A few weeks ago, a reader responded to my newsletter, asking how to respond to diet talk and help a friend struggling with intuitive eating. I don’t typically answer reader questions, but I thought this was worth exploring.
Here’s what the original email said, edited for brevity and clarity:
I’m subscribed to your newsletter and enjoy reading it, like I do your articles too. I’m writing you like this because I have a suggestion/problem. I’ll try to be a concise as I can:
My friend and I bonded over our disordered eating and diet talk. It was basically orthorexia that grew from fear of regaining weight that we had lost. There were numerous food restrictions and rules. I managed to come clean to myself about it a year ago about it. I still have bad days, but now I know to acknowledge them as such. This is thanks to you and many more who have been debunking diets and all the food nonsense we’re surrounded with.
The problem is, my friend is still engaging in the same disordered behaviors. She had a big revelatory experience last year (like I did). She came to terms of eating intuitively after years of gluten restrictions and other disordered behaviors. Then, she started to question intuitive eating because she started to gain weight and wanted her thinner body back.
I tried to talk to her about it many times. Now, it feels like I’ve hit a wall. How do I help her continue this (lifelong) journey? To come to terms of self appreciation and love for herself no matter what she looks like?
Could you write about helping others to come to be at peace with their body, weight and looks? What are some things that I can do to help someone with disordered eating?
Thank you to the reader who sent this.
I appreciate you sharing, and I have so much empathy for what you’re feeling. I also need to warn you that my response may not be what you’re looking for.
(A disclaimer. My writing is NOT individual medical advice or therapy. If you’re struggling, seek individualized guidance from a credentialed professional.)
The truth is, someone else’s relationship with food and their body is out of your control.
This post originally appeared in my weekly newsletter. If you want to learn more about intuitive eating, Health at Every Size, and body acceptance, subscribe below!
It sounds, from your email, like you really care and worry about your friend. It sounds like you’ve found peace in intuitive eating and body acceptance, and that you want to help her find that same peace. That’s understandable!
The thing is, you can’t strongarm your friend into doing or believing anything that she doesn’t want to do or believe. I’m not sure what behaviors your friend is engaging in. You say that you bonded over disordered eating behaviors in the past. It seems from your email that she’s tempted to go back to those behaviors.
Encourage your friend to seek help.
If you worry that her behaviors are causing serious harm, encourage her to seek help. The National Eating Disorders Association has some great advice about how to do that here. Use “I” statements in the conversation. ”I’m noticing X.” “I’m worried about Y.” Avoid overly simplistic statements like, “you should stop doing this!’ Prepare yourself for a negative response. Your friend may not see things the way you do, or may minimize the situation and insist that it isn’t a big deal. That’s OK. At least you let this person know that you care. She knows that you’ll be there for support and when she decides to pursue recovery.
It’s hard to figure out how to respond to diet talk.
Your friend’s thoughts and behaviors are out of your control. You can’t tell her how to eat, or how to feel about her body. We all have the autonomy to decide these things for ourselves.
Unfortunately, disordered eating and diet talk are extremely normalized in our culture. It’s easy to fall back into these thoughts and behaviors because they’re everywhere.
A few years ago, I interviewed Dr. Joy Cox, a researcher whose work focuses on weight stigma and fat liberation, for a SELF Magazine story with a title so relevant to this conversation: How to Live Your Anti-Diet Values in a Weight-Obsessed World (Without Being a Jerk).
“Fat talk is normalized,” Cox says. “Someone says, ‘my thighs are so fat.’ The person next to them is conditioned to say, ‘oh no, your thighs aren’t fat, but my thighs are fat.’ We have these conversations, and it’s kind of seen as endearing. It’s not until somebody raises a flag and says, ‘Hey, OK, we have big thighs, but it doesn’t mean that they’re bad,’ that anyone even thinks to question all of this.”
Give your friend some grace. It’s really hard to break free from the restrictive eating patterns and the fear of fatness that are all around us.
Boundaries are key.
So, OK. We’ve established two things. 1) What your friend does and how she thinks is not up to you. 2) It’s understandable that she backslid into disordered behaviors and diet talk.
Now, some good news for you. Don’t know how to respond to diet talk? Or, don’t want to respond to diet talk? You can set boundaries! It seems like listening to her mourn her thin body and her old disordered eating behaviors is really bothering you. Which makes sense—you’ve been working hard to change your own thinking and behaviors around these things!
For the story I mentioned above, I also interviewed Amee Severson, a non-diet dietitian whose work focuses on intuitive eating and ending fatphobia. She described an experience similar to yours:
“I had a friend who was really interested in anti-diet for a while and wanted to hear what I had to say. And then started to feel very drawn into diet culture, and really got pulled back into it for a lot of reasons. Then, they didn’t want to talk to me because they didn’t want to hear the anti-diet things anymore, even though I’m willing to not talk about it. So I felt obligated to be like, ‘I’m not your dietitian, I’m not here to police you, I’m your friend first.’”
Setting a boundary can be as simple as saying you don’t want to engage in diet talk.
When someone feels drawn into diet culture, lecturing them about anti-diet stuff is almost definitely going to strain your friendship. Learning how to respond to diet talk with her might not even be the best approach. A better approach is to set boundaries. Tell your friend that you’re not willing to talk about food, diets, or weight loss with her, because you know that the two of you have very different feelings on those topics.
“I think that sometimes by just looking at someone and saying, ‘I’m not going to participate in this, we’re not having this conversation,’” Cox says. “The reaction in and of itself may spark somebody to say, ‘OK hey, what’s the big deal?’” You saying that you’re not willing to talk about diets and weight loss might be more effective in getting your friend to question these things than trying to talk her out of them.
How exactly should you go about setting boundaries?
That’s up to you, really. You can bring it up by asking your friend not to talk weight or diets around you. Or, Severson says:
“You can respond to weight and diet talk by saying things like, ‘I don’t believe in talking badly about my body.’ ‘I think it’s better when I get to eat whatever I want.’ ‘I feel like I should be able to trust my body.’ Use a lot of “I” statements. Be honest. Tell people that it took you a while to get to where you are, but then tell them how great it is now that you’re here. Planting a seed, in that moment it can lead to a larger conversation while allowing them space to say, ‘nah, I’m going to diet,’ or, ‘cool, sounds like it works for you.’ But they’re also going to remember what you’re saying, and they might come back to it and feel differently someday.”
Seek out a community that makes you feel supported.
I hope you’ll take all of this to heart when thinking about how to maintain your relationship with your friend. You can respond to diet talk without compromising your own values OR trying to impose them on her. That’s really the bottom line. You have to learn how to live your values while also coming to terms with the fact that others might disagree with them.
But there’s another thing I want to add before I go. You and your friend were supporting each other on the intuitive eating journey at the beginning. Now, it’s time for you to find that support elsewhere. Your email asks about how to support your friend. Don’t forget that YOU need support, too! Perhaps there are other people in your life who eat intuitively and accept their bodies at any size. You could talk about your journey with these people.
Or, you could find this support with a therapist or a dietitian.
I’m thrilled that my writing has helped you, but it likely isn’t enough support. Many dietitians and therapists offer virtual support groups that are relatively inexpensive, if you’d prefer that to one-on-one counseling. There are so many ways to connect with people who can guide you on your intuitive eating journey. There are communities of people who are in the same spot as you and can make you feel like you’re not alone.
Thank you again for reaching out with your struggle. I’m sure many others reading have been in the same position. I hope that I’ve given you some things to think about.