Most of the people in my inner circle share my views on intuitive eating and health at every size. Especially with my closest friends, thoughts/concerns/challenging questions come up and we talk them out pretty regularly, usually circling back to a place of mutual agreement (and peace) on those topics. I’m really fortunate to have a social support system of people who can encourage me in my efforts to take the best possible care of myself by not dieting when it comes to food and nutrition.
But the same can’t be said about all my acquaintances, colleagues, or even some of my family members. Of course, each person is entitled to his or her own views, and is entitled to make their own health choices according to their own values. I don’t see it as my duty to change other people’s perspectives, but rather to offer another option to those who are looking for something different than dieting.
So, how do I do that?
For me, my approach has come through trial and error…and quite a few failures. When I was starting out in my recovery journey, I felt extremely vulnerable. I was trying to change my views towards food, but I found it extremely difficult to cope with the diet messages around me. It was easier to tune out some things, like media headlines and commercials. It was much harder to tune out other things, like when the people around me made diet-y comments. I’ve retaliated in very aggressive and rude ways in the past, and while I know that my extreme responses in those instances were the consequence of my own mental struggles, it was wrong. I’ve also learned that arguing doesn’t change anyone’s mind, and that the best thing I can do to inspire others is to be honest about myself and where I’ve been. Nobody can disagree with the truth of personal experience.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve gotten quite a few questions on Instagram about talking to friends/daughters/family members who are struggling, and it made me realize that this is probably a question shared by more than just those who message me about it. Hence, this post. Here goes…
1. Be Open and Honest
“Do this, not that” isn’t a great way to get somebody to do something. At least in my own life, I tend to shut down when people tell me to do something. But I’m much more likely to internalize what someone is saying when they are sharing from their own experience rather than trying to compel me to do/act/be like them.
When I was struggling with an eating disorder, I was extremely guarded about what I was going through. I was ashamed of my struggles and didn’t want to talk about it…with anyone. I can even remember the first few sessions with my therapist when I was in high school and then again when I was in college, I just stared at her for the first few sessions. I had no problem talking about my schooling, my family, or my friends, but when it came to my eating disorder or my struggles with depression, I completely shut down. Looking back, I actually feel really bad for my therapists during those sessions because I literally just sat there in silence, saying nothing. I’m sure it was very awkward for them, too.
That paralyzed feeling continued into my recovery for the first few years, but as I grew more and more confident in my recovery, my faith in God, and my convictions about the role of food in my life, I started to let down my guard a little bit. And then a lot. Now, I don’t have an issue with talking about it…which is probably obvious given how much I share about these topics on social media. Ever since I started talking openly about dieting, disordered eating, and eating disorder recovery, hundreds of people have reached out and told me how much they resonated with my story. For some, reading my posts or hearing me share about my past struggles was the first time they’d heard about intuitive eating, and inspired them to take the first steps in their own recovery.
When it comes to inspiring change in other people, the most effective story we can share is our own…where we’ve been, what we’ve learned, and where we’re headed. Personal testimony is extremely powerful.
2. Offer a Listening Ear
I think the bible has a lot of wisdom to offer on this topic, or when it comes to talking about truth in any area—not just dieting. James 1:19 in particular reads, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”
When it comes to other people’s struggles with food, it’s important for me to remember that it’s about them…not me. Not everyone’s experience is going to be the same as mine, and that’s okay. If I’m truly approaching the conversation with the intent of being a support and an encouragement, I don’t need to have all the answers, but I do need to offer a safe space where my friends/patients/etc. can wrestle with their own process of change. More often than not, that means closing my mouth and opening my ears.
3. Don’t Claim to Know Everything
Since no two lives are the same, we can’t claim that just because things worked out a certain way in our own lives, that they’ll play out that way for others. Here’s an example: as I transitioned out of a diet mindset, my urges to binge went away. Because I was no longer binge eating, I ended up losing weight. That is not going to be the case for everybody, and it shouldn’t even necessarily be the goal. (My goal for each of my clients is to reach the body shape/size that was genetically designed for them.) I’ve worked with women who have had results all over the spectrum of gaining weight, losing weight, staying exactly the same, changing size/shape but staying the same weight, etc.
