How to Say No to a Food Pusher

Family eating a meal together

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Food pushers find ways to sabotage your relationship with food by making comments about your dietary choices or insisting you eat differently—whether that be more, less, or different foods—than you currently are.

You know the drill: Aunt Suzy insists you have seconds before you've even finished your meal. Or you can count on your coworker to say things like, "I can't believe you're only going to have a salad for lunch!" These are both examples of food pushing.

It may seem harmless, but commenting on someone's food choices or encouraging them to eat something they don't want to is a way of disrespecting boundaries. Intentional or not, the pressure to eat can make you feel uncomfortable, or worse, derail your dietary preferences.

There's a multitude of reasons why someone may decline a food—they could have a medical reason to avoid a specific food or ingredient, moral or ethical reasons, nutritional goals, or maybe they're just not hungry at the moment. Either way, you get to decide what you put in your body and you don't owe anyone an explanation. Finding ways to politely refuse will help you stick to the eating habits that you have chosen for your body, goals, and mindset.

Why People Push Food

People pressure others to eat for all sorts of reasons. It could be they're insecure about their own food choices, they want someone to enjoy the food with them, or they've learned that making sure people eat is a form of love or kindness.

"Food pushers can have multiple different reasons why they push food. While the pushing may seem personal and add to your struggle, keep in mind that food pushers’ way of showing they care may be service to others. Food is social and a way to connect," reports Kathryn Fink Martinez, MS, RD, CEDS-S is a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor and Certified Eating Disorder Specialist.

Most of the time, food pushing is subconscious. People do it unintentionally and may not see the harm. Here are some reasons why people may food push:

  • Use food to show love: Some people show their affection by preparing food, and want you to try their favorite dishes as a form of love.
  • Love food and want to share it with others: Some people love food, cooking, and dining out and want to share these with the people around them.
  • Want approval and praise for their culinary skills: They may have prepared a dish they're proud of and want you to taste and compliment their cooking. They may be insecure and seeking approval.
  • They may be insecure about their own food choices: Insecure people tend to bring others down to bring themselves up. This type of food pusher may see you happier with the changes you're making and subconsciously makes comments to break that happiness and find relief with their own insecurity.
  • Use food as a reward or to satisfy emotions: It's not uncommon for people to want to celebrate an accomplishment or feed an upset with food. Most likely they've learned this from their own childhood experiences.
  • They may not understand your dietary restrictions: People may not be familiar with your medical condition or dietary restrictions. They may be concerned that you're not eating and prompt you to do so.
  • They may not agree with your food or dietary choices: People with strong food belief systems often want people to conform to their ideals for validation or other reasons.

Kathryn Fink Martinez, RD

Food pushers can have multiple different reasons why they push food. While the pushing may seem personal and add to your struggle, keep in mind that food pushers’ way of showing they care may be service to others. Food is social and a way to connect.

— Kathryn Fink Martinez, RD

It's common to find yourself in a scenario where someone is pressuring you to eat or commenting on your food choices. Learning how to say no will help you cope with these experiences in the future.

How to Say No To Food

Since you probably don't want to draw attention to yourself or hurt anyone's feelings for saying no to a beer at a barbecue, you'll want to be diplomatic and keep it short and to the point.

Try these tips on how to say no to food you do not wish to eat:

Repeat Yourself

Many food pushers aren't satisfied with being told "no" and will continue to pressure you to eat. It may be uncomfortable, but you'll have to kindly repeat yourself and hold your boundary.

"Politely and firmly responding “no thank you” can be enough, you do not need to justify why," notes Martinez. "You may have to repeat your response firmly, several times." And that's normal and sometimes necessary.

Whatever the case, it is important that you are assertive, but not aggressive (which will only worsen the situation), when you say no.

Change the Subject

It can be helpful to change the subject immediately upon your response. You can simply say, "no thank you," and immediately follow with a question to distract the food pusher. Maybe something like, "what are your plans for this weekend, it should be great weather!"

Keep It Positive

Avoid making negative comments about the food, your body, or health condition when declining a food pusher. Instead, keep it light, praise the chef for their hard work and how amazing the food looks or smells while politely saying no.

Martinez recommends using one of these phrases when dealing with a food pusher:

  • "I appreciate the thoughtfulness and generosity. I am unable to accept this item."
  • "This does not meet what is best for my body right now."
  • "My dietitian, therapist, or doctor would not agree this is best for me right now."

