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Finding food freedom is a pretty magical thing. I’ve heard people describe it feeling like a sigh of relief. Although the process of making peace with food is often scary and exhausting and looks very much like a wavy line that gradually trends upwards, rather than the straight upwards progression that we expect, when you’re in a place where you’re no longer beholden to diet culture, it feels pretty damn good. Except for one thing…
Diet talk becomes hella annoying.
When a colleague tells you all the details about their new raw vegan locavore diet it makes you want to pluck out your eyelashes one by one. A high school friend shares an article on facebook about how gluten is the devil, and you resist the urge to hop on a plane, fly to your hometown, and beat them over the head with a French baguette. Thanks to Goop, you can no longer watch Gwyneth Paltrow movies without thinking of bone broth, intermittent fasting, and smoothies made with $100 powders. A shame, because Sliding Doors is a classic.
Sometimes that frustration with diet talk leads to frustration with, well, yourself – for still feeling a bit of intrigue, even when your eyes have been opened to the ineffectiveness of dieting, and the harm caused by diet culture. It’s really normal to be tempted by diet talk, even when you know better. Dealing with diet talk is especially triggering when you’re in a more vulnerable place in recovery. It can also lead to feelings in intense body shame, especially if you are in a larger body, or are bigger than the people engaging in diet talk.
I think it was on the podcast Love, Food that I first heard the phrase “living in a culture with it’s own eating disorder.” Truth. We live in an extremely fatphobic society that’s obsessed with thinness and dieting and performing health. Because of that, dieting has become a normal thing to talk about, despite the harm and discomfort it causes. Many people don’t realize how pervasive diet talk is until they decide to stop dieting.
Unfortunately, pretty much all of us have people we love who are actively dieting. Even if you don’t, if you’re a human who watches TV, goes on social media, or doesn’t wear noiseproof headphones every time you leave the house, you’re going to be exposed to diet talk. How do you continue to live, work, love, or just communicate with someone whose beliefs, words and actions are causing harm? How do you deal with diet talk without sealing yourself in a protective bubble?
When I work with clients who are dealing with diet talk, we talk about setting two layers of protection. The first layer of protection is all about reducing exposure. The second is about reducing the internalization of diet talk. Essentially, when you are inevitably exposed to diet talk, how can you prevent yourself from getting triggered or internalizing the message.
Let’s talk about those two layers separately.
How to Reduce Exposure to Diet Talk:
Here are some ideas for reducing exposure to diet talk:
If someone you love is consistently bringing up dieting, food, and weight, it is OK to ask them to stop. Setting boundaries can feel really scary, but there are a lot of polite and non-confrontational ways to ask someone to chill with the diet talk. Here’s a few brief scrips that may be helpful:
“I’m really trying to work on my relationship with food and my body right now. I know you’re not meaning to be hurtful, but this conversation is upsetting me. Can we talk about something else?”
“I know dieting has been a big topic of conversation for us in the past, but I’m learning how harmful it has been for me and I’m trying to stop managing my weight. I know you’re continuing to diet, and that’s totally OK, but I have to ask you to not bring up your weight or dieting when we hang out.”
“I’m in eating disorder recovery and hearing about other people’s weight and diets isn’t good for my mental health. Can we make those off limits topics?”
Unfortunately, not everyone will respect the boundaries you set, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have the right to set them.
Change the subject or remove yourself from the situation.
If it feels too uncomfortable to set boundaries, or unexpected diet talk arises, it’s OK to just remove yourself from the situation or change the topic. I’m a big fan of using a pee emergency as an excuse. It is also helpful to have some celebrity gossip in your back pocket to change the topic. One thing that’s guaranteed to be more interesting than diet talk? Brittany Spears new memoir.
Curate your environment/social circle.
To reduce exposure to diet talk, it may be necessary to curate both your social circle and your social media. That doesn’t mean you have to coldly cut people you care about out of your life (although in some situations, it may be extremely appropriate to cut relationships with people who don’t respect your boundaries around diet talk). Hit unfollow or mute people on social media who are continuously talking about food, weight, and dieting. Limit time spent with people who are actively dieting, or plan activities where it is less likely to come up, perhaps going to the movies or doing a book club where conversation is focused on something else.
Drop some knowledge and grow your community.
OK, so you don’t have to become an intuitive eating evangelist, and in fact, that can very easily backfire and cause people to become more entrenched in their dieting beliefs. However, I do think it can be helpful to drop a little kernel of knowledge in a non-judgmental way with people who might be receptive. It doesn’t have to be cited statistics from a journal article or anything intense, but little bits of information that might get people curious to learn more. Here’ some ideas:
“I used to feel really bad about dieting and gaining weight back, but then I learned that over 60% of people who diet gain back more weight than they lost in the first place. I realized it wasn’t a willpower thing!”
“I stopped restricting carbs when I learned that glucose is our brains main source of fuel, and I’ve learned my energy and focus is SO much better when I include carbs at my meals and snacks. It’s seriously made such a big difference in how I feel!”
“I know your doctor is telling you to lose weight for your PCOS, but I also know lots of thin people with PCOS? I wonder if there’s anything else they can do to help?”
How to Not Internalize Diet Talk
When you’re exposed to diet talk, it’s easy to internalize what’s being said and make it about your body, or worse, your value. Even if diet talk is directed at you (which is extremely painful), it’s always about the other person, their fatphobia, and their insecurities.
And yet, it’s really hard to be exposed to diet talk and not leave that conversation feeling a little bit shitty.
No matter what you do to reduce your exposure to diet talk, you will be exposed to it at some point. How can you leave those experiences not feeling so bad about yourself? Here’s a few things I’ve found to be helpful for clients:
Master the “oh honey” attitude.
One of my clients came up with this trick, and I just love it! When someone talks about their diet, internally (let’s not say it out loud!) respond with a Marshall-from-How-I-Met-Your-Mother-style “Oh honey!” gif It’s sort of silly, so it lightens the emotional response, but also is a helpful reminder of just how absurd diet culture is.
Anger, when it’s directed at diet culture and not yourself, can be healing. It’s very appropriate to get angry at a really effed up system that’s making a massive amount of money by demanding that we spend our valuable time and energy trying to make our bodies smaller, and harming those who are unable to, or chose not to participate in their game. Take that anger that you’ve directed internally, for not having the “willpower” to stick to a diet, and point it towards those who deserve your ire.
Respond with compassion.
While diet talk is hella annoying, the reality is that you probably engaged in quite a bit of it in the past too. Friends or family members may have been rolling their eyes and “oh honey’ing” you for talking about your latest diet plan or sharing what you learned on Facebook about the evils of gluten! It’s painful to think about, but also very likely that you unintentionally hurt people with fatphobic remarks.
Of course, this was likely unintentional, as you were navigating life in a fatphobic culture. It doesn’t make you a bad person, just a human being. Hopefully you can feel compassion for your former self, as well as compassion for others who are navigating diet culture. Remind yourself of the pain you felt when you were trapped in the cycle of dieting and body hate, and just know that they are in that same pain. Dieters are doing the best they can with the knowledge, support and self worth they have in that moment. It’s that diet culture that deserves your anger, not the victims of it. But also Gwyneth Paltrow too.
This post was originally published August 2016. It has been updated to give you the best possible content.