It’s difficult to deal with binge eating at any time of year, but the holidays can bring extra challenges. One of those challenges is dealing with holiday events where people frequently talk about food, weight, and diets. These seem to be favorite topics of conversation for some people, and when I was a binge eater, hearing friends and relatives talk about their diet plans, weight loss strategies, and workout programs often made me anxious. You probably know people who can’t seem to participate in a holiday meal—or any meal for that matter—without talking about how fattening they think certain foods are, or what foods they are or are not eating because of their diet, or how guilty they feel for eating this or that. You probably also know people who comment on or criticize their own body or others’ bodies, or give unwanted weight loss advice, or think that it somehow makes sense to tell you what you should or shouldn’t be eating.
Because the holidays bring more temptation surrounding food and more concerns about weight gain, these conversations seem to ramp up. I want to give you some ideas for dealing with this, so that you can stay on track in binge eating recovery during the holidays—and in many situations where you encounter food and weight talk. Know that holiday food and weight talk does not cause holiday binge eating, but it’s helpful to learn to manage your own reactions and responses.
Dismissing Food and Weight Talk and Urges To Binge
Giving up dieting and weight obsession is very important in recovery from bulimia and binge eating disorder, because it allows you to nourish your body and get out of the survival state that drives bingeing. When you are letting go of dieting, learning to eat normally, and trying to accept your weight, it can be unsettling to hear about people doing the very things you are making an effort to avoid. For example, let’s say you are at a holiday meal and you are trying to enjoy eating everything in moderation and not feel guilty about eating certain indulgent foods, and then a friend or family member says they aren’t eating those same indulgent foods because it’s not compliant with their “diet”—this can make you question yourself and feel shaken or even ashamed.
The most simple solution for this is to treat the food or weight comment you hear like you treat the binge urges: Just dismiss it.
[If you are new to the Brain over Binge approach, you can learn about dismissing binge urges by downloading the free Brain over Binge Basics PDF.]
Dismissing a thought or feeling is to view it as unimportant, meaningless, and not worth your attention. You can dismiss any thought or feeling encouraging you to binge or to engage in other harmful behaviors—like dieting or being overly focused on weight. These thoughts arise inside of you, but you can use the same strategy to disregard comments from others. You don’t have to give the other person’s diet comment any value or consideration. This doesn’t mean you have to be rude to that person, but you can politely ignore the comment or kindly change the subject, and move on. This sounds easy, but I know that sometimes it may not feel easy in the moment, so I’m going to dive a little deeper to help you remain unaffected by food and weight talk, and avoid holiday binge eating.
Be Mindful of Your Own Reactions
The reason why dismissing someone’s food or weight comment may feel difficult is because that comment may immediately lead to an emotional, mental, or physical reaction in you. You may find your own food thoughts increasing in that moment; you may have feelings of anxiety arise; you may feel angry at the person for bringing up the topic; you may feel guilty if you are eating something that goes against the person’s weight or food advice.
You may even begin questioning your recovery or wondering if it’s possible to have a healthy relationship with food, when even people without eating disorders are dieting and making weight a big focus of their lives. You may start to have some food cravings when you hear dieting talk, because the thought of dieting may be strongly associated in your brain with overeating or binge eating.
In other words, what may seem like a mundane comment to the person saying it can lead to some unwanted, obsessive, anxious, or impulsive thoughts in you. It’s not usually what the person says that bothers you the most, it’s your own reactions.
[If you are someone who struggles with incessant food thoughts on a daily basis, you can listen to this free Q&A audio from the Brain over Binge course: “Food is constantly in my thoughts. Even if I’m not having urges to binge, I’m incessantly thinking about eating.”]
Like I said in the beginning of this post, it’s important to know that food and weight comments do not cause binge eating, and you remain in control regardless of what someone else says. I also want you to know that a person’s food or weight comment is not the direct cause of your uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, and I’ll explain what I mean by this…
If other relatives or friends heard that same comment, they would be left with different feelings and reactions, or they would be completely unaffected. In the past, that same comment could have lead to a different reaction in you, and in the future, it will give rise to a different reaction in you. But at a specific point in time, when the comment hits your ears—and is processed by your particular belief system and experiences—your thoughts can start to race in a way that feels unwanted and intrusive, and goes against the peaceful relationship that you want to have with food. You don’t have to spend time trying to figure out why this is the case, because that can lead to you feeling like something is wrong with you, and it’s not the most efficient way forward. It’s simply that your brain is temporarily conditioned to react this way to food comments, but you have the ability to change it.
You Don’t Need to Avoid Holiday Food Talk to Avoid Holiday Binge Eating
Whether it’s during the holidays or at any time of year, avoiding all food and weight talk is not really an option. Even if you could somehow avoid every person that might say something unhelpful, I do not think this would benefit you. Food and weight talk is extremely common, and not only would it be impractical and probably impossible to avoid it altogether, it would severely limit your choices of what to do, where to go, and who to see.
Furthermore, thinking that you need to avoid food talk in order to recover from binge eating disorder or bulimia encourages a mindset of powerlessness. When you tell yourself you are not capable of dealing with food talk, then food talk will be much more upsetting to you, and the conditioned reactions you have to it will be become stronger. Furthermore, if you think that food and weight talk will lead you into harmful behaviors, then it probably will. On the other hand, if you can learn to dismiss harmful food talk when it occurs, you can become confident that you can handle any comment in any situation—and that you can avoid holiday binge eating and any behavior that would hinder your recovery.
