Best Intentions Aren’t Always the Best Ideas

When a family member has a health issue, you may attempt to restrict his diet. However, you are well advised to moderate your attempt with tact and a dose of respect for him. Otherwise, friction is likely to ensue in spite of your best intentions.

A friend’s father, who was in his 70s and thin to begin with, lost 11 pounds in a short time because of illness. The doctor suggested that he seek out a dietitian to help devise a balanced diet. Because I am a dietician, my friend texted me and asked for help.

My curiosity was piqued when I read the second half of my friend’s text, in which she asked me to persuade her mother to allow her father to eat what he liked. I immediately made an appointment with him for a house call.

Once in his home, I first learned about the treatment plans that his physician had prescribed for him. Then I asked him about his diet.

Every time I asked a question, the patient’s wife rushed to answer it, preempting her husband, who was ready to reply. After this had happened a few times, I asked my friend to find an excuse to take her mother out to the kitchen so her father and I could be alone.

Once his wife had stepped away and we were alone, my patient opened up to me. “My illness has inconvenienced my family. I feel bad about it. But it’s been hard on me, too. I can’t even decide what I get to eat.” He went on to explain that his wife had changed his diet after he had fallen ill—all he could eat now was either steamed or boiled food. No oil. No seasoning. “How can I swallow that?” he asked.

I asked him what he really wanted to eat at that moment. He shook his head in resignation and said, “She’s really strict about my diet. I’ve occasionally wanted to eat nasi lemak [a Malay rice dish cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaf], but there’s no way she’d allow that.”

Taste from memory

During my years of diet counseling, I have often encountered patients who tell me things that they would not normally tell their family. The above episode reminded me of another friend and her father. He complained to everyone he knew that his daughter wouldn’t give him any good food to eat and so he’d lose his appetite at every meal. As a result, family and friends scolded and reprimanded my friend. She felt that she had been unfairly treated, and she was feeling a lot of pressure. She sought me out to vent her frustration.

She said that she had just been cooking for her father, a diabetic, in ways that his doctor and dietitian had required. They had repeatedly pointed out his inability to control his own blood sugar, and the danger his diabetes posed if he did not eat mostly steamed or boiled food or salads. At their advice, she began serving her father the food his body required but that he disliked. It is no wonder his complaints ensued.

These two cases of friction between close family members epitomize the complicated relationships in a family in which members need to care for other members. I had some first-hand experience with this too—after I started to care for my mother.

For a while my mother had a poor appetite. To help improve the situation, I planned to cook some curry for her. I mentioned that I would make the curry with yogurt instead of the usual coconut milk, a recipe I had gotten from an Indian friend. But as soon as my mom learned that I was replacing coconut milk with yogurt in my curry, she politely told me not to cook her portion. She had always been an indirect person, so that was her way of telling me that she did not like curry prepared with yogurt.

That gave me pause. After I began caring for her, I noticed that she would not eat cakes made with butter, nor would she ever add milk to her drinks. Both butter and milk gave off a scent that she could not stand. No wonder she shunned my purposed curry—yogurt, a dairy product, had ruined her appetite for the dish before I even cooked it. Furthermore, she had an unshakeable notion that the most indispensable ingredient for curry was coconut milk, whose unique aroma could not possibly be found in, much less replaced by, any dairy product.

My mother had most certainly acquired these preferences in her younger days. Since such preferences often stay with a person for life, I knew that it would be futile to try to change them. On the other hand, I wouldn’t feel comfortable if I conceded to her preferences either. Anyone who knows anything about nutrition knows that coconut milk is very high in saturated fat and that prolonged consumption of it in immoderate quantities is harmful for the heart.

That being said, all fatty acids, including those found in coconut milk, have a role to play in human health. The key is a balanced diet. We Chinese like to talk about the Doctrine of the Mean—the middle ground between extremes. Doing anything to the extreme, including dieting, is not advised. What is advisable is doing things in moderation.

Heeding that ancient wisdom, I moderated my plan for cooking the curry.

Making curry with a dairy product in place of coconut milk would be quite acceptable for some people but not for others, my mother among them. Therefore, if I had—out of my desire to watch out for her health—insisted on using yogurt to make curry, my mother would surely have refused to eat it. I would likely have felt unappreciated and said to her something like: “For your health, I cooked a healthful curry, but you wouldn’t even eat it!” I don’t know how my mother would have responded to that, but one thing would have been certain: Neither she nor I would have felt happy about the situation.

I recognize that respecting others is a good way to avoid or minimize friction, so here is what I did with my curry: I used coconut milk, as my mother had specified, but with a slight twist. I used low-fat coconut milk and cut down on the amount I used. To compensate for the missing fat and to make my dish more appealing, I used pumpkin—which my mother liked—instead of the more typical potatoes. I also added lion’s mane mushrooms into the mix. My curry, with the pumpkin and the mushrooms, looked deliciously golden and tasted a little sweet. Furthermore, there was the aroma of coconut milk. The taste of the modified dish was heavenly.

While I was still cooking the curry, my mother stepped out of her bedroom and came into the kitchen. She said, “Smells real good. Curry just isn’t right without the fragrance of coconut milk.” I understood that that fragrance, which must have been the scent of her family’s home cooking when she was a young girl, had forever been etched in her memory.

While my mother ate that curry, she could not stop nodding her approval and praising how good it was.

When the craving calls

Another friend of mine had to delegate cooking to her husband when she underwent cancer treatment. Her husband had always been highly disciplined—he had always eaten right without needing reminders from others. After he started cooking, the wife had to eat lightly seasoned food for every meal, which did not satisfy her. One night, she craved something more heavily flavored, so when her husband was sound asleep, she stole out of bed, went to the kitchen, and cooked herself some instant noodles.

Unfortunately, the aroma of the food wafted into their bedroom and woke her husband. A fight ensued. “You know full well that you have a serious illness,” said the husband. “Why are you still cooking and eating such junk food? If you’re hungry, just wake me up and I’ll cook plain noodle soup for you.”

My friend later lamented to me, “I really regret not having a kitchen door installed when we remodeled our house!”

That anecdote really got me thinking. There seems to be a disconnect between the two parties in such fights. Caregivers do their best to make healthy food for their loved ones, but their loved ones do not appreciate their labor of love.

This type of conflict rarely happens to me—either between my mother and me or between my daughter and me. It’s partly because of my belief that everyone is responsible for their own health and their own life. I merely make suggestions—I do not try to control others. I respect whatever they decide to do.

Years of being a dietician has taught me that no one likes to have their diets controlled by their family members. Yes, you want your loved ones to eat healthy food, and they should. But it doesn’t hurt to let them indulge once in a while. It is important to honor their wish to occasionally eat what they really want, however unhealthy that indulgence may seem to you.

Because of my work, I have had more opportunities than most people to hear what caregivers and receivers have to say about why they do what they do, and I have had more opportunities to mediate between the two parties. This has helped me greatly: Mediating others’ conflicts has taught me to think from the standpoint of other people and become good at avoiding or reducing conflicts. It has also helped me realize that one’s best intentions aren’t always the best ideas.

September 2018