How to Deal with Diet Talk
By Rebecca Jaspan, MPH, RD
Recently, many of my clients come to session frustrated because despite all the hard work they have done healing their relationships with food and dismantling their own beliefs about health, they quickly realize that their families and friends are often not on the same page. We live in a world steeped in diet culture where many disordered behaviors are normalized. Family and friends may not even realize that their comments are triggering or harmful.
Going through your own recovery process is challenging and it is helpful to develop some skills and plan for how to respond when these uncomfortable conversations arise. Practicing these skills can feel empowering and prevents your eating disorder voice from growing louder. Here are some tips you can keep in your back pocket the next time someone comments on your food or talks about the next fad diet.
- Take Immediate Positive Action
Imagine there are a box of donuts in the lounge at work. One coworker won’t stop talking about how she wants a donut, but they are so high in calories. Another one is doing the keto diet and avoiding carbohydrates. And another one is eating a donut and saying how “bad” she is. You really want a donut, but comments like these are making you feel guilty and hesitant to grab one. You take a deep breath, grab a chocolate glazed donut and tell them how much you love chocolate donuts while walking back to your desk to move on with the rest of your day.
This action sends the message that you aren’t interested in talking negatively about food and in fact, actions like these can set a powerful example for someone else to eat what they truly want. It helps to deflect, minimize, and even neutralize the conversation and show that eating a donut (or insert any type of food) is not a big deal.
When diet talk is all around you, it can be helpful to share the knowledge you have learned in your nutrition sessions with the people around you. If family members are demonizing carbohydrates, you can respond with “carbohydrates are our body’s main source of energy, did you know that our brain needs 130 grams of carbohydrates a day to function1?”. Maybe friends are all ordering brown rice when you really want white rice. In preparation for a negative comment, you remember that brown only has one more gram of fiber and about the same amount of protein as white rice2. While it’s not your job or responsibility to change other people’s minds, educating may stir up interesting conversation and the desire to learn about a different perspective.
- Be direct
Many of my clients have told me they try to laugh off or ignore comments only to feel more upset later. Unfortunately, your family and friends can’t read your mind and likely won’t take the hint. If you feel comfortable, tell them how you feel and what you need in the most direct way possible. Maybe you say “talking about foods as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ isn’t great for my mental health. My dietitian is helping me neutralize and allow all foods and I am able to enjoy food more”.
Comments may also come in the name of “health”, but really aren’t helpful and actually harmful. You can respond with “I know your comments are coming from a place of caring, but they are causing me harm as I am working on healing my relationship with food. If you’re open to learning, I can send you some resources or we can talk about what you can do to support me”.
Intuitive Eating, Evelyn Tribole, MS, RDN, CEDRD-S and Elyse Resch, MS, RDN, CEDRD-S, FAND
Health at Every Size, Lindo Bacon, PhD
Unapologetic Eating, Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD
- Change the subject or walk away
You always have the option to not engage and remove yourself from a stressful conversation. A simple remark about the beautiful weather when food talk begins can dissipate that conversation quickly. Remind yourself that the things people say are often a reflection of their beliefs about food, they aren’t a judgment on your behavior. And know that doing your own work on your relationship with food and body is enough.
Finally, remember that regardless of diet talk happening around you, it is still necessary to feed yourself adequately every day. As I say to my clients, keep your eyes on your own plate and do what is best for your health and recovery. Aim to eat for nourishment, joy, and pleasure despite the messages you are hearing around you. Your body and mind will thank you.