I can’t eat that.

by Andie Mitchell on September 24, 2012

We have all said those four words at some point. To the co-worker who brings in homemade brownies every Friday, to a family member offering a wedge of cake, and perhaps most often to ourselves as we try to suppress any deep desire to stop by our favorite pizza place on the way home at night. Whether you’re trying to lose 20 lbs, 100 lbs, or just trying to focus a little more on eating for health rather than pure pleasure, I’m sure you’ve experienced a moment or two where those words came begrudgingly to mind.

Of course there are circumstances where you may indeed not be able to eat something- food allergies, an intolerance, ethics, to name a few- but in this discussion I’m referring to instances where you do indeed have a choice as to whether or not you eat a particular food or food group. Specifically, I’m referring to those times when your mind and body may be at odds when it comes to the appeal of cake. Let’s say cake is tempting at all of the many gatherings we attend, but we have goals to lose weight or reduce our sugar intake- what, then, are we to do?

Instead of saying “I can’t eat that,” researchers are suggesting we consider something bolder, something like,  “I don’t eat that.” I’d modify this statement to be something more specific, more defined. I’d choose, “I don’t want to eat that [right now],” because I appreciate the declarations of choice and desire, rather than the implication of restriction. I can barely bring myself to consider crossing any foods off of my list of things to eat, so I certainly wouldn’t go about making blanket assertions that I don’t eat cake at all. Instead of framing decisions around food controlling your actions, it allows me to be the one in control. Take the power away from the food. Give yourself the power of choice. Keep in mind the reasons why or why not you may choose to eat.

Beyond helping psychologically, I think this kind of change in phrasing can also help when dealing with unwanted offers of food from other people. We have all been in an awkward situation where we turn down some cake and then get interrogated and shamed (but it’s Susie’s birthday!). When you say “I can’t eat cake” the person offering will probably continue pushing a slice your way; they’ll likely attempt to reassure you it’s more than ok to eat cake. And it is more than ok to eat cake, it’s just…sometimes we might find ourselves not wanting to compromise our goals simply for the sake of frosting. Perhaps if we said something more empowered, something that implies we’re making a conscious choice, something like, “Thanks, but I don’t want any cake right now,” we’d feel stronger, we’d be met with less resistance. And [hopefully] it is honest, after all.

This is one of those little tips that pops up in diet literature and magazines from time to time, and it seems to be often dismissed as insignificant. Still, I’ve found it helpful in my dealings with others and I feel it empowers the decisions I make on my own. So next time you find yourself thinking “I can’t eat that” try to reframe your thought process and empower yourself by saying “I don’t want to eat that.”

Feel free to share any little helpful “mind tricks” like this in the comments.

{ 54 comments… read them below or add one }

AZJoy September 24, 2012 at 11:09 pm

I really like this! I say (to myself and others) all the time, “I don’t eat that”. But with about 100 lbs. to lose, I obviously DO eat those things. At least at one point. But as I try to realign my eating and thinking as to what i really want eat, I get interrogated by family all the time. So, maybe I just need to take back the power and realize it is my choice as to what I eat, and when. Thanks for this!!

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Laura Brooke Allen September 25, 2012 at 2:43 am

At this point, I have come to grips with the reality that doing this on my own doesn’t seem to lead to any results. I’m a little toooo gracious with myself! So my latest line is, “Oh, no, I’d be terrified to confess it to my trainer!” Which is true. I decided to ask my trainer if he would read a daily text from me with everything that I ate, and it has put a much needed padding around me while I face the 95 lb weight loss. Well intentioned people instantly lay off when I say that.

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Jan Lillemo September 25, 2012 at 5:13 am

My solution to this – and it takes a ton of self control – is to say “I can only have one bite”. Then I can try their creation and make them feel good, give me a little tiny treat, and not have an effect on my weight loss program. Okay, I confess, last night at my women’s chorus practice I had two bites of wonderful toffee bars, but I really enjoy those bites, savor them like crazy, and then walk away. Most people are very supportive of this.

