Updated: Jul 10, 2019
By Anne Trominski:
About four years ago I ran into a serious obstacle to my ongoing quest for a healthy lifestyle; I met a guy. Yes, it’s true, one of the best ways to derail your good habits, ladies and gentleman, is to be in a relationship. Hermits alone in caves in the woods are some of the healthiest individuals you will never meet. Because they don’t go out. And therefore are healthy.
Let’s face it, our social lives are built, primarily, around food. Dinner and a movie? Dinner and dancing? Dinner and drinks? Is it even a date if dinner isn’t involved? Meeting for coffee is considered a no pressure situation because no one can possibly order a meal! Even if you aren’t in a romantic relationship, you’re probably grabbing a burger with the guys, or having cocktails and apps with the gals. Your mother asks if you’re eating enough, your coworkers let you know when there are donuts in the breakroom, and if children are involved—snack time! Most of our social dynamics are built around what we are eating, and when. Sure, you can give yourself the pep talk about your goal tasting better than those fries when it’s just you driving past the fast food joint, but if your adorable niece, your rock of a bestie, or your sweet baboo says, “You wanna order pizza?” it just seems so nice to say, “Yeah! Pizza!” And if you’re having pizza, you might as well open this bottle of wine. (Well, maybe not with the adorable niece. She’s got school.)
People are the worst! Oh wait, no, that’s not what I’m writing about. Relationships are hard. You have to listen, and respond at the right time, and if he says, “Order whatever you want,” he doesn’t mean hummus. And you have to figure that out on your own, because he’s trying to keep you from discovering that he doesn’t like hummus before you are fully addicted to his cute smile and boyish charm. Boyfriends are the worst! Wait . . . no . . . that’s not what this post is about. . . .
If you are trying to improve your health by adopting a plant-based diet, you’ve probably said the following to yourself, “[Name of person I want to continue to be in a relationship with] is never going to go for this.” Unfortunately, that’s kind of a legit concern. If you are making food choices that are new to your particular norm, it’s going to have some ripple effects to the norm of the people around you. This is especially true if you are living with [name of person you want to continue to be in a relationship with]. Food is common ground in a relationship, and changing the type of food you eat can be alarming to the other person if they don’t understand why things are changing. It’s okay if that’s one of the reasons you are hesitating when considering eating plant-based. It certainly was a major factor for me.
I’ve had an evolving relationship with food as I’ve journeyed my own personal medical mystery tour. It might sound familiar to you. I went from not really knowing anything about healthful eating, to knowing a little but not caring, to having someone explain to me slowly how what I was eating was affecting my body in a direct way, to realizing I should learn some more about this, and finally to knowing and implementing. After years of learning about healthy eating and learning how to cook, like for reals, I had established some pretty healthy habits. I ate low-fat, high-fiber, whole foods. Most of the time. I’m human, after all. I liked to splurge when I went out with friends, but my home was a clean-eating zone for the most part. Foods that weren’t so good for me were allowed in only in small frequencies and in controlled portion sizes. I was doing alright in the healthy eating sphere of things.
And then I had to go and fall in love!
It’s difficult to eat healthy while eating out anyway. You can’t control what your food is cooked in when you’re at a restaurant (they use butter), portions are bonkers (sticks of butter), and everything tastes much better than the stuff you cook (because, butter). When you are in the initial stages of dating, it is even worse. I, personally, didn’t want to come off as picky (until after he was addicted to my cute smile and my witty charm), so I found myself saying yes to things like nachos. Also, for some reason, sharing a bottle of wine, and dessert, and, well, nachos seemed romantic. At some point in the relationship, we became close enough that we could admit to each other that he didn’t like hummus and that I really don’t want nachos, but, hey we both like calamari! And you don’t want to split dessert? Well, let’s each get our own!
I knew I had seriously fallen for the guy, though, when I started changing what I cooked at home. Suddenly, I was cooking chicken thighs instead of chicken breasts because that got the better boyfriend reaction, and he likes mashed potatoes so I can make those for every meal, and another bottle of wine? Sure, sweetie! And it’s easy for me to say, “It’s all his fault, I was a saint until I was seduced by his cute smile and boyish charm!” But . . . was it so much that it was his fault, or was he my excuse? See, “sweetie” is my nickname. And it’s almost always my idea to open another bottle of wine.
Again, this isn’t just romantic relationships. This is people relationships. I don’t actually have to order dirty martinis when out with my chicas, and my nieces didn’t ask me to bake them brownies, and my coworkers are telling me there are donuts in the breakroom because they know I’m an interested party. At some point, I had to admit to myself that these social dynamics that “make it so hard!” to eat healthy are actually what make it so easy for me to binge on junk food. So, if the other people in your life are the ones who are making you hesitate to switch over to plant-based eating, maybe you should ask yourself, are they really? Or are you just not sure you want to go for it?
One of my biggest health issues is inflammation. One of the ways to deal with inflammation? You got it—a plant-based diet. After having yet another discussion with my doctor about how my diet could improve my inflammation, and therefore pain issues, I realized this was something I was willing to try. What wouldn’t I be willing to do to avoid pain? I really hope “skip free donuts in the break room” never becomes the answer. As I considered how I would go about it, what would be the hardest things to walk away from, what resources I could turn too, I realized that I was going to have to talk to that guy with the cute smile.
For one thing, at this point, we were living together, and I was the primary purchaser of the groceries. I was pretty sure he was going to notice if suddenly everything in the cupboard went vegan. I found myself super nervous about the conversation. He’s a meat and potatoes guy. He literally frowns at the word “kale.” He once had, what I lovingly refer to as a meat tantrum because I cooked chicken too many meals in a row. I was sure that me saying, “I only want to eat plants from now on,” was going to be met with the same eye roll and sigh that occurs when I said things like, “Target is having a sale on throw pillows,” or “Can we watch something besides ‘Vikings’?” I honestly was afraid he wasn’t going to take me seriously and assume that this was just one of my whims. (Not that I have those. Pillows are very serious.)
I told him about my doctor’s visit. I told him about her recommendation and why she made it. I told him why I wanted to try it: I wanted to see if it would help with my pain. He, wonderful guy that he is, neither rolled his eyes nor sighed (that came with the first time I told him we were having chickpea curry for dinner). He said what I hope your person says, “If that’s what you need to do, then we can try it.” We then discussed how we as a household would go about it.
I’m plant-based, but he is not. When I’m at the store I sill pick up meat-based protein for him while focusing on plants for me. For him, that’s mostly deli meats for lunches, and ready-to-heat-and-eat meals for the nights he works late. On nights when I cook for both of us, it’s understood that dinner will be either vegetarian or vegan. The best part, and the most supportive thing he has done for me, is he will try what I make at least once. The hardest part is he doesn’t always like it. I’ve had only a couple of outright fails that led to him bailing out and eating cereal for dinner, but there have been a few polite, “It’s okay,” in response to, “How do you like it?!” Unlike the hummus days of our early relationship, I now know how to interpret that correctly.
It’s not easy. He won’t eat mushrooms, spurns artichokes, burns out on tofu, isn’t that fond of chickpeas, and in a particularly heartbreaking conversation told me, “I don’t really like eggplant. In fact, I kind of hate it.” Try finding plant-based recipes without any of those ingredients! Also, when I was telling someone about learning to cook vegan, he helpfully chimed in that he liked that “beef and broccoli thing” I made the other night. Oh. You mean the one that came frozen in a bag with its own sauce. Sigh.
So, it’s not easy. But it’s infinitely easier than if I was doing it without his support.
Same goes for my friends. I have learned that the best way to ask for help is to come out and ask for it. Most people want to be supportive. Most people want to be healthier too, so you’d be surprised how often you can get an enthusiastic response to asking for healthy options. Are there exceptions? Sure. I’ve gotten a few frustrated, “Well, what can you eat?” reactions when discussing restaurant choices. I am still working on having a list of places to recommend that have plant-friendly options rather than just saying, “No. Not there.” It’s cool to be choosey when your health is at stake, but it’s annoying to be indecisive when people are hangry. (People got annoyed at me about that long before I started ordering tofu.)
I also can’t help but notice, though, that hints of frustration mostly come up when ordering. If you order the grilled halibut, it will usually slow down the friend who was eyeing the deep-fried sampler platter. If someone seems a bit miffed that you’ve changed your eating habits, it might be that you were their handy excuse for binging too. A good friendship can survive the inconvenience of plant-based eating, even if there is a little disappointment when the waiter asks if anyone wants dessert.
Because ultimately, if that person you care about really cares about you, they’ll support you, a few sighs notwithstanding. As you adapt to asking for what you need, you will notice that others will adapt to your healthy habits. I still order dirty martinis when out with friends, but I’ve noticed that I don’t get the donut update at work anymore. And my sweet baboo eats lentils! Before you use the other people in your life as an excuse, make sure they aren’t willing to support your efforts first.