3 Surprising Ways Your Mother Still Controls How You Eat, Part 2: The Traditionalist
Last week, I wrote about how an emotional eater can inadvertently harm three generations of a family, and how to begin to overcome it. This week I want to focus on another case study in which a medically trained mother, like my Mom, adopted traditional eating habits that she thinks are the best possible, but that could be harming her and her family. As always, this analysis is aimed at understanding and overcoming barriers to being optimally well, without judgment, but with compassion.
Let’s get into it.
Case Study 2: The Traditionalist
Jillian* has children in their 40s and 50s, and a fun-loving family that has many gatherings throughout the year. Jillian gave up salt a long time ago, believing it to be harmful to her health, as many people do when they learn about hypertension. However, her diet consists of meat, dairy, and gluten typically at every meal, with large desserts daily, despite a family history of diabetes. Jillian, like Mandy from last week’s post, takes the role of meal provider in the family. She can spend an entire day cooking, and whip up classic American meals like pasta, roast poultry with mashed potatoes, and so on.
Jillian has arthritis, walks slowly, and according to her own description, pees every hour, which could be a symptom of kidney disease or diabetes. Americans tend to eat too much protein on a Western diet, and this is linked to osteoporosis and kidney disease. One of Jillian’s daughters, Susan, was on a healthy diet of mostly organic and vegan foods, until recently when Jillian came to live with her.
Now, Susan eats just like her mother. She is gaining weight, depressed, and her chronic injuries and joint pains are flaring up. Susan has trouble controlling her diet around Jillian, who is a strong-willed lady, and now that Jillian is the main cook in the house, Susan eats what her mother prepares. Jillian’s attitude is that the food she cooks is good food, she knows best, and nothing bad can come of it. Any opposition is met with intimidation and ridicule.
Analysis: Jillian, based on her own knowledge from being a medical professional, knows she needs help because she is unwell, but she does not admit it. Like Mandy from last week’s case study, Jillian’s identity is tied up with how she cooks – she is frugal, cooks large quantities, and wastes nothing – as most women who lived through The Great Depression or World War II tend to do. Despite this efficiency, a deeply ingrained tradition of making everything last longer, and not wasting anything, Jillian seems oblivious to the possible harm she is causing to herself and her family through her choice of foods. When told that sugar is linked to harmful risk factors for lifestyle diseases and should be avoided, which Jillian already knows, she ignores the comment, perhaps because the cognitive dissonance (realizing that your beliefs and behaviors contradict each other) might be too uncomfortable.
She also laughs it off occasionally, hinting that the pleasure she derives from her daily sweet indulgences is more important to her than anything else. It could also be that Jillian believes that in giving up salt she is doing enough, and everything else is fair game. This “rebound effect,” which is common in energy efficiency and conservation, was evident in Mandy’s behavior too, as she eats vegetarian food a couple of days a week, and then eats meat the rest of the time.
In fact, Jillian describes gluten-free vegans as people who “don’t eat anything,” a common myth that my mother also encountered recently. The notion that, for food to be real, it must contain meat, dairy, and gluten, just like it has always been, is a strong belief that causes Jillian to ignore any vegan options, and keep her inner contradictions shielded from her conscious mind. For instance, when cooking for a group that contains vegetarians or vegans, she does not consider cooking her vegetables without butter. Jillian’s method is the only correct one in her mind and there is no room for anything else.
For Jillian to be motivated to change her eating habits, she would have to face the painful cognitive dissonance of how she is contributing to harming herself and her family. This might mean stepping down from the role of “best possible cook and provider” and putting on a beginner’s hat to learn how her staple foods might be hurting her – a real challenge because Jillian truly believes nothing is missing in her approach.
The reality is that her daughter is struggling to keep her healthy habits intact. Jillian’s husband, Ted, in his own quiet way, eats what is offered. When both healthy and unhealthy options are available, which only happens when Susan or a guest cooks, he chooses the healthy ones. Even though he silently models the desired behavior when he can, he does not control what is cooked, and his influence is insufficient to change Jillian’s behavior. He chooses to be a silent participant and keep the peace. This doesn’t help anyone, least of all Susan.
An important way to nudge Jillian to adopt healthier eating habits might be to make many healthy and appetizing options available to her without labeling them as such. This strategy of stealthily changing Jillian’s diet might work because it would sidestep the obvious identity barrier, and use behavior itself to change behavior.
Think about it – what’s the best way to learn to ride a bicycle? Ride it! Practice the behavior. So, getting Jillian on the road to healthy eating might work best without talking to her about it, but placing yummy foods in front of her that seem similar to what she would have prepared, and letting her try them.
Another way to encourage her might be to introduce her to medical experts like her who have made the transition, and reversed or reduced their arthritis and kidney disease or diabetes. This may inspire her to consider changing her eating habits.
Tell me – do you have a family member who rigidly sticks to his or her eating habits because that’s how it’s always been done – what would motivate the traditionalist in your life to change?
Recall from last week’s post that people go vegan and/or gluten-free for many reasons, and these include cognitive and overall health, to reverse or reduce risk of lifestyle diseases, to help reduce climate change, to support animal rights, and several other reasons.
For my next post, I’ll share my personal story of how I didn’t get my mom to go vegan and gluten-free, because she did it on her own! I’ll include a set of tips for how to eat better and feel well no matter what your family is like. Case Study 3: The Expert goes live next week. And, if you’re wondering how low-income families could even afford organic and healthy foods, and other food justice issues, I’ll have a follow up post on that after this series.
If you’re interested in free recipes from our cookbooks to get you started with some delicious and healthy holiday meals, check out our website.
*Names have been changed to preserve confidentiality, and characters are composites based on real people(including some of my previous clients) and their experiences.