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One of the questions most frequently asked about ‘going plant-based’ is how to handle what other people think.

What should you do when well-intentioned friends and family members start criticizing your plant-based diet?

How do you manage a plant-based diet when the rest of the family eats meat?

How do you deal with  uncomfortable social situations when you can’t eat what is being served?

The ‘other people’ factor is SO important because social dynamics have everything to do with how easy – or how hard – your journey into plant-based living will be.

Let’s face facts. First, it is true that initially social interactions might be a bit awkward. People might not understand what plant-based eating is. They might even believe your plant-based choice is ‘not good’ for you. And ultimately, they very well may feel threatened or defensive about their own dietary choices which might make them a bit aggressive.

So here are some tips to help you navigate the social landscape as a plant-base eater:

Tip #1: Show, Do Not Tell

Maybe by now you’ve lost some weight, lowered your cholesterol and blood pressure. Your skin glows and you feel on top of the world.

While the temptation is great to shout about your plant-based diet from the rooftop, it’s probably a better idea to refrain.

The reality is that diet and lifestyle are very personal choices. A lot of people don’t want to discuss these subjects in social settings. And they especially don’t want to be reminded of the possibility that they may very well be making bad choices for themselves.

Avoiding the (totally natural) urge to evangelize for plant-based living will help you sidestep lots of difficult conversations—and even confrontations.

Instead of trying to sell plant-based living, just live it.

Tip #2: Be Honest

Refraining from evangelizing doesn’t mean you have to hide your new life. After all, someone is bound to notice that you brought Portobello mushrooms instead of a steak to the cookout. If people ask, talk up a storm. Be enthusiastic. Tell them about the benefits and the challenges. If you’re still figuring it out, tell people that.

You’ll navigate social situations more easily if you tell the truth about how good you feel AND about the challenges you face. Eating plant-based while you’re traveling or at holiday gatherings, for example. It can be tough, right? So instead of making plant-based living seem like a food utopia, tell the truth.

Better yet, engage people when you’re talking about some of the difficult situations you’ve been in, like traveling or family gatherings. Tell a funny story. “I ate the entire bowl of salad at Thanksgiving and didn’t leave a leaf for anyone else!” Ask what they would do in your shoes. Making someone else the expert has the effect of breaking down defensiveness and putting them at ease.

Be open. Be honest. About all of it.

TIP #3: Take on Tough Eating Situations

Whether you like it or not, you are inevitably going to face a tough eating situation.

For example, at holiday gatherings where traditional (non-plant-based fare) will be served, why not bring one of your favorite plant-based dishes along? And bring enough for everyone! You’ll have something to eat and you’ll get to share your plant-based goodness with friends!

When you travel, it’s always best to pack a meal and some snacks (I always do!). But if you can’t, try to avoid airport restaurants. Instead find a newsstand or convenience store in the airport. They almost always offer fresh fruit. Or try finding a grab-and-go place that has prepackaged salads.

Dinner out with friends is one of the trickiest. Especially if you don’t get to pick the restaurant. You might find there’s little on the menu for you. You might order a baked potato (no butter, no sour cream) and a salad (or two). Your friends might “feel sorry” for you. They might try to persuade you to “live a little” or tell you “a little won’t hurt you.” Remind yourself you want to live a LOT. Then be polite and stick to your guns.

You may want to call the restaurant ahead of time and ask if the chef can prepare a whole food, plant-based dish for you (they almost always say yes) or you may consider eating something light before you go to the restaurant. That way anything you find on the menu will be plentiful. You are there to spend time with your friends and planning ahead will make the get together special no matter what.

Tip #4: Remember It Is Okay (in Fact, Awesome!) to Be Different

That’s how you chose plant-based living in the first place – you’re different. Whether it’s for health or social reasons, you’re simply different. So why try to fit in? Of course, it can be tough to be the only plant-based eater in a room full of omnivores.

Don’t try to convince anyone.

Don’t try to fit in.

Just be you.

At the end of the day, a few socially uncomfortable moments are well worth the benefits you get from eating plant-based. Just be ready for the inevitable editorial comment you will get from someone.

If you are prepared, you’ll be ready for a prompt, polite response and better able to take their judgments in your stride.

Rosane Oliveira, DVM, PhD

President & CEO, Plant-Based Life Foundation | Dr. Rosane Oliveira combines a lifelong passion for nutrition with 25 years of genetics research to create programs that help people develop healthy habits on their journey towards a more plant-based lifestyle. She is a Visiting Clinical Professor in Public Health Sciences and was the founding director of the first Integrative Medicine program at the UC Davis School of Medicine. She completed her postgraduate studies in Brazil and did her postdoctoral training in immunogenetics and functional genomics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.