My husband is in a clinical weight loss trial for type II diabetics that is evaluating two Jenny Craig menus, so I signed up with him. He has lost 30 pounds in two months, I’m down about 11 or 12. Our daughter got married on Saturday, so we allowed ourselves to eat anything we wanted for three days, but now we’re back on track. We’ll see how it worked out when I weigh in this morning!

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Anne Weber-Falk September 25, 2012 at 5:57 am

This is excellent.

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Mari @ Wine Required September 25, 2012 at 6:07 am

I have been changing my words to include the I don’t vs the I can’t. I love that it gives me the option of control over what I put in my body instead of just feeling deprived.

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Shawna September 25, 2012 at 6:13 am

I have done this without realizing that it is a “trick.” I must admit this is empowering and it definitely changes how people respond to you. When I first changed my eating habits it was because of a medical reason. I would explain to people why I don’t eat the way that I used to at every gathering. There are just times when you don’t want or need to do that. Now I simply say, “no thank you” without explanation. The explanation is to myself. I am CHOOSING not to eat that right now because I have a choice not because “I can’t eat it.” It is powerful even when said to yourself.
BTW thank you for using cake as your example it is my favorite “food” and the item I have/had the hardest time saying “no thank you” to.

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Natalie @ Free Range Human September 25, 2012 at 6:32 am

This is so hard for me. I have a all or nothing mentality and sometimes I put all kinds of restrictions on myself.

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Millerette September 25, 2012 at 7:00 am

I LOVE this. I like that things like this make you stronger and build up your resistance to being pressured into eating. I was just at a birthday dinner last week and turned down the dessert the restaurant brought out and cake that our friend made. It takes a lot of strength to tell a table full of people no especially when you are a people pleaser. I had to have confidence and hope that I wouldn’t have to explain my healthy eating to everyone. I love that this tip will help me be more confident in the long run. Thanks :)

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Marcella September 25, 2012 at 7:26 am

I usually tell myself “I don’t need that right now”. Saying “I can’t” or “I don’t want to eat that” doesn’t resonate with me because I generally always want it and I can always make an exception to that rule. When I identify a food as something I don’t NEED, it makes it easier for me to say no. Of course there are times when we don’t need things but want (and acquire them) regardless, but I find that to be more of the exception than the rule. Identifying what my body needs allows me to enjoy treats when necessary, but to also focus on foods that make my body happy.

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SarahJ September 25, 2012 at 1:21 pm

I like “I don’t need this” even better, because usually I do want whatever it is (every time).

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neha September 25, 2012 at 10:47 pm

I LOVE that. That’s why the “I don’t want this” has never worked for me, because unfortunately, I always have wanted that piece of cake or that second helping of pasta. And, it’s no use lying to yourself.

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Carrie @ Season It Already! September 25, 2012 at 7:37 am

I can’t vs. I don’t. Interesting! That’s a completely knew mindset for me.

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Michelle September 25, 2012 at 8:24 am

Hi Andie! Great advice and I’m going to try it. The problem I’m encountering lately is that, the more I’m trying to eat intuitively and trust myself to make proper food choices, the more I find myself eating out of emotion. I know in my rational brain that food will not make the emotion I’m experiencing go away, but it’s like the more I try to reason with myself, the more I feel like I do not have control. How did you overcome this? It’s so frustrating!

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Amelia September 25, 2012 at 8:33 am

Thanks for bringing this to light. I think we all need to rise above the social stress of eating (it’s how many of us gained weight in the first place). It’s OUR bodies, not theirs!

Typically, I politely decline and say something like “I’m really full from ____ and not in the mood for ____; I’d hate to waste!”

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Rae @ Two Hands September 25, 2012 at 9:37 am

This is a great point, especially coming up on the holiday season. My husband and I have been working hard to lose weight, and have found that being prepared to say “That does look delicious, but I’m going to pass right now” has been our best out. It acknowledges the maker of the food, but still owns that it is our choice.

And sometimes, when it feels too good to pass up, we’ve said “I’m going to see if [he/she] will split a portion with me.” Because if we can’t learn to enjoy occasional treats in great moderation, we won’t stick with it.

