How (not) to talk about food

I made a new years resolution to write about the most challenging thing that happens to me each week, and then I quickly broke it, choosing to write some guff about social media instead because writing about things that you struggle with is fucking difficult. But let’s at least try to get to the end of January with this.

My challenge this week is that I’ve encountered a lot of diet talk, mostly at work. I get it, it’s January, a lot of people want to loose weight and they want to talk about it. But I struggle with diet talk a lot.

Mainly, I struggle because I don’t know what to say. When a perfectly well-meaning lovely person asks you if something is fattening, or tries to engage you in a conversation about how “good” they’re being by eating yoghurt for breakfast, you want to say something friendly. You don’t want to explain how anxious this conversation is making you because of your previous eating disorders, and how much of a battle it’s been to have a semi-normal relationship with food. So you make some flippant remark about how when something is low in fat it is usually high in sugar. You don’t explain how you know this much about sugar, fat and calorie content, and how much of your valuable time has been spent thinking about this kind of crap when really, you had so much more you could have been doing. Like studying for a degree.

Because actually, I don’t want to think any of these thoughts any more. I don’t want to think about why a food might be fattening, because then I feel guilty for eating it. Then that guilt makes me feel bad about how I look. Maybe it’ll make me feel bad enough about myself to not eat anything for dinner, or to eat a lot but then make myself vomit it up afterwards. Or maybe it won’t, but feeling guilty about food is a bad thing in itself – and something I want to leave behind.

But people talking about diets make me think about this crap. And people talk about diets all the sodding time. I don’t think they realise this, and how triggering it can be for anyone who’s ever had an eating disorder. Earlier this week, a friend of mine tweeted: “And we’re back to talking about the 5:2 diet in work and what a 500 calories a day looks like. I’m hiding in the toilets.” I knew exactly how she felt.

If you are on a diet, fine. Do what you need to do. Just please don’t talk about it. Don’t talk about what you are eating and why. And please don’t place any value judgements on different types of food. It’s not good for any of us. It normalises unhealthy attitudes to food, the pressure to be on a diet, and the notion that everyone should be striving to be thinner.

I hate talking about food in this way, as though the only merit of a particular type of food is the calorie, fat or sugar content. I really really hate it.

So here’s how you should talk about food:

  1. Talk about what it tastes like. You’ve chosen your lunch because it tastes awesome.
  2. Talk about how to make food taste awesome- swap tips and recipes.
  3. Talk about something incredible that you’ve eaten lately – at a new restaurant, or while travelling.
  4. Talk about when we’re going to go get some awesome food.

And here’s how you shouldn’t talk about food:

  1. Don’t talk about food in a way that’s going to take all the pleasure out of it, in a way that suggests you’re only eating it to be thin. Food is so much more than this. It is there to be enjoyed.
  2. Don’t talk about food in a way that’s going to make someone else feel guilty or feel as though they should only be eating 500 calories today as well.
  3. Do not talk about ‘good’ or ‘bad’ food. No food is “good” or “bad”. Nutrition is a complex thing – something might be high in fat but also high in vitamins. Something might be low in fat but high in sugar. Sugar might be less nutritionally valuable but it tastes great, and that’s a good thing.
  4. Especially, do not talk about how eating a particular type of food makes you a “good” or “bad” person. For example, “Oh, I shouldn’t but…”
  5. Do not talk about food as though eating is something to be ashamed of. For example “We need to hide these sweets.”

As a kind of footnote, I should mention that I’m already having second thoughts about publishing this. I’m worrying: will people think I’m criticizing them? (I’m not) Am I being a killjoy? Do I have any right to ask people not to talk about this? Shouldn’t I be better at managing my own issues with food so that this isn’t a problem? Actually, think talking about food in this way is helpful to everyone, not just people with “food issues”. Let’s reclaim food from the diet industry. Yeah.

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8 thoughts on “How (not) to talk about food

  1. Thanks for sharing this – don’t think you’re being a killjoy at all. Have also been having real trouble responding to dieting friends at the beginning of this year, not because food is particularly triggering for me but because I think the ‘dieting culture’ is fundamentally flawed to begin with. Basically I think that if someone is reasonably active and eating a balanced diet, they’re probably the shape they’re supposed to be, and everything else is sexist cultural crap. But obviously for a lot of people this is painful and personal stuff, and that’s not a very helpful thing to say.

    So do you encourage, challenge, or keep your mouth shut? Mostly going for the latter at present, but watch this space… x

    • I couldn’t have put it better myself – it is sexist cultural crap. I go for the latter as well, generally disengaging from the conversation or starting a new one. I only challenge if it’s a good friend I know will listen and not get defensive about it.

  2. Thank you! I also dislike when people constantly talk about how sad they are they can’t eat this and that because of the diet that they chose, and tell you that how dare you eat that delicious muffin in front of them. And then 2 weeks later you see them pigging out in more than before. People must choose healthy life style and understand a concept of moderation. Diets are restrictive and don’t provide enough energy for the body to perform to its full potential.

    xoxo
    Olena

  3. I never thought about how my conversations about food could effect others around me. This made me see food talk from a different perspective and I appreciate that. Never worry about what you publish- you may upset some, eff em, you will definitely help others.

  4. Excellent post. I love the ‘how to talk about food’ suggestions. Food is awesome. We should completely be focusing on that. And that might be one way of turning the conversation around as well

  5. I just wrote a massively long comment, then it deleted itself. Not happy.

    Anyway, the gist of it was, I agree! Though I understand some people need to share their experiences as a method of motivation. This goes for anything really, and it annoys me when people talk incessantly about their exercise regime (although maybe that’s because i have my own issues with that).

    Damn, that wasn’t as eloquent as the first one. Ah well.

  6. The philosophy of cake – Another Cuppa

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