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

*Originally published on December 1, 2016.  Revised and re-published Dec 1, 2019

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 comment about or criticize the size of their own body or others’ bodies. You may also have friends or family members who like to give unsolicited food or weight loss advice, thinking that it somehow makes sense to tell you what you should and shouldn’t be eating.

If you are attending a holiday event while you are recovering from binge eating, and you are trying to enjoy yourself while also trying to dismiss your own harmful thoughts about food and weight, and then someone makes a diet or weight comment, you may feel shaken. Before the comment, you were probably doing your best to try to be normal around food; you were probably trying not to focus on your weight or calories or your urges to binge; and it may feel very frustrating to be unexpectedly hit with unhelpful food talk.

“Dismissing” Food and Weight Talk

The most simple solution for this is to treat the comment you hear like you would treat any unhealthy food or weight thought that arises inside of your own head: just dismiss it.
(*If you are new to the Brain over Binge approach and want to know more about “dismissing” harmful thoughts and urges, you can get my free eBook here.)

You don’t have to give the other person’s food comment attention or value. 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.

Be Mindful of Your Own Reactions

The reason why dismissing someone’s food 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.

It’s important to know that the person’s comment is not the direct cause of your uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, because if other relatives or friends heard that same comment, they would be left with different reactions or would be completely unaffected. But when the comment hits your ears, and your particular belief system and experiences, your thoughts may start to race in a way that feels unwanted and intrusive, and goes against the peaceful relationship with food that you want.

So, what should you do about it?

You Don’t Need to Avoid Food Talk:

First of all, avoiding all food 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 very common. 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 – not only during the holidays, but every day.

Furthermore, thinking that you need to avoid food talk in order to recover from an eating disorder 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. 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.

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 feel compelled to start conversations about flowers. The problem is that food is often a charged topic, so the conversations about it don’t always feel as positive or pleasant as a conversation 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, 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.

I’m going to add a little helpful disclaimer to any holiday food talk that you might hear:  What people say about food and weight is often not accurate. 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 say they 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 highly unlikely that the people who are making dieting comments at a party are the exceptions.

Even if the person making the food comment is really dieting and/or 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.

Be Curious

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. 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, 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.

You’ll find yourself naturally 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.

Keep this in mind as you attend holiday events: Comments from others or harmful thoughts that arise in your own head 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 know is best for you.

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If you want extra help staying on track in recovery, I’m offering a $10 discount on my coaching audios through the month of December 2019. Although the 14 audios do not address the holidays specifically, they can give you the reminders and the motivation you need to remain binge free.
*At checkout, click on “have a coupon code?” and a box will appear for you to enter the code DECEMBER2019

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