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Navigating a Memorial Day Cookout With an Alternative Diet

Non-traditional diets are more common but can still be a communication challenge.

For many Americans, Memorial Day is not just a holiday to remember those who served our country, but a time to kick off the summer by cooking out and barbecuing with family and friends, and indulging in burgers, hot dogs, alcohol, and desserts.

While meat alternatives and gluten-free foods are on the rise for those with non-traditional eating habits, such as vegetarians or vegans, or the increasing number of people who partake in low-carb, gluten-free, refined sugar-free, alcohol-free, or Paleo diets, managing holidays like Memorial Day can be a source of stress. Cultures and families establish rules about the types of foods and beverages that are acceptable to consume, and deviating from those eating habits can represent a rejection not just of food but of the family or culture in which it is served.

As a communication researcher, I have interviewed scores of people who engage in divergent eating or drinking practices to uncover how individuals can eat what they want without upsetting or annoying their loved ones. These folks are aware that they are deviating from social norms and are very mindful of not coming across as judgmental of others. In fact, most of the people with dietary restrictions that I’ve talked to are reluctant to disclose their eating practices—they want to fit in with everyone else in order to avoid criticism, teasing, labels, or pressure, and to minimize the chance that family and friends will feel uncomfortable around them. People explained that just as religion and politics generally should be avoided in conversation, non-mainstream eating habits should not be brought up.

Of course, sometimes others are going to notice that people are not eating meat, or bread, or dessert, or that they're not drinking alcohol, particularly at family events. And other times, it is necessary to make dietary restrictions known at social functions. The people I interviewed spoke of the importance of using strategic communication to manage these situations.

For instance, when presented with something they do not consume (for example, an alcoholic beverage), participants discussed the strategy of politely declining the drink, but making a point to carry on a conversation with the person who offered it. They do not let rejecting a drink get in the way of connecting with others, which they maintain is the main purpose of offering someone a drink (or food) in the first place.

Others emphasized the importance of explaining that their minority eating and drinking practices were due to personal choice—that they sleep better, feel healthier, are more productive, etc. when they abstain from certain foods. “I” statements minimized tension by focusing attention on the abstainer’s decision and away from the potential judgment of others’ choices. Other people customized their reasoning based on the attitudes and beliefs of the person who asked about their eating habits. For instance, if the questioner were very health conscious, the deviant eater would provide health-related excuses for his or her consumption behaviors to establish common ground and better relate to that individual.

In some cases, the people I interviewed believed it was too risky to be completely honest about their eating habits. Because they did not want to stand out, have to answer questions, risk offending others, or be judged themselves, they would occasionally stretch the truth. Lies were particularly common in workplace situations and included explaining they were avoiding particular substances because they were allergic or trying to lose weight, even if that was not the case.

Health and religious reasons were viewed as the two most socially-acceptable explanations for partaking in deviant consumption habits. As participants believed moral reasons for engaging in deviant consumption behaviors are generally not well received by society, most people I interviewed choose to downplay that reasoning. Indeed, for some people the “V word” (vegan or vegetarian) has such negative undertones and is so loaded with morality that they prefer to say they “don’t eat meat” instead of labeling themselves. People overwhelmingly want to fit in and not come across as extreme or judgmental. They also do not want to be stigmatized, especially if their reason for not partaking in something (e.g., alcohol) is not a choice.

My research indicates that although it requires a little more work and planning, through the use of strategic communication, it is possible to maintain your dietary habits without distancing yourself from friends and family this Memorial Day and throughout the year.

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