The influence equation

Study chemistry, and you quickly learn that chemical reactions are generally not a one-way street.

That is, if you take A and B, they might react to form C and D. But in many cases, depending on the substances involved, time, temperature and other factors, some of the C and D might react the opposite way, turning back into A and B.

And so it goes with the influence we have on others, or the influence others have on us.

In the past few years, maybe you’ve heard about some of the studies indicating that if our friends and family members tend to be overweight, we tend to be, too. On the flip side, one study I read about a few months back (I wish I could remember where…) said that if you go out to lunch with coworkers who eat lightly and healthfully, you’re likely to do the same. On the other hand, if you go out with coworkers who like to eat big, greasy lunches, you better plan on loosening your waistband.

When you’ve made the decision to live healthier, eat healthier, and maybe even lose some weight, you may find yourself an oddity among those near and dear to you. This can make certain events challenging. Family dinners. Holidays. Birthday parties. Business lunches. Trips to the water cooler (past the donut box). Barbecues.

If you are a bit of a lone wolf when it comes to eating your fruits and veggies and whole grains and limiting junk food and other foods heavy on the fat, sugar and refined carbohydrates, it can be easy to feel like you need to eat what “everyone else” is eating in order to avoid offending anyone or simply to avoid standing out. For the most part, people like to feel “normal.” We want to be perceived as being the same or similar to those around us. If that weren’t true, then peer pressure wouldn’t exist.

And consider that, for most people, food isn’t just fuel. It’s come to represent so many other things. People use food to show love, provide comfort, ease pain. We use it as a reward and a celebration. It can be difficult to reject an offering of food under one of these guises, because it can be interpreted as a rejection of the offerer.

Nevertheless, I ask you this: When it comes to a question of what is eaten, why should the influence come from the unhealthy side of the equation? Why should those who have made a commitment to eat healthy feel that they have to do otherwise because people around are not similarly committed? I think, if anything, people who don’t eat healthfully should rise to the occasion when in the company of more health-minded folk.

Are you striving to live a healthier life? I think you should vow here and now to refuse to compromise. Be the person who influences, not the person who is influenced.

This influence can be nothing more than sticking to your guns about doing what is right for you and your physical and mental health. You don’t have to talk about it, just do it. Drink mineral water at happy hour (or stick to one drink instead of many). Eat at home instead of at the party. Ditto for when you go to a sporting event with overpriced greasy food a-plenty. Quietly select only the foods from the dinner table, the restaurant menu or the buffet that meet your nutritional needs. Just because someone passes you the basket of doughy white flour rolls doesn’t mean you must take one!

If you need to go a step further, but you don’t want to trot out words like “nutrition” or “diet” or “weight loss” then start telling some little white lies to kind of smooth things over. For example:

  • “That looks great, but I’m just not hungry right now.”
  • “Mmmmm…last time I had [name of food] it just didn’t agree with me, so I better pass.”
  • “Not right now. Maybe later.”
  • “I have a [name of ingredient in the food] allergy.”
  • “Sorry, can’t join you for lunch today. I have errands to run.”
  • “I don’t feel like eating right now. I’m just here to socialize.”

You can of course choose to be open with people about how you’ve changed your eating habits, and why. If you’ve noticed improved energy, seen your blood sugar, cholesterol or blood pressure levels drop, or lost weight by doing what your doing, sharing that could be inspiring to someone. (Or not…since people will only change because they are ready to.) If that’s too much sharing, but you really feel like you need to make a point to someone who is pressuring you to do something that goes against your good nutritional habits, you could say something like this:

“It’s important to me to look and feel good, and be as healthy as possible. The way I eat is a big part of that. For me, eating [food in question] just isn’t part of the plan.”

Notice that this statement makes it about you. It does not disparage the other person. It can be tempting to say something like, “I don’t eat that crap. That stuff will KILL you.” But if you say it to someone who does eat that crap, they may take offense. Or feel bad about themselves and end up eating more of that crap. Nobody wins.

Lead by example. Odds are, eventually, someone will follow.