Letting food consume you: Being careful how we talk about food

Guest post by Cassie

Be careful about how you talk about food, or the Yorkshire Pudding Troll will get you. Photo and terrifying food creation by Chef Tristan.
Be careful about how you talk about food, or the Yorkshire Pudding Troll will get you. (Photo and terrifying food creation by Chef Tristan.)
Like many people, I’ve spent large portions of my life trying to do something about my weight. But in this post, I don’t want to talk about how to lose weight, or how to work out, or how awesome it is to be X body type. Those posts are easy to find. I want to talk about how we talk about weight and food.

Let’s start with the most obvious point…

If it’s not your weight, don’t talk about it

People in your life are probably trying to lose weight, but just because they’ve told you that doesn’t make their weight loss your responsibility. Don’t be the douchebag who asks your coworker if they “really need another muffin,” or who tells your friend they’ll regret that pizza when they get to the gym. Unless they have specifically asked you to call them out on “bad” behavior, let them make their own choices.

Sneaky negative phrases

Everyday conversations about food usually involve negative phrases that we don’t even think about using. As a baker, my personal pet peeve is any variation of, “I’m going to have to spend an extra thirty minutes on the treadmill after eating this.” I want you to enjoy my baking, not feel guilty over it. I also don’t want you to make me feel guilty for providing you with baked goods or for choosing not to spend an extra thirty minutes on the treadmill.

“Guilty pleasure” is another phrase that bugs me. If a food gives you pleasure, then why should you feel guilty about eating it? There’s no overeating-confessional where you have to tell a food priest about your obsession with gummy bears. No one has the right to make you feel guilty for enjoying food, and you shouldn’t talk yourself into feeling guilty over it either.

“I should order an X, but I’m going to get a Y instead.” When we use phrases like this, we’re basically apologizing to our meal companions for how we eat. It makes us sound incapable of making good decisions for ourselves, and it also puts too much focus on what we’re eating. If you want a salad, order a salad. If you want a double burger with fries and a shake, order them without an apology.

You don’t have to justify your food choices to anyone. It’s your body.

Justifications should almost get their own category. “This is my cheat day,” or “I missed lunch,” or “I spent an extra ten minutes on the treadmill this morning.” Whatever variation you use, think about what you’re really saying. You’re saying, “I think you (whoever you are) are judging me for what I’m eating, so I’m giving you all the ‘facts’ to make that judgment with.” The person you’re eating with probably wasn’t judging you. They were probably too busy thinking about their own food to judge you. And even if they were judging you, that’s their problem, not yours. Don’t give people ammunition against you. You don’t have to justify your food choices to anyone. It’s your body.

Other people’s food issues and you

When you’re talking to people about food, especially people you don’t know well, remember that you don’t know their food issues. I’d feel pretty bad if I was talking to a recovering bulimic and I said something like, “I ate so much I think I’m going to puke.” Talk about unintentionally insensitive!

But your conversation may not even be that awkward. Maybe you’re just talking about how you ate too much cake at your birthday party. The person you’re talking to could then feel guilty because they ate as much cake as you did, or because they think they overate, too. I don’t mean that you should feel like you have to be overly-sensitive to other people’s issues, but it’s important to be aware that the negative things you say about yourself can affect how other people feel about themselves.

Giving others permission to judge you

Every time you talk about your weight or your struggles with your weight or your struggles with your perceptions of your weight, it’s almost as if you’re giving other people permission to judge you. Some people will judge you no matter what, but the majority of people who come into contact with your food don’t care what you eat. The clerk at the grocery store probably didn’t notice your three bags of candy and tub of whipped cream until you guiltily pointed them out. Your coworker probably didn’t care that you ate two doughnuts at the staff meeting until you said you were on a diet or hated that you couldn’t fit into your skinny jeans.

People love to give “helpful” advice, and telling them what you dislike about yourself is almost like a flashing neon sign that says “Butt in here!” If that’s what you want, then go for it. If not, then be careful whom you talk to about your body.

