Establishing a healthy mindset with food isn’t always easy—especially if you’re recovering from diet trauma. After spending years trapped in a culture emphasizing that certain foods are “bad” (and you are too if you eat them), it can be difficult to extract yourself from unhealthy food narratives, particularly when you’re around other people struggling with their own diet baggage. (Like that friend who is always talking about her “detox.”)
While you can’t control what people around you say and do, you can control how you react. Easier said than done though, right? Here, psychotherapist Victoria Blumberg, LCAT and Truce With Food creator Ali Shapiro both give tips on what to do when other people trigger an unhealthy mindset related to food choices.
When everyone is bonding over a specific food choices or eating plan
Keto, Paleo, Whole30, intermittent fasting...adhering to a specific eating plan or food choices can seem like belonging to a type of “team,” which leaves out eaters who don’t want to live their life based on food rules. “As humans, we crave a sense of belonging, but there are so many other ways to bond besides food,” Shapiro says. But when someone attempts to bond over restriction, it can be triggering if you’re trying to create a healthy (and non restriction-based) relationship with food.
“When this happens, you first want to consider the context and the relationship,” Blumberg says. “If it’s a coworker or someone you interact with minimally, changing the subject and steering the conversation away from food can be helpful.” Even if it’s just bringing up your thoughts on Cheer or asking someone where they went over the weekend, shifting gears conversation-wise can gently nudge a person to talk about something else.
If the relationship is more personal—say your best friend or your sibling shares constant updates about their juice cleanse—both Blumberg and Shapiro say it can be an opportunity to open up more. “Telling someone you’re close to something like, ‘You know what, I’m working on healing my relationship with food and it’s hard’ instead of avoiding the conversation completely opens up a bigger dialogue which can be important because this is something so many people struggle with,” Shapiro says. You can be forthcoming about how the subject at hand is difficult for you, and offer thoughts on how best to support each other without talking about diets and eating habits.
Shapiro also says it’s important to remind yourself that you get to decide how big of a role certain people play in your life. If the colleagues you sit with at lunch spend the bulk of the time talking about their keto hacks every day and you aren’t into that, you could start spending your lunch hour differently. The point is, you get to choose.
Here’s the 411 on intuitive eating, which many experts say is the healthiest way to live:
When someone makes a negative comment about your food choices
Nothing ruins a meal quite like someone raising an eyebrow and asking you if you’re “sure” you want to eat something. “This is something I unfortunately hear my clients deal with, especially with family members,” Blumberg says. If you’re planning a trip home to visit family members who tend to be overly critical in this way, Blumberg says it’s important to set boundaries and have “timeouts” for yourself. “Intermittently make plans with people who build you up instead of putting you down,” she suggests. “Even if that break is just a phone call to a friend or therapist, it can help.”
Shapiro says it’s also important to remember that, again, you get to decide how much to give to the relationship. “If someone you are close to is saying these comments and you’ve told them that it bothers you but they keep doing it, you get to decide how much that person is in your life,” she says. “You also get to explain as much or as little about how you feel as possible. You don’t owe anyone an explanation.”
She also says thinking about the subtext matters. If someone is criticizing the food on your plate because they say they’re worried about your health, it may serve the relationship to open up a dialogue about that so they understand that a) you’re taking care of yourself and b) it’s not their business to comment about how best to take care of yourself. (Thankyouverymuch.) “Sometimes you have to ask yourself, ‘what is this really about? What is the underlying cause for these comments?'” Shapiro says. It doesn’t justify them making comments, of course, but understanding the why can potentially lead to a more meaningful and productive discussion.
When social media seems to promote triggering behaviors
Well-meaning remarks on Instagram photos about how “skinny” or “good” a person looks can also lead to a dark rabbit hole of equating appearance with worth—particularly challenging for people trying to take the stigma and value judgements out of their food choices. “Weight loss is very seductive because we project a lot onto it,” Shapiro says. “What I’ve found with my clients is that deeper than weight loss, often the real desire is to be recognized. Often, they think weight loss is the key to someone seeing their gifts and talents,” she says.
While Shapiro says it’s true that “skinny privilege” does exist, the key to breaking the cycle of depending on compliments to feel good about yourself is to let go of all the things you think will happen, connected to weight loss. She emphasizes that weight loss doesn’t equal happiness and shouldn’t hold you back from going after what you want in all areas of life.
Blumberg recommends anyone who is prone to posting photos looking for validation consider their intention before posting photos of themselves. “If this is something you struggle with, disabling comments—at least in the short-term—could be helpful,” she says. Blumberg also offers up this litmus test as a self check-in: “If posting a photo is making you feel good in the moment, but then you become anxious and obsessive later, it’s not worth it,” she says. “The anxiety should not outweigh the happiness.” And don’t be shy about blocking or unfollowing the accounts that make you feel triggered or less than. It’s self care, pure and simple.
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