Have Compassion for the Other Person
In order to get in a better mindset to deal with food and weight comments, you must first understand that everyone has their own thoughts driving what they say or do. Most people do mean well; but what they say about food and weight comes from what is making sense in their own mind in that moment, based on a multitude of their own experiences, emotions, and opinions. It’s unlikely that the person is saying something about food or weight to intentionally hurt you; they are simply making a comment, or just trying to make conversation.
When food is the center of an event, it can seem to make sense to talk about it, so that’s what people often do, and you don’t need to make it more meaningful than that. If the event didn’t include food, but instead took place around a big table of flower arrangements, people would likely feel compelled to start conversations about flowers. The problem is that food is often an emotionally charged topic, so the conversations about it don’t always feel as positive or pleasant as conversations about flowers might feel.
We are all guilty of sometimes not considering how our words may affect others, or saying something without really thinking, so try to have compassion for the person making the food or weight comment. It could be that they’ve simply gotten into the habit of talking about diets and weight during meals, so those thoughts automatically come up for them and they don’t filter their thoughts before they speak. Whatever the case, being upset with the person isn’t practical or helpful. Keeping an attitude of compassion for that person keeps your emotions from running high and makes it easier to dismiss their words.
It’s Not About You
Regardless of the exact reason the comment was made, know that it’s not about you. Someone saying that he or she is not eating sugar this Christmas does not mean you should also consider avoiding sugar this Christmas. Someone saying that they need to lose weight after the holidays does not mean you should consider that as your goal as well. Someone else criticizing their body size does not mean you need to turn attention to your own appearance. For help with body image issues, you can listen to Episode 40: Body Image and Binge Eating.
I’m going to add a helpful little disclaimer to any holiday food talk that you might hear: What people say about food and weight is often not accurate, and doesn’t always line up with what they actually do. The person who says sugar is off limits may have had cookies the day before, or may decide to have a delicious dessert later at the party. The person who says she is going to lose weight may never change one eating habit.
It’s common for people to claim to eat healthier or less than they really do. They aren’t intentionally lying about their eating habits or weight loss plans, but people often express what they aspire to, as if it’s fact. If you are someone who is recovering from an eating disorder, you’ve likely learned how harmful diets are, and you know that the percentage of people who actually stick to them is very low. It’s very unlikely that the people who are making dieting comments at a party are the exceptions to diet failure.
Even if the person making the food comment is really dieting and losing weight exactly like they say they are, it still doesn’t have to affect you. It’s simply the path that person is on right now—a path that may change tomorrow or in the future, but it’s not your path.
In addition to compassion, try viewing food and weight comments with curiosity as well. This can help reduce any anxiety you feel. If, in a moment of holiday food talk, you can think, “hmm, I wonder why they feel that way?” or… “I wonder what that’s about?” it can make a big difference in your mindset. You don’t need to say these words out loud, and you don’t need to actually answer these questions; it’s simply about switching from an anxiety-filled reaction to a curious one.
You can also use curiosity to help you with your own emotional, physical, and mental reactions. Being a curious observer of your own mind helps you get some distance from your thoughts and reactions and not take them so seriously. You don’t need to try to figure anything out; you don’t need to know exactly why your reactions are what they are; but being curious about your own thoughts and feelings is a much better way to manage them than being fearful of those thoughts and feelings or criticizing yourself for having them.
Don’t Engage the Food Talk
I find that in most cases, it’s best to avoid engaging this type of food, weight, and diet talk in any way. During recovery, it’s helpful to take the focus off of these things, and talking about someone else’s diet and weight is contradictory to that. It’s not that you can’t talk about it, but it typically doesn’t serve a useful purpose and it’s a distraction from your goal of having a healthy relationship with food.
If you strongly feel the other person’s diet is ill-advised, then you might consider addressing the topic with them at another time in a private setting. But in the context of a holiday event or meal, just try to kindly bring the focus back to something other than food. It gently sends the message that you aren’t really interested in diving deeper into that conversation, without you needing to be critical of the other person. Ask about the person’s family, their job, their house, their hobbies, or anything that is important to them.
Let Your Reactions Subside, and Get Back to Enjoying Yourself
Many emotional, mental, and physical reactions are automatic, which means you can’t necessarily control what comes up inside of you in response to food and weight talk. But, you’ll find that the reactions subside on their own, without you having to do anything. You can allow any uncomfortable feelings and thoughts to be present, without giving them a lot of attention or meaning, and this helps the thoughts and feelings to simply run their course and fade away. This is the same process you can use to deal with urges to binge. Learn more about not reacting to binge urges in Episode 6: Dismiss Urges to Binge: Component 3 (Stop Reacting to Urges to Binge.
As your reactions subside, you’ll find yourself naturally coming back to a less-anxious and more-peaceful mindset, where the other person’s words and your own feelings and thoughts are no longer bothering you. Then, you are free to continue enjoying the holiday event or having other conversations that don’t involve food or weight.
Keep this in mind as you attend holiday events and aim to avoid binge eating during the holidays: Comments from others or harmful thoughts that arise in your own mind are messages that you can choose to take or leave. Just because someone says something about food, weight, or dieting does not mean you have to believe it or give it any significance in your life. You can simply let comments and your own reactions come and go, and move on. Other people’s words do not hold the power to get you off track in recovery. You can stay connected to what you need to do to end the binge eating habit for good.
If you need some extra motivation to avoid holiday binge eating, or avoid binge eating at any time, you can listen to this free coaching audio from the Brain over Binge course preview: What is Your Motivation for Dismissing Urges Today?