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Well-meaning friends and relatives will go to what often feels like malicious lengths to get you to overeat. Some of the pressure is understandable. After all, food has become mixed up with demonstrations of affection; think of not just holidays but weddings, bar mitzvahs, and even wakes—they all prominently feature food. As a result, rejecting a second helping can feel as if you're rejecting a loved one. Cathleen Adams, a systems analyst in Los Angeles who has dieted on and off throughout her life, knows that feeling well. "It's very hard for me to say no to anyone. Finding ways of doing it without hurting people's feelings has been a challenge."

Jeffery Anne Bellows, a mother of three who lives in Denver, feels guilty when declining a home-cooked meal. "If someone has gone to a lot of trouble to make a special dinner, I don't want her to think I didn't like it," says Bellows. That worry has led to some regrettable diet lapses for her.

Adams uses a technique I teach: practicing assertive statements. Working on this with dieting buddies or other supportive friends is a great way to build the skill. Alternatively, you can polish your assertive style in front of the mirror. The trick is to strike the right note—regardless of how someone's offer of food may feel, their intentions are usually pure. I recommend people comment on how delicious the food looks and recognize the effort that went into preparing it: "Wow, that looks fabulous! You must have spent a lot of time making it." And yes, definitely practice until you find a way to sound natural and convincing—"I think I'll pass this time," for example.

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