Holiday Food Talk, and How to (Not) React to it

Today, I want to share something that I hope will not only help you during the holidays, but in many situations where you encounter “food talk.”

I’m sure we all have those friends or relatives who can’t seem to participate in a meal or be around food without talking about how fattening they think certain foods are, or their weight loss goals or plans, or what foods they are or are not eating because of their diet. Then, there are those people who simply complain or even joke about the size of their own body or others’ bodies.  You may also know someone who likes to give unsolicited food advice, thinking that it somehow makes sense to tell you what you should and shouldn’t be eating.

So there you are at a holiday event, trying to enjoy yourself while also trying to dismiss your own harmful food thoughts as you strive to recover from binge eating, when someone makes an unhealthy food comment.  You may suddenly feel shaken.  You were just trying to be “normal” around food; you were trying not to focus on your weight or calories or your urges to binge, and then you were unexpectedly hit with food talk from the outside.

“Dismissing” Food and Weight Talk

The most simple solution to this is to treat the comment you hear like you’d treat any unhealthy food or weight thought that arises inside of your own head: just dismiss it.

You don’t have to give other people’s food comments attention or value, and this doesn’t mean you have to be rude to that person either. You can politely ignore the comment or kindly change the subject, and move on with whatever you were doing before. 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 in the hope that it will help you be able to mentally ‘walk away’ from holiday food and weight talk.

Be Mindful of Your Own Reactions

The reason why dismissing someone’s food comment may not feel easy is because that comment may immediately lead to a reaction in you.  You may find yourself starting to think about food and weight in an unhealthy way and even questioning yourself in recovery. You may begin wondering if it’s even possible to have a healthy relationship with food when even people without eating disorders are dieting and making weight a large focus of their lives. If someone gives you unwanted food advice, you may start to feel overwhelmed, especially if you were already overloaded with information and advice. All of this means that what may have otherwise been a mundane comment could lead to some unwanted, obsessive, anxious, or impulsive thoughts in you.

And, that’s when it becomes harder to mentally “walk away,” because it’s no longer about the person’s comment, it’s about your own reactions. The person’s comment could have been neutral, and if another relative was standing there with you when the comment was made, that person could be left completely unaffected. But when the comment hits your ears, and your particular belief system and experiences, your thoughts may start to spin and make you feel uncomfortable.

So, what should you do about it?

You Don’t Need to Avoid Food Talk:

Avoiding all food talk is typically not an option, and even if it was a viable one, I’m of the opinion that it wouldn’t be the best option anyway. Food and weight talk is everywhere, and not only around the holidays. It wouldn’t be practical or possible to avoid it; it would severely limit your choices of what to do, not only during the holidays, but every day. Furthermore, thinking that you need to avoid it in order to recover encourages a mindset of powerlessness. When you tell yourself you are not capable of handling food talk, then food talk will be much more upsetting to you than if you can become confident to handle any comment that is thrown in your path.

Have Compassion for the Other Person

In order to gain a better perspective to deal with food and weight comments, you must first understand that everyone has their own thoughts driving whatever they say or do (with food/weight and otherwise). Most people mean well, but what they say about food and weight comes from what is making sense in their own mind, based on a multitude of their own experiences, thought processes, personality traits, learning, and opinions. In the vast majority of cases, the person is not saying something about food or weight to hurt you; they are simply making a comment, or just trying to make conversation. When food is a centerpiece of an event, it can seem to make sense to talk about it.  If the centerpiece was instead a table full of flowers, people would likely feel compelled to start conversations about flowers. The problem is that food is often a charged topic, so these conversations aren’t always positive or pleasant, as a conversation about flowers might be.

We are all guilty of sometimes not considering how our words may affect others, so try to have compassion for the person making the comment. It could be that they’ve simply gotten into the habit of talking about diets and weight during meals, so that those thoughts automatically come up for them and they don’t “filter” the thoughts. Even if the person is someone who knows you have struggled with an eating disorder, it simply might not have registered in their mind to avoid mentioning food to you. Whatever the case, being upset with them 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, it’s about that person, not you. Someone saying that they aren’t eating carbs this Christmas doesn’t mean you should consider not eating carbs this Christmas. Someone saying that they need to lose weight after the holidays doesn’t mean that you should consider that as your goal as well.

I’m going to go ahead and add a little disclaimer to any holiday food talk that you might hear:  It simply may not be accurate. What people say and what people actually do are often two different things. The person who says carbs are off limits may have had bread the day before or may decide to have some tomorrow. The person who says she needs to lose weight may never change one eating habit. The reality is that many people tend to sugar-coat their eating habits, saying that they eat healthier or less than they really do. They aren’t lying, they just tend to say what they think is generally true most of the time, or they say what they aspire to as if it is fact.

That disclaimer being said, even if the person really is dieting and/or losing weight exactly like they say they are, it’s 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.

Be Curious

In addition to compassion, try viewing food/weight comments with curiosity as well, not anxiety. If you feel emotional reactions welling up inside of you, be curious about those too.  For example, you may feel a sense of confusion because some advice contradicts something you believe or something you feel is working for you.  Instead of getting anxious, you can instead try to take a step back and view not only their words, but your own thinking as a curious observer.

The word “hmm….” can be transformative. If, in a moment of holiday food talk, you can say “hmm, I wonder why they feel that way,” or…”hmm, I wonder what that’s about…,” it can make a big difference in your mindset.  You don’t need the actual answers to these questions, it’s simply about switching from an anxiety-filled reaction to a curious one.

Don’t Engage the Food Talk

I find that, in most cases, it’s best to avoid engaging this type of talk. It’s better during recovery to take the focus off of weight and diets, so talking about someone else’s diet and weight is contradictory to that. Not that you can’t talk about it, but just that it typically doesn’t serve a helpful purpose. If you strongly feel the other person’s diet is ill-advised, or that they are doing unhealthy things, then addressing the topic at another time in a private setting would make much more sense.  But, in the context of a holiday event, 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 in that conversation, without you needing to be critical of them. Ask about their family, their job, their house, their hobbies, or anything that is important to them.

Let Your Thoughts Subside, and Get Back to Enjoying Yourself

Sometimes you can’t control anxiety or negative thoughts that move through you, but if you allow those feelings and thoughts to be present, you’ll find that they subside on their own, without you having to do anything.  If you don’t give the thoughts a lot of attention or meaning, they will simply run their course and fade away.  You’ll find yourself coming back to a less-anxious and more-peaceful mindset, where the other person’s words and your own reactions are no longer bothering you. Then you are free to continue enjoying the event or having other conversations that don’t involve food or weight.

The main takeaway is that comments from others or harmful thoughts that arise in your own head are messages that you can choose to take or leave. You don’t have to mentally latch on to anything.  You don’t have to fuel other people’s words or your own reactions with attention; you can simply let them come and go, and move on.  Comments from others do not hold the power to get you off track in recovery.  You can stay connected to what you know is best for you.