Recently, I’ve had one friend gush about his low-carb diet, another about his calorie-counting app, and another about the new weight loss program she’s following. There have also been several instances of people discussing others’ bodies and eating habits as if they were any of their business.
I don’t know if it’s the pandemic, some sort of post-summer weight gain panic, or just that my resurgent social life (thanks to looser restrictions in England) has reminded me of how pervasive diet talk really is, but boy did I not miss this.
When these topics come up, I enter into a white-hot rage that I have to work hard to curb, and I often come out with a cutting comment. As someone who struggled with disordered eating habits for close to a decade, and who has only recently made peace with food and weight gain, I want these diet culture subscribers to know how harmful this kind of talk (and its associated behaviors) can be.
The truth is, though, however uncomfortable it may make me, it’s not my place to reprimand them. They’re on their own journey and I’m not their therapist, or their dietitian, or their mother, and the way I react only makes things uncomfortable — it doesn’t help anyone.
They’re on their own journey and I’m not their therapist, or their dietitian, or their mother, and the way I react only makes things uncomfortable — it doesn’t help anyone.
Unfortunately, diet talk isn’t going anywhere any time soon. As much as we’ve made progress in the past few years — with magazines banning the term “bikini body,” nutrition professionals moving away from recommending weight loss for its own sake, and more and more people beginning to grasp the inextricable links between diet culture and white supremacy — many (if not most) of us still actively pursue weight loss, as well as following whatever restrictive diet is the flavor of the month, and judging other people’s bodies and habits unprompted.
As long as diet talk crops up around us, we’ll have to find ways to make our peace with it — which isn’t a one-size-fits-all. I spoke to eating disorder therapist Shira Rosenbluth LCSW, certified eating disorder registered dietitian Casey Bonano and non-diet registered dietitian Kirsten Ackerman to help you balance your diet talk boundaries with compassion for others who don’t have the same history with food as you do.
First things first, what’s diet talk?
Diet talk is pretty much exactly what it sounds like, namely people discussing their specific — and often restrictive — diets, a topic of conversation that is extremely common among friends, family or colleagues. “Less obvious forms of diet talk may be talking negatively about your or other people’s food or bodies, discussing calories, describing foods as good or bad, and describing yourself as being good or bad based on what you are eating,” Bonano says.
Why is diet talk harmful?
Diet talk can often lead both the talker and the talkee to feel that their body is wrong, or that the food they eat is wrong. For people with disordered eating habits or diagnosed eating disorders, this kind of talk can quickly become distressing.
“Diet talk makes me feel deeply uncomfortable,” says Chloe Faulkner, who struggles with an eating disorder. “I feel angry that this is how the world works, and that the majority of those discussing diet have struggled their whole life on one fad or another.”
As for Rachel Charlene Lewis, a writer and editor based in North Carolina, diet talk makes her feel anxious. “I hate the idea that people are thinking about me and my body and what it looks like and how big or small it is,” she says. “[Diet talk] also just forces to the surface a wide range of body negative thoughts, and the idea that food is bad, bodies are bad, and we need to change our bodies to be worthy.”
Faulkner and Lewis are among many women I spoke to who feel uncomfortable when diet talk comes up, but many people don’t even realize that they’re doing it — or that their words can be harmful. “Unfortunately diet talk is considered so normal, people typically do not pick up on it until they are on the journey of changing their relationship with food,” Bonano says.
“I hate the idea that people are thinking about me and my body and what it looks like and how big or small it is.”
Diet talk isn’t going anywhere any time soon, so how can you make your peace with it?
When you’re on a journey to heal your relationship with food and move away from dieting, you may, like me, have a strong negative reaction to diet talk in your circles. That said, as long as we as a society are entrenched in diet culture, diet talk will inevitably happen and you can’t possibly fight it every time it does.
“It’s really important to consider how much energy you have in the moment and to remember that you don’t have to tackle and dismantle diet culture at all times,” Rosenbluth says. “That can really cause you to burn out and feel exhausted!
