5 Things Not to Say to Someone on a Low-Carb Diet

And How to Respond

Photo © Martina Barbist

I'm not sure what it is about diet and weight that makes some people think it's fine to make comments about what surely should be none of their business. I wouldn't think of making negative comments about a friend's spouse, hobbies, or how they decorate their living room. I would not presume to pry into their personal problems unless invited to listen to them. Most people would agree with me (I think!) that these are basic rules of politeness.

So why would those same people think nothing of making negative comments about what others choose to eat, let alone what they weigh? And yet, we all know people who are very free with commentary along these lines.

I think it's fine to ask genuinely curious questions about someone's way of eating. But here are 5 phrases that I think should be off-limits when having a conversation with a follower of Atkins or other low-carb diets (or anyone following a specific eating plan, for that matter):

1. Should you be eating that?

Being on a certain diet does not mean that people will never ever deviate, and when they do, it's a private decision they are making as an adult. My husband and I have a rule -- we never make negative comments, overt or implied, about what the other is eating.

Note: What if someone tells you they want support from you to try to keep them on their diet? They might say something like "don't let me eat the birthday cake at the party".
I will tell people that I won't make negative comments about what they are eating. I have heard of some people using a prearranged signal to remind them if they are considering eating something they would regret later. I suppose that could be work with some people. That would remind them of their resolution, but leave the decision up to them.
Once the decision is made, however, I would back off very quickly. There are lots of positive ways to support people, and I prefer them.

My response: Thanks, I'm fine. First time: delivered with a smile. Second time: said with emphasis and a warning look.

2. A low-carb diet will give you a heart attack!

I find this especially hilarious when I'm eating steak and salad, and the commenter is finishing up a large plate of fries and getting ready to order a piece of cake. Basically, this isn't true. Although it's certainly very possible to eat an unhealthy low-carb diet, it's possible to eat unhealthy diet of any type.

My response: I tell them I don't believe this to be true and drop it. If they persist, I start talking about the science. I find that people rarely want to hear about science in any detail, and the conversation soon moves on.

This comment is sometimes accompanied by the declaration that "Atkins died of his own diet." This is not true.

3. I baked these cookies just for you! You deserve a treat!

Just don't do this. It's really not very nice, unless "just for you" means you that found a good low-carb cookie recipe. It puts your friend/relative in a awkward position.

My response: "Thanks, that was nice of you. I'm sorry I won't be able to eat them, but I'm sure we can brighten someone else's day with them." If pressed, I just say that I can't eat wheat and/or that they would mess up my blood sugar. (There's a decent chance the second one is true for those who respond well to a low-carb diet.)

4. A vegan/raw food/whatever diet would be perfect for you!

It's a common mistake to think that whatever diet works for you would work for everyone. This is not the case.

My response: A simple, "I'm happy that way of eating works for you, but this is working for me." The idea is to be clear on what you want to do and stick with it. "Thanks, but I feel so much better eating this way." "Thanks, but this is working great for me." "Thanks, but this helps me control my blood sugar." Avoid directly challenging the other person's way of eating.

Employ a similar approach with the popular, "You should just eat a balanced diet. Just eat in moderation." Anytime "just" is in the statement, I figure the person probably has no idea what it is like to be in my body. What is generally called "moderation" does not work for me. It can also be helpful to ask exactly what they mean by "balance" and "moderation" -- sometimes that will open a good conversation with certain people.

5. You don't need to lose weight -- you look great! OR

It looks like you've put on some weight.

Sorry, but this is not your business, and it's an issue people feel very sensitive about. The best approach is silence. (If you think someone has an eating disorder, that's a totally different topic.)

My response: To the first, a simple "thank you" is fine. Once someone starts asking questions about your weight, though, they have crossed a line. I think a great response to this and other comments which can best be answered with the sentiment "Mind your own business" is a Miss Manners type approach. The trick is to cultivate a facial expression which is a combination of quizzical and slightly shocked -- as if you can't quite believe what you are hearing. If they haven't backed down after a few seconds, add, with a slight touch of indignation, "I beg your pardon?" If they repeat their comment, simply say that your mother taught you that such comments were rude. If it's your mother who is making the comment, throw it back on Miss Manners or some other authority figure. You may have to practice in the mirror until you get comfortable with this approach.

The ruder people are, the more I think they need to be challenged, although I realize that not everyone can pull this off. If someone really crosses the line, such as saying they doubt you can be successful, come right back with a strong, "why on earth would you say something so unsupportive?" If they persist, walk away, and insist that you prefer to be around people who care about you and what you are trying to accomplish.

These types of comments are just one more challenge that comes with making a change. Use it to spur you on to fill your life with more positive people. Also, the more confident you are about your way of eating, the less people will say rude things.

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