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Janet Vaught September 25, 2012 at 9:46 am

So a tip for this specific situation that works. Take the cake and when no one is looking toss it. It gets you out of that dang conversation you have to have where you explain why you don’t want it and someone tries to convince you that you really do. Just say thank you, smile and they will ignore whether or not you actually eat it. Yay.

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Jennifer September 25, 2012 at 11:43 am

That is exactly what I do, Janet. My office doubles as a bakery as co-workers, on a DAILY basis, bring in all sorts of delicious baked goodies. The constant interrogating on why I won’t eat every single item that passes under my nose gets tiring. So now, I take a small serving to my office, toss it in the trash and cover it with a napkin or something. So much less stress. No one’s feelings are hurt and I’m able to stay on good terms with everyone.

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Amanda September 25, 2012 at 5:32 pm

Throwing away fresh food on a regular basis to avoid asserting your free will is kind of lame. I’m assuming someone paid for the ingredients, worked hard in the kitchen, and created something that many other people enjoy, so just throwing them away because you don’t want any seems pretty selfish and wasteful. Not that it matters if the food is homemade or not-it’s the mentality that is irksome.

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Leeluu September 28, 2012 at 6:09 pm

I have to agree with Amanda.

I have a coworker who is constantly dieting, and she does this at our potluck luncheons – takes the little plates of food away to her office, doesn’t eat them, and then throws them out.

I have a problem with this for a few reasons.

First, why are you wasting food? Do you really think that everyone else cares so much about what you are (or aren’t) eating, that you have to “fake” it???? Newsflash: we don’t care.

Second-someone else might actually want that, and enjoy it.

If you don’t want it, just say so. Why is that so hard?

When I was cutting out sugar, I said to people: “you know what, I would love a piece of cake, and thank you for offering – but I’m limiting sugar in my diet right now.”

People responded just fine and didn’t pressure me at all. (I’m aware this is probably because that left more cake for them (lol), but still!)

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Michal October 3, 2012 at 6:21 pm

I’m right there with you, Janet. In my office/family I’m often confronted with (overweight) people who NEED you to participate in their poor eating habits so they won’t feel the weight (pun intended) of their choice. Because my decision to eat more healthfully is so shaky, I simply cannot bear the peer pressure. I’m sorry that some feel that this is wasteful, because truly it is, and I hate that. But any kind of “no” in some situations requires more than strength my currently fragile resolutions can muster.

anonymouse February 13, 2013 at 9:57 pm

This is the best strategy. I learned it after watching my thin friends. It’s what so many thin people do. I find it interesting that you got so many negative responses.

1-Yes, it is selfish. My health is my priority. No exceptions! Next you’ll be telling me there are starving children in Africa. Keep your guilt.

2-It’s not your business. As this post shows, what we are eating seems to be up for public opinion or approval…myob.

3-I don’t want to make a public statement about my eating habits. My first choice is to abstain, but if someone insists or publicizes my not eating, I take it.

Letting the food hit the trash feels empowering.

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Lauren September 25, 2012 at 9:54 am

This couldn’t have come at a better time. I’m just coming off a 21 day cleanse and feeling so great I’m planning on sticking with most of my healthy eating habits. I’m traveling to visit family this weekend which often involved many desserts, lots of pasta, pizza and other stuff. I’ll definitely have to use some of these lines this weekend…thanks!

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Jennifer September 25, 2012 at 10:18 am

Such a great thing to bring to mind, and yes especially as the holidays are coming up. I am often in a situation where I’m constantly being offered food, especially sweets and snacks. I just say, “Oh no, I’m good, thanks,” and generally they take it well. Occasionally if the person made it themselves, they get a little taken aback, but I just make a face like I haven’t yet recovered from my last meal, and they seem to understand. I honestly have no taste for sweets anymore, they are just too sweet for me now, which is really hard to explain to people, but once you cut the sugar out, your taste buds adjust, and fruit becomes the best treat there is. Thanks for sharing – another great post.

