Gremlins of the human kind
December 1, 2020 6:23 AM   Subscribe

How does one cope with a domestic partner who's sabotaging your healthy way of eating by bringing junk food into the house?

I have a friend (really) who's recently been able to release a lot of extra weight via a healthy way of eating.

Their partner is not being very supportive: they're bringing a lot of junk food into the house. The holidays are providing an excuse for an uptick in this behavior as they generally do. Friend can't leave the house too much at the moment, and so they can't get away from the onslaught.

Friend is definitely looking to me and others for suggestions on how to cope. I'm not partnered, and honestly I have a very short fuse about issues like this: I'd be on the verge of leaving if it were me. Given more facts that I won't enumerate, that's not the right answer here. So I'm drawing a blank when it comes to how to advise friend.

Have you successfully coped, longterm, with diet sabotage on the part of a domestic partner without having to yeet partner? If so, how did you do it?
posted by Sheydem-tants to Human Relations (26 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It's fair for your friend to not want to eat junk food. It's not fair for your friend to say their partner can't eat junk food. They could come to some compromise where partner hides junk food and doesn't eat it around friend: that would be compassionate of partner. But friend has to take responsibility for their own actions. Temptations suck, but presumably partner is not forcing friend to eat junk food. If partner's way of coping with 2020 is eating junk food it seems cruel to take that away. But if friend's way of dealing with 2020 is staying away from junk food they just need to talk it out like adults and come to a solution that will work for both. If they're unwilling to treat each other like adults (with both compassion and agency), then a breakup is probably appropriate.
posted by rikschell at 6:32 AM on December 1, 2020 [66 favorites]

There is a mantra:
Hungry? Plenty of sardines!

And there are two interchangeable scripts to use depending on the general mood:

Those are P's chips. I don't eat chips. Besides. Those are P's chips. I hope P will enjoy those chips and have a lovely time because I love P. Hungry? Plenty of sardines!

I WILL NOT BE THWARTED! Chips are the despised enemy, and I will not touch a single damnable one of them. I will add vegetables into P's meals wherever possible to offset these execrable chips and thus stave off the metabolic disease. Hungry? Plenty of sardines!
posted by Don Pepino at 6:46 AM on December 1, 2020 [9 favorites]

Some specific suggestions:
- your friend could reasonably ask partner to support them and not bring in junk food for a while but I don't think its fair to call it sabotage if they want to continue eating it. Perhaps they can make some kind of agreement to cook for each other within a range that your friend can eat?
- partner could do various things short of not having the food they want - sometimes just not proactively offering it can be enough, but hiding it out of sight of your friend, maybe even eating it separately might do the trick.
posted by crocomancer at 6:48 AM on December 1, 2020 [4 favorites]

Best answer: As someone who's been on a weight-loss/healthy eating journey for the better part of 20 years, I sympathize with your friend. But part of your friend's journey has to include making peace with unhealthy food and being in proximity to it. For a while in our house, I would ask that specific items not be bought if I knew I couldn't control myself (hello, queso, I miss you). We also buy single-serve bags whenever possible, even though it's more expensive and wasteful packaging, because it helps me with portion control in a way that having an open big bag of -Itos does not. But I've never felt it was fair for me to declare that no one in the house could have a certain type of food, just because it was difficult for me.

It sounds like there are other issues at play in this relationship, given the mental leap to sabotage, but I agree with others that your friend has to continue the hard work around their relationship with food. It's not easy.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 6:53 AM on December 1, 2020 [21 favorites]

My family and I have significantly different dietary needs, and my solution is to fundamentally not regard their food as edible to me. I shop and cook/bake for them, even, and just don't consume their stuff. Having plenty of food of my own helps, because it's definitely harder to be actually hungry when all of the easy options are not the correct choices, but really, it's a mindset thing. No matter how hungry I was, I wouldn't actually think that, I don't know, scented playdough in the shape of food was actually something worth eating, right? So too with all of the many, many foods they eat that I should not.
posted by teremala at 6:57 AM on December 1, 2020 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Behavior change benefits from an environment that supports the change. I would encourage your friend to ask their partner to help them create environments that support them in making healthy choices. This might mean two cupboards or even two fridges. The design goal would be to create a space where friend could go and eat anything they saw and feel okay about it, and they could work to avoid the place(s) where junk food are stored.
posted by 10ch at 6:59 AM on December 1, 2020 [12 favorites]

