pushy food people

Last winter one of my colleagues would routinely make food and offer it at faculty meetings.  I would always politely decline — inspiring an inquisitive look and a bit of disappointment in her face.  Later, she offered a workshop for students on food and culture in which the participants learned to make a particular kind of dumpling that was connected to her family culture.  At the end of the workshop, as my colleague recounted it to me, she asked a question about how making and sharing this food made people feel.  One student replied something like, “As a diabetic, it reinforced my sense of isolation and pointed out yet again that I can’t eat like normal people eat.” This gave words to something I’d been feeling for many months.

To be honest, before learning how certain foods affected my blood sugar and overall health, I’d never much noticed how pushy people can be with food. I suppose in the past I’d default to the polite position and “just try it.”  Now, when I politely decline, I find I’m bombarded with questions and urged to “give in” and “have a little.”  I’ve even heard, “It won’t kill you.”  I’ve held my tongue from retorting, “Yes, it will.”

If someone is too pushy, which actually happens a lot, I drop the d-bomb and disclose that I’m diabetic.  You’d think this might quiet things down, but it rarely does.  There is so much misinformation about diabetes and so much confusion about how it functions. Lots of people feel confident in telling me what will work — even though, when questioned deeply, their advice is based on hearsay or knowledge that’s decades out of date.

What I’ve learned from this is fourfold: 

1.) Many people find power in their role as provider of food. To decline their offers is to, on some level, reject them.

2.) Food is a social connector. To disassociate from the way that the majority eat establishes a barrier that is difficult to overcome.

3.) Many people feel expertise when it comes to food — even if their knowledge is subjective and disconnected from any nutritional reality. Even worse, when the knowledge is based upon “expert knowledge,” like the food pyramid or some published diet, there’s a lack of criticality in understanding that this knowledge is based on the lobbying strength of the food industry — not on experience. Even the government-funded “diabetes classes” my health provider sent me to used a prescribed curriculum that clearly was influenced by the food industry.

4.) Our understanding of food as culture is thin — rarely extending beyond a generation or two. CORRECTION: White Flour Wheat, for example, was not a daily staple in the American diet until sliced breads were marketed as “wholesome food” in the early part of the 20th century.  Much of the processed food sold today didn’t even exist thirty years ago.

Changing my diet hasn’t always been easy, but wrestling with my will power has been child’s play compared to navigating the needs of others who feel compelled to put things on my plate. Returning to the student’s lament I noted above, this process has also called me to reconsider the notion of “normal,” when it comes to food. Is “normal” what you learned to eat in a culture that’s out of nutritional whack? Or is “normal” what can reasonably keep you healthy and active for the longest time possible?

For me, the trick is to learn all I can, build a personal culture of healthy eating, share my knowledge with those who are interested, and avoid, at all costs, becoming another pushy food person!

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