Navigating Diet Talk in Eating Disorder Recovery

What happens when people around you are obsessed with dieting?

I’m no stranger to being surrounded by diet culture and for me, being an anorexia survivor makes brushing off diet-talk infinitely more complicated. My recovery was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and it was a long road filled with bumps, relapses, setbacks and total 180-degree turns… I have faced my demons and been at war with myself. And throughout it all, I’ve learned the hard way that staying ‘recovered’ means that I need to commit myself to ongoing work in self-love and body positivity every day in order to fend off the demons that try to beat down the doors.

I know first hand how tough it can be to stay positive around body image at the best of times… but when friends, family, and colleagues start telling you about the latest ‘miracle’ diet or how they need to skip breakfast to fit into their wedding dress, it’s difficult to keep that positive outlook.

Affirmations can help. Reminding yourself of your reasons for recovery can help too… but even then, that’s not always enough. And unfortunately, that’s the nature of mental illnesses… they can sneak up on you sometimes when you least expect it, even when you’ve been doing everything “right”, and try to torment you all over again.

The next time you find your recovery challenged by diet-obsessed loved ones, try one of these 5 strategies:

1. Acknowledge the danger

Remind yourself that no matter how “healthy” your colleagues tell you that it is to go on an elimination diet and no matter how “suitable for everybody” the latest fitness magazine says a craze is… there is no one diet suitable for every single body. Your body is unique and complex. And unless someone is your doctor or part of your medical team and has an in-depth knowledge of your body, your overall health, and your psychological history, they have no right whatsoever to tell you what you should be putting into your body. Nor can they predict exactly how your specific mind and body will react to their diet prescriptions.

And when you look at some of the little ‘tips’ that diet programs give participants, you’ll see that they’re scarily similar to some of the content that you’d see on pro-Ana or pro-ED sites.

2. Re-frame the trigger

Instead of hearing someone talking about their diet being a trigger for your own negative thoughts about your body, intercept that internal judgement using thought stopping and use it instead as an opportunity to learn more about diet culture and the ways that it harms us all. Knowledge is power – and the more you know, the more easily you’ll be able to remind yourself of just how dangerous diet culture is, the next time you hear someone recommending their crash diet!

Some good resources to start you off:

3. Exit the situation

If you’re at work and your colleagues are going on and on about their diet resolutions, excuse yourself to the bathroom and take 5 minutes to get some distance. Practice some deep breathing and use some grounding techniques to root you back in reality and get you out of your head. If you feel comfortable explaining why you need to walk away, you can do so – but you are not required to justify to anyone why you don’t wish to engage in a particular conversation. That’s your choice and your choice alone. If you have a person in your life who repeatedly engages in diet talk or perpetuates behaviors that you feel are damaging for your own mental health, you may wish to consider getting some distance from them… perhaps temporarily or perhaps on a permanent basis, depending on the nature of your relationship with that person. Your recovery is paramount and although it’s never pleasant to think about potentially limiting your contact with someone in your life, it’s your responsibility to choose the people in your life that will influence your mindset. Choose wisely!


4. Talk to someone who understands

I know, I know – we’re strong and independent and we can handle ourselves. If we can survive an eating disorder, we can handle anything! BUT that doesn’t mean that you’re prohibited from reaching out for help. In these situations, I can’t even begin to describe to you how helpful it is to talk to someone who understands what it’s like to be an eating disorder warrior faced with diet talk. If there’s no one in your life who matches that profile, there are countless support groups on Facebook and around the web where you can connect and chat with others in recovery. The more you keep those thoughts and triggers just in your head, the more the culture of shame and stigma goes under the radar. It’s so incredibly beneficial to get your thoughts out there to help you process them in a healthy way.

5. Be aware of your own response behaviors

As anyone who is in recovery will know, it’s crucial to keep an eye on your own behaviors and know when you’re starting to border into the danger zone. I recently wrote on Recovery Warriors about the ‘Safe Zone’ model of behavioral monitoring that I employ on myself, and it can be applied and changed depending on your specific eating disorder behaviors. After you’ve been exposed to diet talk, make a mental note of your food, exercise and body image behaviors throughout the day and ask yourself where you’re at risk.

The sooner you’re able to identify disordered thoughts being triggered, the better chance you have at preventing them from blowing out of proportion.

The above are all tactics that I use myself and that I recommend to women that I work with. Ultimately, there isn’t one “sure fire” tactic to help keep you feeling sane – it all comes down to personal preferences, your previous experiences, and your unique brain. Don’t be afraid to try them, put your own personal spin on them or use them as catalysts to come up with your own ideas. The important thing is that you make a dedicated effort to preparing yourself; having an arsenal of go-to tricks that you can pull out whenever you start to feel diet culture intruding on your recovered life.

Remember, there are also plenty of options you have in terms of how to respond to people perpetuating diet talk in order to change the relationship (and if the people perpetuating diet obsession are people that are going to be in your life for a long time, it’s well worth considering how you’d like the dynamic of that relationship to be healthier and more positive for both of you).

I’d like to leave you with one final thought: you are in charge of your life. Your recovery has taught you this and it’s an invaluable lesson… so draw upon it when situations test you. You have the capacity and right to walk away or to speak up to protect your own best interests. Please choose what’s best for your recovery, because you deserve happiness.
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1 Comment

  1. says: Anj

    Love the tip about reframing the trigger. It helps me to remember that instead of using someone’s diet-y comment as ammunition against myself and as something to fuel my own behaviours, instead, I can remember that this is bigger than us all. I can observe how their diet talk negatively harms them, those around them and the community at large. Just remembering that might help me not use it against myself.

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