Best answer: There's a vegan chef named Chef AJ who works with what she calls food addiction* and talks about this issue with her husband. One solution they've used is for him to put food she wants to avoid in a box that locks. That way, he can have his food in the house and she doesn't eat it.

*The idea of food addiction is controversial, but that's the lens she operates through, and viewing it that way seems to work for her.
posted by FencingGal at 7:09 AM on December 1, 2020 [11 favorites]

Best answer: I get this. If your friend has problems with food, it's just not fair to have it in the house. It's like leaving alcohol lying around in a house with an alcoholic. People saying your friend should just learn self-restraint are not being fair or realistic. A locked, hidden box for the junk food is the best solution. Ultimately, they will have to have to talk this through and come to a long-term understanding, because long-term changes will require a supportive partner, and it maybe that the partner has their own issues around weight and resentment to figure out.
posted by EllaEm at 7:16 AM on December 1, 2020 [15 favorites]

The trunk of a car makes a very nice "locked box" for junk food (if they have a car and can conveniently park near the house / in their garage and the climate is suitable)
posted by evilmomlady at 7:31 AM on December 1, 2020 [5 favorites]

I'm dating someone and we have the same duality (I'm super healthy and they...well, are a bit more lax), and they've been staying with me a few weeks so I feel your friend's pain.

My strategy is: out of sight, out of mind. He keeps his junk food in a place where I can't find it or I don't have easy access to. Usually I eat junk food impulsively if it's around, so it really has helped if I have to make any extra effort to get my hands on it. Ideally your friend's partner would be willing to do the same.
posted by Young Kullervo at 7:33 AM on December 1, 2020 [4 favorites]

Is this deliberate or accidental sabotage? I ask because my mother used to eat my chocolate when on a diet; as I was not deliberately sabotaging her diet, me hiding my chocolate was a win-win because she was not sabotaged and I actually had more chocolate than a single folorn square left in the wrapper. But the issue is if it's deliberate sabotage on the part of the partner (for whatever reason) - because if it is they will push back against whatever coping strategies that healthy-eating-partner uses, and that makes things super difficult.
posted by Vortisaur at 7:43 AM on December 1, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: This isn't really an either/or situation. I have three adults and two kids in the home, with various eating issues and dietary needs. My husband lost 80 lbs, my MIL lost over a hundred and I lost 30 on WW years ago and we are all generally at healthy weights, which is indeed hard work.

I think your friend needs to negotiate all the parts of eating, not just one part. Here's how we manage it:

- Meals are as close to everyone-friendly as possible. So for example, my MIL is on a low-carb diet but she loves mashed potatoes, so I don't put mashed potatoes in front of her.

- Obvious food (fridge, main cupboards) generally adheres to overall principles. So for example, my kids do eat pasta in their lunches from time to time, so we have pasta in the cupboard, but we store it in an area that's not near the sardines/tuna/pickles/etc. and we don't have instant/frozen around (ew anyway, but).

- Food on the counter (fruit, cherry tomatoes, sunflower seeds, etc.) adheres mostly to people's needs.

- I think this is actually the big secret: We prepare the "good" (UGH LANGUAGE) food that the other person finds better for their weak moments and put it front and centre. So, for example, we talk about what we want to eat, and together we'll prepare a bin of chopped and washed cauliflower/broccoli/carrot/celery pieces weekly and that sits at the front of the fridge. If things are portioned we might package that up on Sunday for a few days' lunch. It's proactive support rather than just judging the bad food - making it easier to make good choices and harder to make the self-medicating ones. This is actually an easier ask -- help me put the edamame front and centre -- than "please don't eat your tacos in the house ever."