But just because you may sometimes have to let diet talk happen without trying to correct it doesn’t mean you are condemned to live in discomfort forever. “I promise you can get to a place where diet talk no longer impacts you, your mood, or your behaviors,” Bonano says. “You will get to a place where it just rolls right off you without sticking.”
When you’re in recovery, or you’ve become aware of all the ways diet culture is harmful, it can make you pretty angry. “It is easy to take out this anger on others who are engaging in diet talk,” Ackerman says. “In time, you realize that taking diet talk as a personal attack can be a waste of your energy. You realize that it is not the fault of the dieter or the person speaking diet talk.
For Ackerman, it’ll be easier for you to deal with diet talk if you can separate the diet talker from diet culture as a whole — each of us has to learn to navigate our unique relationship with food within a disordered culture, and we don’t get to decide what that journey looks like for anyone but ourselves.
What are some healthy ways to respond to diet talk?
Change the subject
Changing the subject is the easiest way to respond to diet talk without causing any extra discomfort. There are two ways to do this: First is to introduce a new subject or steer the conversation away from the topics that don’t sit well with you. “If I feel like the topic can’t be changed, I try moving it to a conversation that focuses more on health than looks since it’s the latter that I find uncomfortable and harmful,” says Anmol Irfan, who often has to field unwanted comments on her body or weight.
The second way to change the subject is to state your discomfort and ask the people you’re with if you can talk about something else. “With close friends and family, I say it makes me uncomfortable and that I’d rather not hear about their new abs/diet/weight loss goals,” Lewis says. The experts agree that setting a boundary like this can get your message across in a productive way and bring the conversation back onto safer ground.
Leave the conversation
If you have tried to change the subject or expressed your discomfort to someone and they continue to engage in diet talk, it’s probably a good idea to leave the conversation if you’re able to. “You can respond to diet talk in a healthy way by removing yourself from the situation,” Ackerman says.
Unfortunately, of course, you can’t always physically leave the room, in which case you might find it useful to just disengage. “My immediate reaction is to be quiet,” Faulkner says. “I listen as a means of being polite but I’ll not pass comment or state anything about my own diet or health. Ideally, I would like to leave the conversation altogether but in certain circumstances, it’s not always possible without seeming rude.”
Explain why diet talk makes you uncomfortable
“In some cases, if you’re ready and have the energy (and you think the person is open), educating friends and family on why this kind of talk is unhelpful can be empowering,” Rosenbluth says. Tell them about your relationship with food and how you’ve come to understand that dieting and body-shaming are harmful — try to keep it personal to you and remember the people you’re talking to aren’t necessarily coming from the same place as you. Be patient with them and remember you can always change the subject if it gets too much.
What are some less healthy ways to respond to diet talk?
When you’re on the way to freeing yourself from diet culture, it can be hard to understand why anyone would still choose to subscribe to it, despite the fact that “the overwhelming evidence on dieting is that it more often than not leads to weight cycling,” according to Rosenbluth.
Think about all the time, effort and unlearning it took for you to give up on dieting, or aspiring to the “perfect body.” Chances are you wouldn’t have listened to anyone who told you to just eat the damn cupcake when you were in the thick of diet culture yourself — try extending that understanding to those around you. “My first recommendation is to try not to convert anyone,” Bonano says. “Some individuals are not in the same place or on the same journey and that is OK. If people are not ready for this information you will […] end up wasting a lot of your energy.”
“Becoming defensive, argumentative, or combative generally does not go well,” Bonano continues. “Letting go of dieting is very counter to our culture and there is a big learning curve. You can always ask if the person is interested in hearing your perspective, offer to explain what your journey has been like, or offer to provide resources about the topic.”
Bottom line: You can’t convert anyone, but you can both protect your energy and offer your perspective on diet talk with compassion and understanding.
Before you go, check out some of our favorite inspiring quotes to develop positive attitudes about food and bodies: