How to Recognise Camouflaged Diet-chat...and what to do about it
Before I begin, a desire to lose weight is not inherently bad. The problem with focusing on weight loss is that we have moralised it to the point that it can, usually unintentionally, contribute to shame, weight stigma, and discrimination. Another problem with our focus on weight-loss is that we have associated it as a symbol of health. But health is multi-dimensional and if we want to improve our health we also need to look at social and psychological components. Sadly, many weight loss efforts are damaging to our psychological and social health. For example, Slimming World was recently accused of encouraging people to ditch fat friends. Furthermore, dieting has long been established as a risk factor for body dissatisfaction and eating disorders.
Unfortunately, there's no escaping diet-culture and its toxic messages about food and bodies. It's equally despairing that it's becoming harder to recognise diet-chat because 'diet' is a word that has been replaced with seemingly benign phrases like "health", "clean", "lifestyle", "cleanse", or "wellness" that helps to camouflage triggering discussions about food and bodies. We will undoubtedly hear conversations about dieting and weight-loss everywhere we go, and for those of us that wish to move away from these conversations it can be triggering to hear them. So the trick is to learn how to spot them, and make a plan for how to manage them or put boundaries in ways that make sense for us. So, here we go:
So, how can you identify camouflaged diet-chat?
There are some signs that you can look out for when someone is discussing food or their bodies. The first is recognising how you feel within yourself as they are talking. If you feel uncomfortable or tense, then chances are your diet-mentality meter is activated. You can then listen out for nuances in the dialogue, like:
- Weight loss = positive, and weight gain = negative
- Health is associated with weight loss or weight management
- Food is moralised. Some foods are "good/healthy/clean/pure/" whilst others are 'bad/unhealthy/unclean/pure/junk/crap". This is accompanied by an expression of shame or guilt for certain food choices.
- Exercise or restriction is used to justify food choices.
- Food restriction (any kind) for the purpose of weight management or weight loss. This may not always be obvious, and it might be disguised under a desire to improve 'health' (see above).
- There are particular rules around food: the type of food, quantity of food, time of day that food can be consumed, quality of food etc. Shame and guilt are expressed when rules are broken.
- Using compensatory behaviours such as exercise or restriction to manage guilt and shame around morally unacceptable food choices.
Some examples of camouflaged diet-chat include:
"I feel disgusting, I've eaten so much junk/crap/shit"
"I'm definitely going for a run tomorrow after eating all this!"
"I've been so bad lately..." (in relation to food or exercise)
"I know it's not healthy, but..."
"I can't wait for dinner tonight, I've not eaten all day"
I could go on, but I'm sure you get the gist of it right now. You may even realise that you use expressions like these, but don't worry, I'm not one to judge. Especially because I, too, was once caught up in diet-chat-that-isn't-obviously-diet-chat.
Ok, so now what can you do?
As a therapist, one of my roles is supporting people to build healthy boundaries. This means external boundaries - the boundaries we put in place with other people to keep ourselves safe, feel comfortable, and have our needs met. But it also means learning to build internal boundaries, which involve monitoring the way that we speak to ourselves, and separating our own thoughts and feelings from other people's.
Unfortunately, speaking negatively about our bodies, talking about how we want to lose weight, or what we're doing to achieve that, is a normalised form of social connection. However, wen you're struggling with negative body image - or recovering from disordered eating - these types of conversations can be triggering and anxiety-provoking. So, this next bit involves practicing external and internal boundaries when you're faced with diet or camouflaged diet-chat.
Here are some things you can say to other people in the face of diet or camouflaged diet-chat (external boundaries)
"I've eaten regularly today and I'm still going to enjoy this meal"
"I'm sorry to hear you feel that you need to go for a run tomorrow to justify what you've eaten today"
"(Insert food) is just food, and I'm no longer allowing myself to feel guilty for eating"
"I'm working hard on developing a kinder relationship with food and my body. I would prefer if we could talk about something else, please"
"I'm actually trying out something new, and I'm no longer engaging in conversations about food guilt, so I'm going to change the subject. How have you been doing otherwise?"
Now, with this being said, please remember that it's not up to you to change other people's minds or to get them to see that their diet-chat could be hurting them (or that it's contributing to a toxic socio-cultural context). So it's ok if you decide to avoid or change the subject with certain people or in certain settings. It's also ok if you decide that the safest thing to do is to remove yourself from situations or people. Not everyone is ready to hear about Health at Every Size, or to learn about diet-culture - and that's ok!
External boundaries involve prioritising YOUR needs, voicing them to other people, and asking clearly for what you need in order to make your experience feel more enjoyable.
Here are some examples of how you can change the way you speak to yourself (internal boundaries) when you are having negative thoughts about food or your body -- or if you're surrounded my negative food and body chat.
"I don't need to compensate in order to justify eating and enjoying a meal"
"I am feeling anxious right now, and that's ok. I choose to focus on enjoying the company of the people that I am with right now, rather than stressing out about food"
"I don't need to 'burn it off' - today, tomorrow, or any other day"
"Today is just one day. What I consume or don't consume isn't going to impact the rest of my life"
"These thoughts belong to diet-culture, and they will only serve the purpose of making me feel bad about myself. I choose to not allow that"
"These are just thoughts. I don't have to act on them. They are not permanent, and they will pass"
"Just became he / she / they feel this way about food / exercise / health, doesn't mean that I have to as well"
"Food / exercise / health, are NOT moral obligations. I am not a bad person if I don't engage with them in the same ways as other people do"
Internal boundaries are important, because they reflect the relationship that we have with ourselves. If we say negative and critical things to ourselves, as we do when we are caught up in diet-culture or disordered eating, then we aren't going to feel good about ourselves. So to take the power away from food and weight, it's important to develop a kinder and more compassionate narrative and relationship with yourself.
Creating and reinforcing external and internal boundaries when it comes to diet-chat and negative body-chat can offer you an opportunity to connect with deeper and more meaningful topics. This can leave you coming away from social situations feeling more connected and positive. It's also a crucial part of self-care -- and the more we practice self-care, the more we increase our sense of worth. Give it a try xx