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Denise T. September 25, 2012 at 10:31 am

Nicely put. I will definitely use this if only internally. I think it puts a powerful spin on the fact that I’m making a choice. A choice to be healthy and enjoy whole foods. Thanks for posting.

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Lilja September 25, 2012 at 10:45 am

This is a very good point!
I feel the hardest thing to refuse is a glas of wine or a beer, because if you are a woman and in a relationship you will get the question: “Are you pregnant?” wich I find extremely frustrating!

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The Brides' Maid September 25, 2012 at 10:58 am

It is amazing what saying “I don’t eat that” does for you mentally. A few months back, I decided to start eating a vegan diet. I have a major food addiction and if you put anything naughty in front of me, I will devour the whole thing in a manner of minutes. Now that I “don’t” eat any animal products, I thought it was going to be tragically hard. Honestly, it is the easiest thing I have ever done for my diet. I have changed my paradigm and it has made all of the difference.

Seattle pride! Woot!

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Lauren September 25, 2012 at 11:19 am

I really love this!

Certain people at my job are bad about insisting that everyone indulge when a treat is brought in. Because I run a fair amount, the response to my decline is usually “Ohh, you’ll run it off. You can eat whatever you want!” The reality is that it takes minutes to eat the treat, and much, much longer to burn it off. More importantly, I don’t want to get stuck in a downward spiral of indulging and then working out like a maniac to feel better about it.

I find that if I say I’d rather eat my breakfast BEFORE trying the brownies/cookies/cake, people tend to back off, and hopefully forget about it.

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KayLynn September 25, 2012 at 11:25 am

I usually say no thanks, not this time. It keeps me from getting called out later when I choose to indulge or when they have previously seen me eat something like what they are offering.

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Bridget September 25, 2012 at 12:06 pm

I love how you worded this: “decloration of choice and desire, rather than the implication of restriction.” I was in WW at work and our leader always asked us to list some things we can’t have at summer cook-outs or around holidays. She frequently refered to unhealthy choices as foods we “can’t have” and I would get upset with her and I eventually said something to her about it because it bothered me to phrase it the way she was. I am the kind of person who hears the word CANT and I say “Oh yea, WATCH ME!” For the sake of my well being I do not tell myself I can’t anything! I have to have the power of saying I do not want…

Thanks for the affirmation on this topic!

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Rebecca September 25, 2012 at 12:22 pm

I had just such a situation come up at school last week! One of the children with whom I work was having a birthday and the class was enjoying cake & ice cream. I’d just eaten my very satisfying lunch and truly was not interested in the cake. So, I said a polite “no, thank you” when it was offered. Interestingly, one of the kids said “but you HAVE to have cake it’s ______’s birthday!!” I replied “no, I don’t HAVE to eat anything, I can choose what to eat or not to eat and I am choosing not to eat cake today”. The overweight 13 year old who’d made the original statement to me REALLY struggled with the concept and had a hard time letting it go!

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Katy September 25, 2012 at 12:48 pm

I heard this on the Jillian Michaels podcast (mega girl-crush) and I can totally see how taking the power back is a positive step.

I normally think about it in terms of how harmful I know most of the really bad things are for me – like why would I treat myself badly? If I just went for a run, why would I ruin it all by eating a corn dog? If I think about it like I’m treating myself well then it doesn’t feel like deprivation.

I remember hearing a man talk about over eating in terms of always having to finish every thing on your plate and he said, ‘Why would you choose to harm yourself rather than throw it away?’ It really stuck with me.

When it comes to other people, I either say I’m still full from whenever/in training or I’ll split with someone/only have a tiny bit. If I know I’m going to a dinner party I tend to eat light the rest of the day and work it into my calories. There’s no need to feel deprived; it’s unsustainable.

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Amy September 25, 2012 at 12:50 pm

I read an article once that said to say, “I”ll have some later.” The theory was if you say yes, then you eat the food. If you tell yourself no or you can’t, it may lead to bingeing on the food in question (or something else). But if you say, “I’ll have some later” you put off eating the food and you likely will lose the craving or get distracted and forget.