- Treat food is hidden but not locked in our house. We do avoid stocking people's sort of Main Problematic Thing or we do the single-serving thing, but we also all fall down on this, especially in the middle of a global pandemic.

I sense in your tone that you are really judging the person who is eating junk food. You know the situation better than I do, but food is not morality (unless you are keeping it from starving people or running PepsiCo or shaking a Dorito bag at someone or something similarly aggressive). My husband and I have each gone through food/fitness fanatic phases, and my MIL's health really is diet-dependent, and there is a real pressure to treat anyone not adhering to Whatever That Is as misguided; it's a mental trick that helps the person following it stay on track.

But food is complex and I think it's a really big ask to require a partner to adhere to every change in one's own diet. I think it's important to have compassion for them too. Sometimes that means it takes a little longer to reach health goals, collectively, but then it's also sustainable.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:53 AM on December 1, 2020 [22 favorites]

Also, sorry, we all lost weight at different times, that was unclear. Since I went to a WW group at work I'll just add that WW had a lot of information about how to handle family/group situations, which was interesting. Your friend might want to look into that for ideas too.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:58 AM on December 1, 2020

Response by poster: Clarifying: I have some reason to believe that the junk food in the house is sabotage (intentional or unconscious, the result is the same) and not just the partner's food preference.

Not going to threadsit... reading all responses and getting helpful suggestions.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 7:58 AM on December 1, 2020

Best answer: I have a weird food equals love, you're eating healthy I can't love you here I'm buying your favorite snacks because I love you even though I fully support your healthy eating and sabotaging you without meaning to because food equals love death spiral. His weight loss & healthy eating well it all ends up about me in my mind his rejection of me as a I am fat & he will end up hating me because he's going to be fit and skinny and I will not as he's rejecting my love/food and I'm going to die all alone while he's all handsome & popular. Even though he is only dieting because his doctor told him to for his health that is how my brain is taking it. My stupid scared monkey brain hates change & feels rejected. Unpacking all this is still a work in progress, but we're working on it.

So anyway after a lot of communication & talking & trying things, we started the treat cupboard. I can buy what I want & put it in there filling my need to feed with the idea that it is there if he wants it, but he never opens or goes in the cupboard. The part of me that wants him to have tasty tasty treats is satiated, and he does not go in the cupboard, never sees the snacks and mostly I eat them when he's not around. Food that is in common areas like in the fridge or in the counter is stuff he can eat with no problems and the first thing he sees when looking for food.
posted by wwax at 8:22 AM on December 1, 2020 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Is the partner possibly threatened by your friend's weight loss? It is not unheard of to me that a partner branching out, getting more fit, maybe spending more time with friends, etc. can feel threatening to an insecure spouse. This could be especially the case if there are other relationship issues. Feeling threatened certainly does not excuse the sabotage, assuming your sense that it is sabotage is correct, but it would certainly change my approach in how I would address the issue with my partner. If this applies, working on the relationship problem from a place of respect and compassion for the insecurity could really help. Of course, this may not apply.

That said, I have a really hard time with self-control around food especially when my mental health is bad. Plus, I am a short, cis female office worker and husband is a bigger-than-me cis male human who works as a cook and is therefore on his feet all day. As a result, he needs substantially more calories than I do and has 'room' calorically for more of it be alcohol or junk food. This presents a challenge - I need to eat lower calorie, reduced carb/starch, more vegetable-based dinners than are enough to satisfy him but if he cooks extra portions then I will overeat especially rice/pasta. Of note, he does essentially all the dinner cooking, I just handle my own lunches and much of our kid's meals.

