Tuesday, June 29, 2010

But I'm not hungry!! How it feels to be pressured to eat.

Twice in the last week or so I have been pressured to eat when I didn't want to. Most of us can easily tap into the feelings we get when we are not allowed to eat, or when we are on a diet. Most adult Americans are currently ON a diet. I know that if I can't eat for whatever reason for an extended time (more then four hours) I will get anxious, irritable, grouchy and food pre-occupied. But, it is not often that adults get overt pressure to eat more...

Last week I was eating lunch with M and Hubby and I was chewing something. M leaned over and kept trying to put a chip in my mouth. "Just eat it Momma!" I would turn my head away, and when I turned my head back, there was the chip, pushed up to my lips which I kept clamped shut. (Does this sound familiar? I watched an almost-toddler go through this very thing at a restaurant last week. Dad kept pushing chopsticks with food at her mouth and she repeatedly turned away, adding a swat every now and then...) "No thank you, " I said after I had swallowed. I think she thought it was funny because she poked the chip at me one more time. I could feel myself getting angry. My body was tense, I was irritated and focusing on my frustration with her, rather than on the eating experience. "In this house we don't eat anything we don't want to. Please stop."

Then again, last week, I enjoyed a large and satisfying lunch only to have the next stop unexpectedly be a place with lots of wonderful foods– and the chef was there. The chef was so eager for me to try the foods that she verbally pressed me at least a dozen times to eat X, Y or try Z. I found myself getting really angry. In spite of several apologies that I was already uncomfortably full (I also topped the meal off with a hot coffee on a hot day) she persisted. I finally said, "I am so full that I am uncomfortable, I am sure your food is delicious but I am just not hungry. It's actually making me upset that you are pushing me to eat." Yet, she persisted... Finally I tried a few bites, and I specifically said, "I am not hungry, but I will eat this to make you happy." (The food was delicious, which I assured her.)

What surprised me in both instances was how upset, angry and physically tense I became. I resented that I was being pressured and pushed. I do this work all the time, talk to parents about how pressuring with feeding backfires, but I had usually been most able to empathize with pressure to eat less, not more food. It was fascinating!

I can only imagine if I was a toddler with the hair-trigger temper, where my main job developmentally is to assert my independence and "do it myself," how I would have reacted! (Moms and dads of toddlers can picture this as well!)

In the first scenario, I might have gotten so upset that I stopped eating before I was full. (It is hard to focus on sensations of hunger and fullness when you're upset.) In the second case, I overate to please someone else. (Might a pre-schooler do this to please a parent or favorite teacher who insists that all the "growing food" gets eaten before dessert?) In both situations, the pressure made it harder for me to tune-in to my internal cues and eat the right amount, and it spoiled the fun!

How do you feel when you are pressured to eat more or less food than you want?


  1. As a fat adult, I find it especially difficult to navigate social situations centered around food. People tend to assume that I'm on a diet (which shows their own bias, i.e. their belief that I SHOULD be on a diet) and insist that I eat this or that in a cheerful but pushy "come on, live a little!" tone. I have come to realize that some of them feel guilty about enjoying their food, maybe because they actually are on a permanent diet, and they try to feel better about themselves by getting other people to (over)eat so they don't feel alone in their "naughtiness"... I have also observed that this kind of people will resent you if you say "no, thank you" to a food they cannot resist – they feel that you are flaunting your willpower and self-control, and this spoils their enjoyment of their special treat. For a long time I let other people bully me into eating stuff I didn't really like or want, just because I didn't want to make them feel bad about themselves for eating something they loved. Nowadays, I think hey, it's not ME that's making them feel bad about themselves – I cannot be held responsible for other people's issues around food. My strategy for dealing with these situations is trying to mention, in a casual way, that I don't really have a sweet tooth, or that I don't particularly care for that specific food. People will stop pushing you, and they will not feel threatened by your refusal because it's no longer perceived as your managing to resist an impulse they surrendered to.

  2. Interesting. I have had the experience of people encouraging desserts and "bad" food, so they are not alone in their "indulgence." I like your answer. The assumptions people make are amazing. A comment on yesterday's blog mentioned that when a mom said she didn't want her kids eating the snack at daycare (it was yucky home-made cookies) the teacher assumed the mom (self-described fat) was "projecting her neuroses" about fat etc on the kids, when in fact it was just that the kids thought the cookies were gross. Everyone just need to back off with the insanity around food, the assumptions, the guilt, the pressure... (yeah right!)