Be Honest

Your health and goals are important to you—that's fair. Making your boundaries clear and being honest about your choices can stop a food pusher in their tracks.

Communicating your boundaries honestly and openly puts you back in control of what you eat and lets others know your wants and needs. Remember, you're allowed to say no without feeling guilty.

Before You Spend Time With a Food Pusher

Without fail, every time you go to a family gathering someone comments on what you are or aren't eating. The apprehension is almost enough to keep you from attending. Instead of letting the fear of food pressure get you down, take some time to map out how you're going to handle the situation it if arises.

Practice Assertiveness

Assertiveness can help you gain control of your emotions and communicate effectively. Your life experiences have molded your communication skills up until this point. If you're not an assertive person, to begin with, it will take practice and time to change your communication style. Here are some tips for being more assertive:

  • Determine your style: Do you speak up? Or do you keep quiet? Do you get overwhelmed quickly? Or find yourself a ball of emotions? Assess your communication style first so you know what you're working with.
  • Use "I" statements: Doing so helps communicate your needs effectively without sound accusatory.
  • Write your dialogue: Sometimes it's difficult to think of what you want to say in the moment. Writing down a useful sentence or phrase beforehand that way you're prepared.
  • Rehearse or practice saying "no": It can help to say your phrase out loud or practice saying "no" to ease your comfort level and help you feel more confident.
  • Use body language: Body language conveys a message as well. Stand up straight and act confident, even if you aren't feeling it. Posture can make a difference in how others receive your message.
  • Stay positive: It's easy to get upset or angry, that's normal. These emotions can get in the way of conveying your thoughts. Take a deep breath and start over if needed. Try to remain calm, breathe slowly, and focus on what you're trying to say.
  • Roleplay: Ask your partner or a friend to help you practice setting boundaries in challenging situations. Evaluate how you did and tweak areas that could use improvement.

Be Clear About Your Boundaries

Be consistent with your boundaries. If you say you don't want something, but then allow someone to pressure you into a serving, you're telling that person it's OK for them to keep on pushing. Instead, hold your boundaries, be confident, and stay positive. Once others see you're serious, they'll let it go and you can continue to enjoy whatever festivities you're participating in.

Avoid Challenging Situations

You know your food preferences. Take time beforehand to research the restaurant or ask about the menu so you can be sure there's food you can eat (and want to eat). Having that information will empower you to make choices that work well for you, like bringing some foods you can enjoy in the event there's not much being offered.

Ask for Help

Get your friend or spouse up to date on your food preferences that way they can back you up if needed. A supportive person in your corner is a powerful thing and can boost your confidence enough to help you get your point across kindly.

A Word From Verywell

Even if you can't find the "right" way to say no, chances are no permanent damage will be done to the relationships in your life when you do, so stick to your guns. It's not worth avoiding a few ruffled feathers to eat something you truly don't want to take into your body. You have the right to make your personal health a top priority. Remember, no one but you is in control of your own behavior.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How can you stop being a food pusher?

    If you've found yourself insisting someone try your dish or take a few bites of food, you might be a food pusher. Instead of commanding people to load up their plates, be understanding and respect their dietary choices. Consider how uncomfortable you'd feel if someone were to push something on you.

  • How do you turn down junk food?

    There are no good or bad foods, just foods that have a varying degree of nutrients. If someone offers you something that you prefer not to eat, a simple "no, thank you," will suffice. You may have to repeat yourself, but stay firm and positive to keep the mood light while reinforcing your boundary.

  • How do you deal with temptation when you're trying to lose weight?

    Remember that there are no off-limits foods. Taking foods off a pedestal can make them less tempting. When food is restricted, you're more likely to crave it. Instead, give yourself permission to eat and remember that the tempting foods will always be there tomorrow if you don't want to have them now.

  • How do I say no to food at work?

    Workplace food culture is a powerful thing. The opportunity to eat all sorts of food that you wouldn't have in your house is almost endless. Bringing your own food makes it easier to say no to food pushers.

By Shoshana Pritzker RD, CDN, CSSD, CISSN
Shoshana Pritzker RD, CDN is a Sports and Pediatric Dietitian, the owner of Nutrition by Shoshana, and is the author of "Carb Cycling for Weight Loss." She's been writing and creating content in the health, nutrition, and fitness space for over 15 years and is regularly featured in Oxygen Magazine, JennyCraig.com, and more.