While the holidays are a time of celebration and connection with loved ones, it can also be a challenging time, especially for people who are already struggling with their relationship with food and self-esteem.
There is often anxiety around holiday weight gain, which inevitably shows up in conversations. This leads to diet culture talk, which refers to comments others make on your weight, body, or eating habits. Statements like “Is that all you’re eating?” and “You sure have a lot on your plate” are just two examples you may hear during the holidays and can be immensely damaging not only to the person on the receiving end but also to everyone who is listening.
“What I often see in my private practice is that when comments like these are made, even if they're not directed towards my client, it creates more anxiety around food or body image, making them feel like they can’t eat, sit, or enjoy the holidays like they would if the comment had not been made,” says disordered eating specialist Caitlin Mudd, RD, LDN. For example, you may become nervous about what you're putting on your plate, decide not to go back for seconds or dessert, or even start worrying about how you look in your clothes.
Talking about food choices and body image, whether it's about yourself or someone else, has become so normalized that many people may not even realize they’re doing it. That's why it's important to set boundaries around diet culture talk. It signals to those around you that you'd rather not engage in that this type of conversation while protecting your mental health. Addressing comments around diet culture will most likely be uncomfortable, but it’s a great opportunity to teach positive relationships with food and body image.
How to Set Healthy Boundaries around Diet Culture Talk
To set healthy boundaries, Mudd likes to use the acronym ICE, which stands for Ignore, Change the subject, and Educate. Ignore is pretty straightforward. Keep in mind that the comments being made have more to do with the speaker’s relationship with food than your own, she adds.
Changing the subject may seem difficult to do, but you could do it in a subtle way. For example, if someone says, “I can’t believe how many sweets we are eating today. I know I’ll have to make up for it tomorrow,” you could say, “I’m not too worried about enjoying a few sweets over the holidays, but let’s talk about something else. How has work been?” Other topics you can pivot to include a pet, a child, or a new TV show or move, says nutritionist Francesca Alfano, CNS, CDN.
You can also say, “I appreciate your opinion, but this year I’m not focusing on my weight. There are much more interesting topics to talk about.” Then, you can share something exciting that you’ve done recently or your plans for the holiday season, says Alfano.
Of course, you can also educate the person on why their comment is unhelpful, or if you’re on your intuitive eating journey, you could explain to them what you’re doing and why that has been helpful for you.
Holiday-specific Diet Culture Talk You May Hear and How You Can Respond
While it's hard to control what comments people make around food or your body, you can prepare yourself to handle situations that may come up. Having a few responses ready can help you respond in a calm and confident way. Let’s look at some scenarios.
“Wow, is that all you're eating? Are you on a diet?”
You can say: “No, this is how I eat. Have you watched any great new shows lately?”
Why this works: This simple response allows you to answer the question in a straightforward way while moving away from further discussing it. Quickly changing the topic may indicate to the person who made the comment that you’d rather discuss something else.
“You should really try Whole 30! I lost so much weight on it.”
You can say: “That’s great that it worked for you, but I’m going to stick with what works for me. By the way, how’s your dog?”
Why this works: This sets a clear boundary for who you are talking to. Expressing that you know what works for you quickly lets the other person know that you're comfortable with your current diet. Following up with a personal question directed at them helps steer the conversation in another direction.
“Whoa, you're really loading up your plate there. You may want to watch what you eat.”
You can say: “Thanks for your concern about what I’m eating, but my body is actually really smart and good at regulating my food intake and I know what is best for me. Let’s all go around and name what we are hoping for in the coming year.”
Why this works: This will firmly and politely show the person you’re speaking with that you are fully aware of what you’re putting in your body and don’t need their input. Once again, changing the topic is always a good move to make when you’d no longer like to discuss your eating habits.
“Are you hitting the gym after eating all this food?”
You can say: “No, I’m not. I am happy with the amount I’m eating and don’t feel the need to work it off.”
Why this works: Working out after a big meal is not necessary and responding this way will show the person that you are confident in the amount of food you're eating, and more importantly, confident in your choices.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to handling diet culture talk with friends and family. The holiday season is a great time to connect with loved ones, but it’s also the perfect time to practice self-care by protecting your mental and physical health. If you don’t feel like changing the subject or setting boundaries or doing so does not help in the situation, removing yourself from the conversation and simply walking away is also extremely powerful.
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