So, how do we accommodate both partners different needs? We focus on my weight loss/nutrient needs for dinner, and when he is selecting snacks he focuses on getting mainly ones that I don't like as much or don't like at all. So he gets Cool Ranch Doritos (because I cannot resist Nacho Cheese Doritos or Cheetos, but Cool Ranch doesn't whet my appetite), or pistachios (expensive yes but I hate nuts so I am never tempted) and various other things that are less tempting to me. AND, I buy myself healthy snacks that I can have so that if his snacking triggers me then I have a string cheese stick or a measured serving size of Goldfish crackers or a bowl of highly nutritious cereal with almond milk (I read labels on cereal obsessively and buy high fiber, high protein, low added sugar). I also use a lot of other tricks that I (as a lurker until today) see commonly on AskMe - brush your teeth when you are done eating. I use a calorie tracker. I plan for my snacks and include them in my daily meal plan, that way I'm less open to impulse because I planned to have a cheese stick and cereal, you know?

But, the approach of "Okay I know you need and want snacks and I respect that, here are a couple of things that are so tempting to me that I would love you to avoid as often as you reasonably can," goes down a lot smoother and more mutually satisfying than "I don't want to eat chips therefore we can't ever have chips in the house and if you do buy them anyway that is so disrespectful that I will leave you." (Not trying to say that is the tone your friend used at all, just showing a possibly other end of the spectrum).
posted by MustangMamaVE at 8:22 AM on December 1, 2020 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Me and my partner invented a "black hole" system. We each have a designated small cupboard where we each keep our own special foods and junk foods that we don't want to share. One is Not Allowed Under Any Circumstances to look in someone else's black hole. I also use my half to store food presents, he also uses his to store 99% empty jars of peanut butter.

This system could give your friend AND your friend's partner a simple, structured way to practice respecting each others' boundaries together.
posted by aniola at 8:30 AM on December 1, 2020 [9 favorites]

If it's indeed sabotage then your friend's partner will ignore any of these suggestions, and in that case, well...that's another discussion to have.
posted by Young Kullervo at 8:34 AM on December 1, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If this is done in bad faith there's very little you can do to mitigate it - they won't store it somewhere special, eat it on their own, not offer it, "respect" any boundaries. Any commentary on it will just make them double down. Trying to get them to comply with a snack cabinet or any kind of rules could be anything from fruitless to dangerous, depending on this person's temperament.

Hopefully your friend is allowed to keep their own "treats" or quick-grab foods that work with their eating plan; often abusers won't allow that, they'll eat, spoil, or throw them away.

Pretty much all you can do is resolve to not let the asshole win no matter how dirty they play, and talk to a lawyer once you're ready.

Maybe this is just a case of emotional immaturity,'s a fine line. Undermining a partner's reasonable health or appearance goals, particularly if those are perceived to make the partner more "marketable" elsewhere, is abuse whether it's "unconscious" or not.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:37 AM on December 1, 2020 [6 favorites]

linguistic framing: i don't think 'sabotage' can be unconcious. it strongly implies intention.

this is true at the same time:
Undermining a partner' abuse whether it's "unconscious" or not.
posted by j_curiouser at 8:46 AM on December 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

Ultimately, I feel like people who have the most successful changes are those who partners are onboard with the change. And maybe that's not the whole diet, maybe that's doing things a little bit differently, or working on one substitution at a time to try it out, or eliminating one junk food from the rotation. But partners, who we eat with the most, need to have some sort of respect and support, especially for someone who feels that temptation is too much. (Though that can also be a sign of over dieting as well, which is a frustrating component especially if you don't understand what is happening. Making sure any diet is actually an achievable, realistic and safe way to lose weight is important for any dieter).

Some suggestions: trying out a medium alternative for the most temping junk food of all. That might be a lower sugar version, or a smaller portion verson or a hide it from me version. But ultimately the more things that partner can bring in line with dieter, the better and more supported dieter will feel. It doesn't have to be perfect, but if you can do soy chorizo instead of pork, why not just switch it over.

