Mastering Nutrition Conversations: Talking to Family About Tracking

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           When I first started using Cronometer, back when it was brand new, my friends thought I was anorexic, obsessive-compulsive, or just plain nuts (and not the high in Vitamin E kind!)  I had been vegetarian for ten years, hardcore vegan for five (no honey, no leather), and a low-fat zealot back in the nineties, refusing even the smallest drop of oil or sliver of avocado.  They had put up with all those “phases,” but once I started tracking my food intake on nutritional software – that was over the top!

What is it about tracking our nutrition, activity and other health indicators that freaks people out?  No one goes crazy when we make a budget or do our taxes or save for retirement.  Managing our finances is “adulting,” but managing our health, that one thing that all the money in the world can’t buy – that’s crazy!

Most of us who have gone on a journey toward better physical health, whether it’s vegan, keto, tracking a Zone type of diet, or just attempting to balance our calorie intake and exercise to achieve a healthy weight, know how defensive other people get when they find out about it.  In a nation where 39.8% of the population is clinically obese according to the Centers for Disease Control, and the majority of people are overweight, almost everyone has anxiety about their bodies and health.  No wonder we strike a nerve!

Here are some of the steps I took to keep the peace with family and friends when I first started tracking my nutrition:

  • “It’s not you, it’s me.”  I made it crystal clear that my choice to eat a healthier diet and track my nutrition was about my own health, not any criticism of what others were eating.  People’s biggest fear is that we are judging them (and let’s admit it – sometimes we do!  But we try to keep it quiet!) so put it right out on the table that you just don’t care what they eat.  “Please don’t feel self-conscious about what you eat,” I said.  “I don’t want to be the food police.  I don’t care what you eat – I just need to do what’s healthiest for me.”
  • Talk about the consequences of how you’ve been living. By the time I started actively cutting calories, increasing exercise and monitoring my nutrition on Cronometer, I was huffing and puffing on the walk up to my third floor office, had gained 30 pounds on a job where going out for nachos and margaritas was a regular after-work routine, and my size 6 suits were rotting in the closet as I bought bigger and bigger clothes.  I was 5’2” and 27 years old.  I talked about how I didn’t have the energy I needed, how I felt uncomfortable in my clothes, and how I missed being able to enjoy a workout at the gym at the end of the day.  I also mentioned my family’s scary history of stroke.  It’s hard to argue with that!
  • “Are you anorexic?” The hardest part for me was the day when I found out that another woman in my office was spreading rumors that I was anorexic.  Nobody said anything while I was gaining weight and downing margaritas, but sure enough, once size 4 started to fit (I am 5’2”) and I was packing little kale salads with yogurt instead of eating burgers and fries for lunch, the gossip got going. I tackled it head on.  I confronted the person who was spreading rumors and told her that it really upset me to have my personal health decisions discussed in the office.  I didn’t make a big deal with other co-workers – I decided it would just bring more attention to the issue.  But I continued to go about my healthy habits and sure enough, people went back to thinking about their own lunch!
  • “Will you still go out to eat/eat at our house/eat holiday meals…?” Friends and especially family tend to be very concerned about whether or not you will participate in food-centered rituals, like Thanksgiving dinner, Passover Seder, or the weekly girls’/boys’ night out.  That decision is up to everyone, so how you handle it is going to be different.  I decided to go ahead and eat “ad lib,” meaning not measure carefully, on those occasions, but just not stuff myself or drink too much.  My boyfriend at the time refused to budge from his weighing and measuring for any event, so he would either bring his own food or we would make a special holiday meal.  Our families came to love our Thanksgiving dinner with measured turkey, sugar free ginger cranberry sauce made with a little sucralose, Tennessee sweet potatoes made with half pumpkin (lower calorie than sweet potatoes) and a splash of Jack Daniels, mashed cauliflower instead of potatoes, and crustless but delicious pumpkin flan for dessert.  I still went out for happy hour after work, but instead of drinking high calorie, sugary cocktails, I switched to red wine and passed on the appetizers (well, maybe one bite here and there!). Food is a ritual, a way of sharing community.  It’s important to be clear, both with yourself and your friends and family, that you’re not trying to skip out on those important occasions – you’re just trying to take care of your body so you can be around to see more and more of them!
  • “Are you going to do this forever?” Most people are used to thinking of “diets” as things you do for awhile, lose some weight, and then go back to your old habits – usually only to revert to poor health.  Lately more people have come to understand the idea of lifestyle change, where your relationship with food and exercise changes so that you don’t want to go back to unhealthy habits.  But don’t expect the people in your life to share this perspective.  If you’ve been on diets before or gone through periods of adopting one kind of eating and then changed your mind, your family may be wondering how long they have to suffer through this one!  This isn’t helpful or supportive, but it’s bound to come up. My standard answer, after much trial and error, became: “I want to live a long and healthy life where I feel good about myself and my health.  I may change my mind about how to do that as I learn more information, but I don’t want to go back to feeling the way I did before I started paying attention to my health.”

When we first get into a healthier style of living, many of us are over the moon enthusiastic about all the changes we’re seeing in our bodies, energy level, and mental clarity.  This is so awesome, we think… why isn’t everyone happy for me?  We are surprised and upset when those we care about rain on our healthy parade.

I’ve done some pretty controversial things in my life, including taking radical political stands and getting arrested in protests.  Nothing has gotten me more vicious criticism than writing a blog about Calorie Restriction with Optimal Nutrition.  I openly admitted to loving raw kale years before it was cool!  The media picked up the blog and my then boyfriend and I did a lot of television and magazine interviews.  For much of 2006 I’d open up my computer and find one article calling me anorexic and a comment on the same article saying I looked too fat in the picture!  Someone once commented on my blog, “I hope you die in a fire, and do it soon!”  Really???  Because I eat kale and you eat burgers?

Just remember: your health is more important than what anyone else thinks.  You have a community here of people who, in our own different ways, are working to live healthier and happier.  You have support from others who aren’t satisfied to watch their health decline.  Reach out to your support system here, and stay in touch!


         April Wilson Smith holds a Master of Public Health from Thomas Jefferson University and is a long time tracker of all things health and wellness.  She has been vegan, low fat, low carb, a calorie restriction practitioner, serious Zen student, and yoga enthusiast.  She is now a freelance writer based just outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.   



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