It is commonly mistaken as a lack of confidence in your hosts’ culinary tastes.

“Your family and intimate friends should know your condition, but if you are eating with hosts who do not, fortify yourself with food before going so that you are not starving, and then simply avoid dangerous foods,” said Martin. “This does not require an explanation.”

With family or close friends on extended visits, though, it’s perfectly acceptable to offer to contribute by going grocery shopping or providing food for everyone (not just yourself), while at the same time fulfilling your dietary needs. When I stay the night at friends’ or families’ homes, I’ll often bring a large basket of fruit, for instance, for everyone to enjoy. On an extended visit, I might offer to go grocery shopping or to make dinner for everyone.

This is a way to be generous but also to help myself have foods I feel comfortable with. However, it is important that this be done graciously, in the spirit of thanks and not as an obvious rejection of your hosts’ food or hospitality.

How did Julie solve her holiday eating problem? She and I decided she would drop the drama of the dieting daughter and assume the role of the gracious guest instead. She would not initiate or participate in any conversations about dieting or food during her visits.

Her strategy worked, and there were no more arguments during the holidays about her weight, dieting or food. Everyone, including Julie, enjoyed the holidays so much more. She has since lost 40 pounds.

TIPS (original content: Wednesday, December 1, 2004; Page F04)

To enjoy the holidays without tipping the scales, and to maintain the role of a gracious guest:

• Give away fattening leftovers. One splurge won’t interfere with your goals, but multiple indulgences will.

• If you’re afraid there won’t be foods you would like, or you would like to control your intake at a party, eat a snack or a meal before going.

• Don’t starve yourself the day of the party, or you may overeat once you get there.

• After you’ve arrived at the party, sip some sparkling water and wait at least 15 to 30 minutes before making a food choice. This gives you time to relax and to scope out the offerings.

• Prioritize your favorite holiday foods. Splurge on two or three special delicacies you can get only once a year.

• Wear close-fitting clothes to help remind you when you’ve had enough.

— Katherine Tallmadge

Katherine Tallmadge is a Washington nutritionist and author of “Diet Simple” (Lifeline Press, 2004). Send e-mails to her at food@washpost.com.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company

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