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Chris C September 25, 2012 at 1:03 pm

I LOVE this post. This, in my opinion, is one of the keys to weight loss…rephrasing your words to make them state a choice…not set yourself up for excuses. I try to remember that EXCUSES = CHOICES.

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SueP September 25, 2012 at 1:32 pm

“No, thank you” is a complete sentence.

What I tell myself (when I’m talking myself down on a successful day) is: “I know what that tastes like.”

Ultimately, taking a small portion, if I want it and having one or two bites is the perfect solution, and sustainable. But if I am choosing not to have it, “No thank you” or “not right now” or perhaps more tactfully, “Maybe later…” is good enough.

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T September 26, 2013 at 11:30 pm

I agree! I like, “No, thank you.” If they press, I can say, “Maybe later” then change the subject and usually they forget all about it. :)

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Chelsea@Ahintofhealthy September 25, 2012 at 1:42 pm

This is a great post. I work hard to constantly remind myself of the goals I have set for myself and why I have set those goals.

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Darcy September 25, 2012 at 2:39 pm

I find that it depends on who you’re responding to as to what phrase you’re going to say. I have trouble saying ‘I don’t eat that’ to things like cake or cookies at work because the special people I work with take it to mean that I’m ‘better’ than them because I’m not indulging… So I just say no thank you and change the subject… most people don’t REALLY care if you have some or not…

I’m also grain and legume free and that makes for many MANY more instances of having to say no thanks or I don’t eat that… I have to agree with others… I CAN eat whatever I want and DO whatever I want…

Speaking of Grain free… what’s your thoughts on the wheat free movement? I’m reading Wheat Belly and it’s fascinating what effect ‘wheat’ has on the human mind and body…

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Naomi September 25, 2012 at 4:26 pm

What I’ve always done is say “Thank you, but I’m not hungry right now. Can I take it to go?” That way I can discreetly dispose of it if it’s something I really don’t want.

I think it’s really important to remember that most people won’t remember whether you accepted a slice of grandma’s famous pie or not..even just moments later. No matter how much pressure you might feel, most people are more concerned with themselves and how they feel than the fact that you are or are not partaking. I mean, when has anyone ever said “Oh my gosh, can you believe [insert name] didn’t eat cake tonight?”. Exactly. If you can make it past just saying no thank you, 9 out of 10 times people will stop bugging you to eat after just a moment or so.

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Jennifer September 25, 2012 at 5:23 pm

Great plan! Amazing what a word change can do.

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Max September 25, 2012 at 5:39 pm

This is a great tip and I wish I was brave enough to follow it. Nonetheless, people still pressure you and do not understand why you don’t eat that. I do have a sweet tooth at all and people think I am being hard on myself due to my fitness goals and think that if they buy me cake, I’ll eat it…AHHH!
While it is bad, I have made up food allergies to almost everything to avoid eating crappy food.

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Debbie September 25, 2012 at 11:15 pm

Great blog and great idea! I’m definitely going to be trying it!

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Dannii @ Hungry Healthy Happy September 26, 2012 at 2:48 am

I never say “I can’t eat that”, as there is nothing I can’t eat. There are things that I choose not to eat thought. When put in that situation, I simply just say “no thank you”. I don’t give any more thought to it. I only surround myself with people who support my choices, so luckily they don’t give me a hard time about just saying no than you.

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Shannon September 26, 2012 at 7:15 am

What’s wrong with a simple, polite, “no thanks” or in the case of sweets, “oh, I couldn’t”? As a longtime vegetarian, I’ve become very sensitive about how I express my food preferences. Saying “I don’t eat that” can come across as very rude, as it implies that you’re too good for whatever they’re offering, especially if they made it themselves or are otherwise excited. It comes across as a moral judgment, or at the very least, a judgment, when a simple “no thanks” is just an expression of preference. Nobody can argue with that, and it is gentler on others’ feelings.

