Dear Food52: How Do I Stay Social on My Special Diet?

February  9, 2016

Dear Food52,

After struggling with destructive eating habits, I found success in narrowing my diet. Aside from being vegan, I don't eat certain things that trigger overeating, like bread and sugar. I find it easy to uphold when I'm on my own, but when I'm eating with others, I run into trouble. I don't want to go out to that junky breakfast place, or eat the pasta they've made me, but I'll do it anyways, because I don't want to seem vain, shallow, or weight-obsessed. And I certainly don't want to have to launch into the history of my relationship with food.

The tension between trying to stay healthy, while also trying to seem like I never think about food, is anxiety-inducing. As a result, I often eat alone. But I don't want to eat alone forever! How can I prevent my relationship with food from interfering with my relationships, and vice versa?

The Friendly Vegan

Photo by James Ransom

Dear Friendly,

In 2012, I went vegan for about a year. I loved it, I felt great, I cooked a lot, and I was also extremely antisocial. Going out to dinner always meant asking for the salad without the cheese, and the hummus appetizer as my entrée, and then being polite when the waitress asked, That’s all?

My friends were mostly very understanding, but I still tended to feel self-conscious when asking for exceptions and special treatment. I had to approach decisions that had already been made about where or what to eat, and timidly butt in. Even when you smile and speak sweetly, you can feel like you’re asking a lot of everyone around you. Self-deprecation gets exhausting.

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So I get that the advice of “Own your decision! Live your life!” only gets you so far. You should feel great about where you are: It seems like you’re making thoughtful decisions about what to put in your body, and those decisions are making you happy, and also keeping you away from self-destructive behavior, so bravo. But even when we’re very happy with our chosen diets, we still have to live in a world dominated by omnivores.

First you must convince the world—yourself included—that you are very comfortable with your decision to eat what you eat. I think it’s sort of like having a funky hairdo, in that if you walk around looking like you have really mixed feelings about your funky hairdo, people will notice and also maybe internalize those mixed feelings themselves, but if you walk into a room like “Yeah, hey, I’m the person with the funky hairdo,” people will just accept it as part of who you are and then move on with their lives.

So: Accept that this is part of your person. You are a certain number of inches tall, you were born in a certain town, and you follow a certain diet. When you share this last piece of information as matter-of-factly as the rest, that potential discomfort has less of a chance to grow.

Be sure to have a few restaurants you know you feel comfortable going to, so that you can be proactive in your suggestions. Any time someone asks if you want to get a bite to eat, you can say “Sure! How about x?” And if they suggest someplace that’s say, a barbecue pizza restaurant, you can say “What about that new vegan place near me? They have a really awesome grain bowl I think you’ll love, and there are way more things for me to eat there.” Or whatever.

And then, of course, there’s the option of inviting someone over for dinner when they suggest a meal out. This gives you complete control: over the menu, over your ingredients, over what you spend, over what you ask your guest(s) to bring. As a bonus, you’ll look like a generous host with awesome cooking skills. (All food tastes better when a friend makes it for you.) There’s no need to explain why you’re serving what you’re serving, or why it doesn’t have half a stick of butter in it—that’s your business.

Perhaps scariest is the scenario when a friend invites you over for dinner, or for a dinner party, particularly when they’re not yet abreast of the particulars of your diet. (Will I have to say no to their mother’s famous goulash?) It’s easiest for both parties if, after politely accepting their invitation, you immediately offer to bring a dish of your own making: Can I bring something? Maybe a nice grain salad? Since I’m vegan, I usually offer to make something I know I can eat. Preempt the explanation with an offer; I call this “alpha vegan behavior” and find it leaves less room for discomfort.

While special diets—vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free—are now skirting the mainstream, plain old diet-diets tend to get a certain sort of side-eye. Healthy eating and #wellness have seen a boost in recent years, thanks to green juice and Michael Pollan and Whole Foods and Lululemon. Gone are the days of those primetime Jenny Craig commercials; everyone, it seems, should be able to enjoy everything in moderation. So saying that you’ve cut specific foods out of your diet—like bread, pasta, sugar, what have you—can carry even more stigma than saying you don’t eat anything with a face.

But sometimes people want to eat a certain way to achieve a certain result! And that is their prerogative. All you can do is explain your own preferences confidently and clearly, without much drama or fanfare, and remember that we all ask things of the world—for allowances, for exceptions, for acceptance—and that, my friend, is just fine.

And if you’re looking for good, vegan recipes that don’t rely on a whole bunch of bread and pasta, I have a very lovely cookbook to recommend you.

Do you have any tips for eating with friends or family while on a special diet? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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The Food52 Vegan Cookbook is here! With this book from Gena Hamshaw, anyone can learn how to eat more plants (and along the way, how to cook with and love cashew cheese, tofu, and nutritional yeast).

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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Marian Bull

Written by: Marian Bull



cupcakemuffin February 12, 2016
I don't want to be negative, but there are so many red flags here that it seems irresponsible not to say anything. This letter writer has an incredibly restrictive diet, is isolating themselves because of food issues, and has a history of disordered eating. I think step one here is to make sure he/she is working with a mental health expert to ensure this situation isn't a continuation of disordered eating in a different form. Best of luck to the letter writer, and I hope you can get some help if you need it.
Megan M. February 9, 2016
I certainly feel ya when it comes to people have struggles with YOUR particular food choices! I was a vegan 20 years ago while dating a stand up comedian who used up his stage time making sure to razz the vegan lifestyle. I decided to teach others how to eat healthier through food choices and how to cook and maintain a healthy lifestyle with humor and good knife skills. Stand plant-strong! -Healthy Eating 101 Founder and Chef