I also am honest about things I’m uneducated about. For example, some people ask me detailed questions about whether or not ‘x’ is an appropriate amount of food or exercise, if ‘y’ will cause weight gain, etc. etc. I don’t know exactly what another person’s body needs when it comes to calories, macronutrients, or exercise…but I do know how to teach them how to tune into their own bodily signals so they can meet those needs for themselves.
I have absolutely no clue how diet recovery will play out in the lives of my clients, and I don’t claim to know, either. But I do offer support and encouragement along the way, and consistently remind them of what I do know: that a non-diet life is worth it.
4. Proactively Talk About Food/Bodies in Positive Ways
In social settings, I try to be intentional about using positive language about food and my body. In some ways, this just comes naturally, and other times, I’m a little more proactive about it. Sometimes conversations naturally flow out of these statements, and sometimes they don’t. But I do know that I am at the very least not contributing to the whirlwind of diet chatter that so often contaminates conversations among women.
Here are some examples of proactive, positive food/body talk:
- “That meal was so satisfying.”
- “I feel so good now that I’ve had the chance to eat something nourishing.”
- “That was exactly what I was craving!”
- “No thanks, I don’t want another serving. That portion was exactly the right amount.”
- “Yum, this is delicious! I can’t wait until the next time I get to eat it.”
- “I’m full now, I think I’ll save the rest for later.”
5. Gently Redirect Critical/Diet-y Conversations
This one can be a little trickier. There are many times that I simply choose not to participate in conversations about dieting, simply because it doesn’t feel like the right moment. I generally always give an answer if I’m directly asked my opinion, but other times I find it difficult to know how to gently and gracefully contribute a contrary view without unintentionally being inflammatory. (I’m also probably a little extra cautious because of regret over past experiences when I didn’t have a helpful or gentle response.) If you have specific experiences about times you’ve successfully (or otherwise) contributed to conversations like these, I’d love to read them! Share in the comments or send me an email.
Here are some examples of conversations that have gone really well when I’ve chosen to participate:
- If someone says something along the lines of: “I’m so bad for eating that,” or “I was so bad with my eating today,” I might say something like, “Oh man, I think ‘x’ is wonderful! It’s one of my favorite foods. I used to struggle with a lot of food guilt, but I finally learned how to eat according to my body’s signals, and I consequently gained a lot of trust and compassion for my body. I feel so much healthier when I’m not at war with my cravings!“
- If someone says something along the lines of: “This food has only ‘x’ amount of calories! Isn’t that awesome?” I might say something like, “I don’t know, I think my body knows how many calories it needs, so if I eat something too low in calories, I’ll just end up hungry later. That’s been my experience, anyway.”
- If someone says something along the lines of: “I look so fat today!” or “Ugh! I must have gained like ‘x’ pounds!” I might respond with something like: “I don’t know that body fat or weight are necessarily bad things. I’ve felt uncomfortable when my body changes too, but I’ve found that most of the time, I’m just imagining it. My body is going to do what it needs to do, and as long as I take care of myself, it’s all going to be okay.“
These conversations are really difficult to plan out because interpersonal interactions are so dynamic and unpredictable. I also would respond really differently if I was having a conversation with my sister, for example, than if it was an acquaintance or a client. I’m more likely to chime in if it’s a 1:1 conversation, or if it’s a conversation that is really making me uncomfortable. But in general, I try to refrain from overt criticism of someone else’s viewpoint (unhelpful 99% of the time) and instead offer a positive re-framing of the statement and/or a statement about myself, like “I used to feel that way too, but now I’ve learned…“
I think it’s important to remember that everyone is at a different place in their journey with food, exercise, and their bodies. I know what works for me (intuitive eating) and I know that diets are harmful for most people, and so I try to keep both of those things in mind when I’m entering into conversations about food, dieting, exercise, and health. A proactively positive attitude is far more effective than defensiveness and/or arguing pretty much 10 times out of 10.