If I say, “no thanks” but am pressed further, I’m polite and say, “I’m a vegetarian” or “I just ate” or “I don’t do well with dairy” or “I’m watching my sugar” or something that implies you don’t have much of a sweet tooth (not something I can imagine, personally!), or whatever is appropriate for that moment. I think it’s way classier to politely refuse something and then give your reasoning only if asked — not as a first reply. The question was, “do you want some?”, not, “does this agree with your dietary restrictions?” And saying, “I can’t eat that.” or “I don’t eat that.” is rather rude and me-first. Y’know?

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admin September 26, 2012 at 7:31 am

Excellent, excellent point, Shannon. Thanks for sharing.
-Andie

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Just Shireen September 26, 2012 at 8:09 am

My personal trick is reminding myself that no one is taking these foods away from me forever. I’m restricting myself for a short period of time, and later I can have those things back (in moderation).

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Marian @ Marian Writes September 26, 2012 at 8:38 am

Last year I followed a strict vegan diet for roughly nine months (I’m a regular old vegetarian these days). It always bothered me when people asked if I was “allowed” to eat something — ice cream, hummus, whatever — as if the diet was an imposition rather than a CHOICE. I generally responded with, “I am allowed to eat whatever I want, but I choose not to eat xyz”. It was a way for me to feel confident in my choices rather than constrained by them. As a vegan it was also a way to educate others on the ins and outs of an often stigmatized diet without sounding militant or holier-than-thou.

I completely agree with your push for rephrasing the “I can’t eat that” statement. We should all be proud of the choices that we make — even when they involve eating a piece of cake!

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Carmen September 26, 2012 at 1:20 pm

Great topic Andie! Not many people talk about the social pressures felt from others when you are trying to eat more healthfully. I work in an office with mostly male coworkers who have never had to “watch what they ate.” They act as though me refusing a homemade goodie or not heaping my plate at company potlucks must mean that I will be in the throes of starvation soon. Your suggestions are a much better alternative than going into a rant about my eating philosophies (which, I’m sure, they don’t really care about).

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Wendy September 26, 2012 at 2:04 pm

We had leftover candy after teaching 2nd grade Sunday School one Sunday. I offered some to one of the parents and he responded with, “No, thanks. I’m trying to quit.” Loved that! It made me smile and I totally got his point.

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Bek @ Crave September 26, 2012 at 11:49 pm

I love how you said- I don’t want to eat that right now. There’s no restriction, deprivation or any of that nonsense but just you listening to your body and responding :) Awesome post!

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Susan Micek September 27, 2012 at 10:18 am

Often I will see something yummy but know that I must refrain from partaking of its yumminess so I will look at it and say to myself, I know exactly what you taste like, therefore I don’t need to try you today and I will just remember/savor the taste and walk away. It is almost as if I had a bite. Of course there are days when I chose to eat the yummy so I just add to my calorie counter and make it work with some extra exercise or less dinner. :)

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Hannah@AllThingsLovely September 27, 2012 at 6:14 pm

This is a great post; I’ve often used the “I don’t want that right now.” It’s not that we “can’t”; We just don’t need it, and we are in control! :)

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Amy September 28, 2012 at 9:14 am

I really like this advice. I’ve learned to say it with money (instead of saying I “can’t” do something, I say, “I’d rather use my limited resources in another way right now”) but I’d never thought of altering it for refusing food. Great tip!

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val November 6, 2012 at 3:16 pm

I have found that the best thing to do is take it..take a tiny bite(looking like a normal bite), tasting it and then compliment the persons cooking/baking..then sneak to the garbage can or wad up the napkin when no one is looking..this way..I taste it and hurt no ones feelings by not participating in the food..if this is a meal.I take a taste and fill my plate with what I can eat! A huge amount! So they can’t say I am not eating! They shut right up as I eat all of that GOOD stuff!

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Lisa November 26, 2012 at 11:43 am

I got into the habit of simply saying “no thank you” instead of “I can’t eat that.” I was trying to lose 100 pounds and I was doing really well staying within my calorie range. It was much easier to just say no thank you. No explanation needed.

Sometimes there were food pushers that wouldn’t take no for an answer. I was firm.

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