My mother and I sit at the same Thanksgiving table, each taking two slivers of pie and a brownie for dessert. We both want to enjoy this celebration like we imagined. Instead, we find ourselves needing to set boundaries around “diet talk”.
My aunt says of me, a 30 something straight-sized woman, “she can eat still eat what she wants and stay skinny.” Meanwhile, my grandmother eyes my mother, a 60 something plus-sized woman, as if to say “don’t over do it – that’s enough!” It’s a hurtful dynamic that’s been at play for years.
At our table, I get a clear warning to enjoy my thinness while it lasts. I’m encouraged to eat plenty, for the sake of it. Meanwhile, my mother endures not-so-subtle food policing, as she always has, in her bigger body.
Diet culture perpetuated by our family discourages us both from listening to our natural internal cues to decide what and how much we should eat. Instead, we’re asked to perform roles based on what others deem “acceptable” given our different body sizes. We rebel from these roles as soon as be become aware of them. My mother starts eating desserts urgently, as if she is fearful someone will take them from her. And I fight guilt from within: “did I REALLY need to take all these sweets? I shouldn’t eat like this, or else I’ll prove them right. My body won’t be like this forever.”
The clients I work with find this type of family culture toxic to their ability to find food freedom. I do too. Not only does it block individuals from listening to their bodies, it implies being in a bigger body is a choice and a shortcoming of individual behavior. This idea is untrue and harmful: weight stigma is the root of body shame and disordered eating behavior. If you want to be the first in your family to break the diet cycle from getting passed on through the generations, boundaries around “diet talk” are a good place to start.
Unfortunately, without serious attention to changing it within your family, harmful “diet talk” will remain normalized over the generations
If you want to heal your own relationship with food while also building a positive family culture that breaks the diet cycle from getting passed on through the generations: I’m understand. You can set boundaries to end harmful diet talk, using one of the four strategies in this post.
To help put what you are about to read into action, I want you to start by imagining a person who is most likely to engage in diet talk around you in the future. Now, imagine they say a comment that’s felt hurtful or unhelpful in the past. Which of these strategies will be the best choice to shift your family diet culture at your next gathering?
diet talk strategy #1: change the subject
Example phrase: “anyways, I’ve been really into Netflix’s The Crown lately. Can you believe how many prime ministers Queen Elizabeth met in her lifetime?!”
Pros: Changing the subject helps quickly relieve tension and redirect the conversation toward something more aligned with the positive environment you hope to create. This technique works well for people and settings that don’t feel safe or appropriate to get into a deeper conversation about the harmful impact of diet culture.
Cons: Changing the subject doesn’t give the other person direct feedback about how their words or behavior impact you negatively. Without saying so specifically, others are likely to continue the behavior over and over again. If the person is someone you see on a regular basis, choosing this strategy may mean you need to change the subject, A LOT. Ultimately, if you’re not able, or don’t want to, use the strategies in this post; you may choose to spend less time with this person for your own mental health.
Takeaway: Use this strategy for people you don’t see often or for people who aren’t invested in changing diet culture with you.
diet talk strategy #2: educate
Example phrase: “Did you know that most dieters who attempt weight loss regain it all back within 5 years? I was shocked. It’s really silly to follow a diet of any kind. I’m working with Intuitive Eating now. I really don’t find diet talk helpful.”
Pros: For people still stuck in diet culture, hard hitting facts may help them to reject diet culture, too. Since many believe that diets work, encouraging them to read up on Intuitive Eating and Health at Every Size may support shared understanding of the scientific evidence support your need to create “diet talk” boundaries.
Cons: Depending on their lived experience and readiness to accept new information, facts alone won’t change deeply entrenched diet beliefs. If you use this strategy, be prepared to “agree to disagree” on the science and importance of choosing Intuitive Eating. Don’t, however, allow difference of belief make you question your boundary. Let them know you’re glad they have something that works for them and still enforce your boundary around diet talk.
Takeaway: Use this strategy if you feel solid in your food freedom journey and you want to help people understand the logic behind your choice, but don’t expect it to immediately convince someone else to get in board.
diet talk strategy #3: say it straight
Example phrase: “I don’t really find diet talk helpful. Is it cool if we avoid this topic in the future?”
Pros: This strategy offers fast, direct feedback. With little room for misinterpretation, family members who are invested in making changes will know what you need from them, specifically. Plain and simple. For best results, see if you can deliver this feedback firmly and calmly in advance of your next gathering, instead of a getting caught off guard in a moment you feel angry or upset by other’s comments about your plate.
Cons: It can feel uncomfortable saying your needs directly, and it may make others uncomfortable too. Changing long practiced family dynamics is hard work that require people work together to create new dynamics that work better for all involved. You may be initially met with confusion or rejection from family members who can’t yet understand your needs.
Takeaway: With trusted people in your life, be courageous in the face of any discomfort you feel setting clear boundaries. Your needs are valid, and if your boundary can be respected by others, the emotional investment will prevent you from enduring future discomfort of diet talk for years to come.
diet talk strategy #4: say it vulnerable
Example phrase: “I know I used to diet before. It really wasn’t working. I’m working hard to heal my relationship with food and body. Can I count on you to support me in this?”
Pros: Speaking vulnerably helps others understand how you feel and takes you out of “defense mode”. With the right people, vulnerability helps you to communicate more effectively about ways you can work together to re-shape family culture around food. By cooperatively “getting on the same page” you can come up with gentle reminders for each other like “oops! we’re falling into diet talk again!” as you work together to unlearn old dynamics.
Cons: Not all family members will be able to accept your vulnerability with compassion. As with strategy #3, if you are initially met with confusion or rejection from family members who can’t yet understand your needs, be prepared to cope and move forward in a way that protects your food freedom.
Takeaway: Sometimes, loved ones simply repeat harmful diet talk they themselves endured growing up. If you suspect someone in your life wants to evolve with you in your food freedom journey, you can work through the hurt diet culture causes, together.
Diet culture is hard for families to unlearn That doesn’t mean you have to tolerate comments that make you feel guilt around food. You can consider what boundaries will help you pursue food freedom – instead of letting family triggers further damage your relationship with food.
This post includes a few of the many skills I offer through my No Guilt Framework. Each individual will find different skills helpful at different times, and this post is by no means an exhaustive list of how to stop dieting.
I offer group and private coaching programs that help you create a plan and practice these skills with the focus and consistency you need to FINALLY be okay with your body. Apply for coaching and I’ll meet with you to describe how you can go from feeling completely stuck in negative body image to feeling free and peaceful around food, just like my clients do.