My friend has been doing this with her partner for a bit, and slowly moved him closer to vegitarianism. She's now vegan, and there are plenty of meals that they've established over the last couple years that work for the both of them, but it didn't happen all at once. And there are things he refuses to give up (cheese!) that stay in the house and things he eats out or preps two different versions of (veggie burger and beef burger).
posted by AlexiaSky at 8:47 AM on December 1, 2020

Best answer: I had a similar dynamic and found this book really helpful for framing what was motivating these behaviors: Your Diet is Driving Me Crazy. It’s twenty case studies from a variety of perspectives, including those from the person trying to eat healthier and the person (intentionally or not) undermining them.

Your friend might also like some of Geneen Roth’s work (I do) in helping them understand themselves or their partner. I haven’t read it yet but this looks interesting—When Food is Love:Exploring the Relationship Between Eating and Intimacy.
posted by stellaluna at 9:37 AM on December 1, 2020 [5 favorites]

I am in the same scenario except in my partner's case it's because he wants to eat junk food, not because he wants me to eat badly. If your friend really does have solid, convincing evidence ("some reason to believe" could mean a very broad spectrum of things) that their partner is buying junk food purely to intentionally sabotage their eating habits, that's a very different and extremely toxic scenario.

So without getting into that aspect, yes, it's very tough if you've relied on keeping junk food out of the house your whole life as I have. Some things that have helped me:

-try to keep most of the junk food in closed cabinets or ideally further away like in the basement
-making a habit of not looking in the junk cabinets or "just browsing" in the junk food locations
-if there are treats you are ok with eating, keep those somewhere else so you don't have to go in the junk cabinets
-if you cook, make healthier meals so junk food has less of an impact on overall diet
-keep yourself well-supplied with healthier snack options that you find legitimately appealing
-try to think of your partner's junk food as "theirs" (easier said than done, I know)

As annoying as it is, I strongly disagree with the idea that bringing junk food into the house inherently says anything bad about the partner's character, unless there are good reasons to think something nefarious is going on.
posted by randomnity at 11:35 AM on December 1, 2020 [3 favorites]

Learning to resist attempts at sabotage and find pleasure in triumphing over them is part of any successful weightloss effort. See any office party. Transfatfrosted grocery store sheetcake that is actively unpleasant to eat and leads inexorably to diabetes for all who partake. Nevertheless the whole office buzzes like something special and fun is happening. The fanfare for it goes on for days and in the moment there is side-eye for anyone who resists. God help you if your boss is a cake partisan and you stand there smiling in their face while not eating it.

It is war.
Fight back. Fight dirty.
With sardines.
Hardly anyone likes them, and zero persons like them enough to binge on them; they're great for you; they're filling; no yen for schlock snacks--or any snacks--can persist once you crack the can and release the perdurable piscine stankfog.
posted by Don Pepino at 12:42 PM on December 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

Both parties have valid needs. In Relationships we try to support our Partners' needs. Hey Partner, it's really hard for me to follow my preferred eating plan when there's chips, pepperoni, salami, cookies, chips, sour cream dip, etc., in the house. How can we make life work for *both* of us?

There are options above, and:
Eater #1 can make lots of healthier and tasty food, like roasted vegetables, cut up fresh veg, whatever else is deemed yummy and appropriate.
Eater #2 can keep super-irresistible high-salt-fat-sugar in a less-accessible place.
I'd focus less on perceived intention and more on behavior.
posted by theora55 at 3:30 PM on December 1, 2020

Maybe this is just a case of emotional immaturity,'s a fine line. Undermining a partner's reasonable health or appearance goals, particularly if those are perceived to make the partner more "marketable" elsewhere, is abuse whether it's "unconscious" or not.

No. A person being able to have the food they want in their house is not abuse.

I'm going to say that we should also think about the partner: don't they too have the right to eat what they want? Reasonable: Asking people not to eat a specific triggery food, or putting it in a section of the cupboard. Not reasonable: Asking them to either hide it in an odd place like a car boot, or not have it at all in the house. Especially considering there's a pandemic on and the partner is likely spending more time at home.
posted by daybeforetheday at 7:45 PM on December 1, 2020 [9 favorites]

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