How to Handle Negative Food and Body Talk

For the past year, I have been working full time in eating disorder treatment.  I’m currently the dietitian for a residential treatment center, and have been at this level of care in various roles.  I spend Monday through Friday working away with a team of all female coworkers…and nobody talks about their diet or their body. 

I know what you’re probably thinking – WHAT!?!? How is that possible? 

It’s not until I talk to family or friends about their jobs that I realize my situation truly is rare.  I hear so many struggles that people close to me have with those around them who are constantly body bashing, raving about a diet, criticizing themselves for not being on a diet, making negative comments about “bad” food, and more!  One of the most common questions I get is: what do I say? Cue today’s post! I’m going to lay out some tips and tricks for dealing with the negativity around you. Let’s dive in!

What do I say when someone won’t stop talking about his/her diet?

I really love the mantra “good for her, not for me”. It’s so hard to force someone to change, and if they don’t have the motivation to do so, then you’re really not doing any good.  What’s more helpful for your coping in that situation is to simply communicate that you do not want to engage. When most people start talking about a diet, they expect commiseration.  We often bond over what we hate (our bodies, weight gain, etc) and when that response doesn’t happen, it can make someone stop and think. A response as simple as “I’m glad that’s working for you” or “I’m sorry to hear you’re struggling with that” can send the message that you are not one to babble on about food rules.

What do I do when my friend/coworker is always hating on her body?

Similar to diet and food rule talk, people expect commiseration when they are talking badly about their bodies.  It is so common for someone to join into criticism of their own body when a friend is criticizing hers. We also are so quick to tell someone she’s wrong when she is talking about how ugly/fat/fill in the blank she is.  How has this gone for you? My guess is that you’re met with resistance.

“I’m so fat”

“No you’re not!”

“Yes, I am”

Isn’t that how it usually goes?  Not so helpful. Again, a different response is so unusual that it can force your friend into rethinking comments.  If someone says “I’m so fat” the last thing you’d want to say is “No you’re not!”.  Not only is this just going to perpetuate an annoying back and forth, it also reinforces the belief that fat is bad and that nobody should be fat.  In reality, fat is a descriptor and not a negative personality trait. Fat is nothing to be afraid of! We all have it, and our bodies need it. We are socialized to hate it, and breaking that cycle means changing the way we talk about it.  If someone in your life constantly complains about their fat (or cellulite, or ugliness, or stretch marks) changing the subject can be helpful.  

You might want to set a firm boundary – “I don’t want to talk about bodies when we spend time together”.  

A sassy response can be attention grabbing.  If someone says “I feel fat” I love to say “fat is not a feeling”.  Or you can tell someone “you’re not fat, you have fat and so do I so let’s move on”.  Another tactic is reflecting to the person what they are actually saying. Often we think of ourselves as unicorns – nobody deserves such mean comments except for us.  Reflecting comments shows someone what they are saying and how it sounds. You can turn a comment on yourself and ask someone “what would you say if I said that about myself?”  Depending on the relationship, you can point out how the person tells you not to talk about yourself that way but then turns it on themselves. It simply doesn’t make sense!  

What do I say when someone is talking negatively about FOOD?

Have you ever been in this situation – you’re eating a salad for lunch and someone sees your plate and comments ‘oh you’re so good!’ or alternatively you’re eating a slice of pizza and get a comment along the lines of ‘I wish I could eat that’.  People who constantly talk about food are most likely not in a good space (at all) with food. In the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, subjects who were deprived of food become preoccupied with it.  When someone is on a diet (and restricting their intake) they can’t help but think about food (and comment on it) all the time.  If you think about that, it can help tap into empathy for someone who has little brain space for any other types of thoughts! 

It’s also helpful to speak the opposite of what the commenter is expecting (notice a pattern here?).  When someone bashes food, they expect the other person to agree! If a coworkers calls your pizza slice “bad” it will be unexpected for you to reply with “I love pizza!”  Another way to clarify that you will not engage in diet talk is to reinforce that someone else’s food negativity will not change your eating habits. “Well I love _____ so I’m going to keep eating it” can stop diet talk in its tracks.  Keeping things positive will deprive the person of the commiseration they crave, and over time dieters will learn that you are not the person who will indulge them in this chatter.  

You might never change the way someone eats or thinks about food, but sharing positive food beliefs and refusing to engage in the negative can at least frustrate someone enough that they will know you are NOT the person who will keep a diet focused conversation going.  Try some humor, being blunt, or sharing your positive thoughts and experiences with food. You just might notice that the critics stop coming to you, and the food lovers will come to enjoy a meal.

If you try any of these tips leave a comment!  And if you feel like you still need some support in developing your own positive food beliefs and practices, email me about working together.  I would love to provide a free discovery call and help you reach your goals – without food rules.