  3. This is one thing that I have seen a lot, parents pushing their kids to eat more, more, more. One of the problems is that the constant pressure to "clean your plate", so to speak, can make it so toddlers and small children 'lose' the ability to know exactly when they are full and will eat more than they need to just because the food is there.

    I prefer, when watching my niece, to put a little food on the plate and if she eats it and wants more, I'll give her more... I never fill up a plate and then push her to eat everything on it. It's better to do just a few bites of each thing and go back for more if she needs it. I find that she's more relaxed if she gets to do that than the first time I watched her when I caught myself pushing her to eat.

    As an adult, I don't have a good sense of when I am full and I am kind of rediscovering that now by changing up what I eat... I try to eat more protein because I've noticed it's easier for me to feel 'full' with protein from beans or tofu than it is from carbs.

  4. So you've experienced it from the feeder as well that pressure doesn't work. Good for you for being tuned-in to your niece and being flexible and curious with your feeding. When she's old enough, it works even better for many children to be able to serve themselves! Sounds like you are making some great discoveries about your own fullness etc. Those qualities of being curious and flexible will help!

  5. Glad to see your post on this! I've been thinking about how we feed O and I am guilty of putting the fork right up to his mouth. :( Thanks for making me think more about feeding and what it is like from the other side.

  6. I agree with how you're teaching your children about food, but saying "I finally said, 'I am so full that I am uncomfortable, I am sure your food is delicious but I am just not hungry. It's actually making me upset that you are pushing me to eat'" to a chef seems very rude. I would have been offended. Can't you just taste a little bit without really having to "eat" it and protest to high heaven? I mean there's really no excuse for being ill mannered. I think teaching and showing good manners is just as important as teaching a child how to decide when or what to eat. Getting that upset about a food/eating situation doesn't seem all that healthy to me. It seems like an overreaction. Sorry.

  7. I felt bad yesterday for a similar situation. I don't think it's being rude when you are not hungry especially when someone gets really, really pushy about making you eating more, more more. My grandma and my great auntie are ADORABLE old ladies, but even though I am obese they keep on insisting that I eat what they baked (and just one bit does not satisfy them) otherwise they say I'm starving myself or make me feel guilty that I don't want to eat. I hate being pressured like that. They kept on feeding me fat foods and bonbons when I was little and it really made me fatter. They congratulated me with chocolates and fast food. I am not angry at them for making me a fat kid, then fat teen, but I wish they would respect me now. They were meaning well, but now it's time for them to understand that it took me years to undo what I learnt with them and my close family. However, I have never been pressured to eat my growing food before dessert. It's very, very, very annoying to be offered the same food dozens times in a row, until you finally say yes angrily but they won't stop. I don't know how to react about that.

  8. Maria,
    Good points. I will try to be more sensitive in the future.
    I tried not to be rude, I really did! :)
    I think because I focus so much on not pressuring kids with feeding that I am especially sensitive to it. I think I was also amazed at how aware I was of what the pressure was doing to me and something clicked for me at how the kids must feel, that I voiced my observation and irritation (which I probably shouldn't have.) It was all done with humor, and self-deprication.
    In my defense...
    1)I was there as an observer in a professional capacity as a feeding specialist, I was not the intended audience for the food (it was about 2 pm, when someone could have been expected to have recently eaten.)
    2) after being on the road and eating out for 3 days and overdoing lunch, I felt unwell. I did not have any appetite and I don't like feeling full and nauseated.
    3)I felt it would have been more rude to try a bite and then throw out the rest of what was given to me. As it was, I was given more food than I wanted, and to be polite (I do try...) I ate the whole thing.
    I remained pleasant and encouraging throughout, my irritation was more a remark than my demeanor and more made out of fascination with the process. (I can get totally immersed in this stuff.)
    As a chef, what would you be able to accept for a "no?" I repeatedly mentioned my physical discomfort and regret that I was not hungry... I really didn't know how to handle it either. the comments I am getting surprise me as to how many adults do get pushed to eat...

  9. My stepfather is a bad one about pushing food on people who aren't hungry. If he makes the food himself, he sees it as an insult and gets angry. The more you tell him to stop, the more irritated he gets. He refuses to believe when someone tells him they're full one time, they really mean it. I'm 34 years old, if I don't want to eat anymore, I should be allowed that option.

    It's very ironic that at the same time people want us to eat less, we are also being pushed finish our meals or try something else despite not being hungry because it looks rude if we don't.

  10. I have a history of mildly disordered eating, and it ties strongly into people pressuring me to have more or less food.

    My reaction to being pressured to eat more than I want is actually positive. Back when I was a kid, friends' mothers and grandmothers loved me because I loved their cooking. Those were women who had grown up with scarcity, and for whom being able to offer guests food was tied directly to security and self-respect. I like good food to start with, and those were "share the love" moments. Also, back when I ought to have been on diets, politeness was a welcome excuse to eat as much as I could get. Old habits die hard, it took me twenty years to get over that one.

    Because of these diets, my reaction to being pressured to eat less is barely above that of an unhappy toddler. Best case, I will get second helpings of everything, just to spite whoever is pressuring me. Or I'll have a chocolate bar later to get over the frustration. I haven't gone full-out angry toddler is these situation for more than a decade, which I regard as an accomplishment.

    These days, when I feel I might get pressured to eat more than I want, I eat very, very slowly. Or ask for a take-home bag.

  11. There are of course cultural differences. I know that in some parts of the UK a guest is expected to turn down the offer of food or drink the first two times and only say yes to the third offer. The good host therefor is obliged to repeat the offer of refreshment at least three times. I'm sure the world is full of these kinds of traps for the uninitiated!!!

  12. love the comments! Who knew so many adults still get "pressured" to eat!

  13. Great post and comments. This is wonderful to read as I work with my picky eater three year old and respect his feelings of fullness etc. I hate being pressured to do anything!! Thanks for turning on some more lights :)!

  14. My in-laws have a weird thing about food. Since I am thin, they push and push foods and flavored drinks on me, especially my father-in-law, no matter how many times I decline or say my facial pain is bad that day. But since my husband is "overweight", when he eats, he gets criticized for eating so much, all with a back drop of my FIL bragging about how he's not eating bread any more. It's very stressful and triggering, and I do tend to get very upset and want to run away so they can't keep talking about food. I've even started eating at home because I don't know beforehand whether or not I will feel safe eating in front of them.

  15. It is amazing how much people feel the need to push, shame, comment etc about food. Obviously FIL has major issues himself. Have you tried telling them how you feel? (Don't worry, I haven't figured out how to do this with my extended family, just wondering.)
    Maybe, "we like to visit with you, but talking about food or dieting all the time is sapping the fun for us. can we talk about something else?"
    I am always amazed how many comments people make about food, food choices, "being good or bad" etc. Crazy. People, food is just food. Stop the insanity!

  16. I have a son who naturally overeats. Childcare workers at his daycare and after school programs would allow five snacks if the kids were hungry, including one serving equal to a whole PB&J.

    I acclimated him myself as an eager home-baker when he was a todller and have since nearly cut out the baking to help him and myself eat more healthily.

    Unfortunately, some mothers think I don't like sweets when I don't have them at home. This balances things out for my son and reminds me to have sweets in moderation, such as chocolate pieces, ice cream, and occasional cookies. But I have learned that a two dozen batch of cookies means five for my son each day and are much too tempting for him. He has realized this and asks me not to bring calorie dense items into the house or just to have one serving around. I am so proud of us! He is almost 12 and I am in my forties. We remind each other when we're at the grocery store and make some good purchases for sharing with friends. We have other hobbies instead of food now. Just thought I'd share some success with you as a nutritionist certified in child and adolescent weight managment and a passion for treats!

  17. Katherine,
    I have several questions...
    if we believe that we are born with the ability to regulate (even fat individuals can do this) where does his "overeating" come from? Is it "natural" meaning he is intrinsically incapable of regulating, or has he learned to overeat because of how he has been fed. Just posing the question.In other words, would he overeat if you didn't restrict him, or does he overeat because he has been restricted...
    I highly recommend reading Child of Mine chapter 2 online at www.ellynsatter.com
    Have you read Your Child's Weight, Helping Without Harming? (Satter?)
    I'm glad you seem to have found something that works for you, but you are describing a control paradigm in terms of "managing" weight etc. It's not the model I work with which is a trust model which believes that children are capable of knowing how much to eat if we support them and do a good job with feeding.There is much, much more to it, but would love to discuss this with you more when you get a chance to read YCW or COM (above) so you get a context of where I am coming from. Good luck

  18. As far as Maria's comments, I think Katja was polite. She declined politely plenty of times and only said she was uncomfortably full because she kept getting pressured.

    I don't think good manners obligates you to eat when you're already uncomfortably full and anything else will make you sick.

    I think politeness is about respecting other people's boundaries, while still asserting your own in a gentle and friendly way--not about letting yourself be pushed into things you don't want to do because it might offend someone who can't take "no" for an answer.

    I also think that if you live by the rule that you have to eat everything someone offers you, it becomes really easy to screw up your own internal cues.