If you’re happy, be happy

If you’re happy with your weight, then be happy! Don’t talk yourself down. Embrace positive words and thoughts. Focus on how great you look in that outfit or how happy you are with your curves. Don’t apologize for being happy with your body. Too many people want what you have, and too many people will try to tell you that you’re wrong to be happy. Don’t help them out by saying it too!

Letting food consume you

Here’s the thing, y’all… Food is meant to keep us alive. Yes, it can be comforting and huge portions of society are built around eating rituals. But ultimately, food is meant to keep us from dying. It was never meant to be something we lived for. But between gluten-free diets, Weight Watchers, vegetarian/vegan lifestyles, Paleo, etc., we’re people who can’t stop talking about food restrictions. And I get it — I do. When we make major life changes, it becomes something we obsess over for a while. We deal with food multiple times a day, so when we make big changes to our diets, it affects us constantly. But if you find that you’re talking about food more than your new hobby, or baby, or job, then you should take a step back and make sure you’re really talking about the things you want to be talking about.

I want to hear your talking-about-food tips! Surely I’ve missed things that are important to you. How do you encourage people to speak positively about their bodies?

Comments on Letting food consume you: Being careful how we talk about food

  1. this is a really interesting topic to me.

    i am consumed by food. but, not in the weight loss/dieting way at all- like not even a little bit. but, i work with food, went to culinary school, have been with a chef for 5 years, and my family loves to eat- so its just a huge part of my life, and it always has been. my dad always joked that “us smith’s plan lunch at breakfast, discuss dinner over lunch, and think up all the cool things we will eat tomorrow during dinner” and that is basically my life. the obsession with a weight loss slant is so weirdly foreign to me- like i get so much enjoyment out of talking about food, planning out menus and meals, ect, that is just so *odd* that something like that wouldnt be fun, and is even actively unhealthy, for other people.

  2. There are many, many good points here but as someone who sought to lose a lot of weight in the past and succeeded (by healthy means), this one thing bugs me a little:

    “I want you to enjoy my baking, not feel guilty over it. I also don’t want you to make me feel guilty for providing you with baked goods or for choosing not to spend an extra thirty minutes on the treadmill.”

    Now, it’s one thing when people on diets that don’t include baked goods seek out baked goods, eat them, and then say something like “ugh, now I have to exercise it off.” Why not either just eat it without the guilt… Or avoid eating it, if you can’t possibly eat it without feeling guilty?

    But when I was trying to lose weight, I often had family members give me baked goods as a gift, when they KNEW baked goods weren’t in my diet and that I was trying to avoid eating them. I felt like they were purposely trying to sabotage my weight loss efforts. And since it was a gift, I’d feel guilty whether I ate the baked goods or not: guilty about looking ungrateful if I don’t eat them, and guilty about breaking my diet if I did.

    So I’d just like to add one thing to the list of ways to avoid making others feel guilty about their food choices: if you know someone is on a diet, don’t purposely give them gifts that would make them break their diet. That’s putting them between a rock and a hard place: they either feel bad about breaking their diet, or feel bad about disappointing you. Verbally nagging people about what they should or shouldn’t be eating isn’t the only thing that makes dieters feel bad about themselves.

    • I totally agree that sabotaging someone’s efforts is a horrible thing to do – it’s just not nice.

      However, the way I interpreted the original post is when you bring baked goods to a gathering/party/the office/class/whatever, where they are made available for multiple people. Speaking as a person who likes to bake and then bring the fruits of my labor to my lab-mates and classmates in long seminar classes, I’m not doing it to sabotage any one person’s efforts. People have different dietary needs (I try to make stuff that is gluten and dairy-free because my lab and class-mates have those medical sensitivities) but I like to make food to share – it’s one of the ways I express my affection and friendship for people. So it hurts when people make those kinds of “ugh, this is going to add 30 minutes to my workout,” or “gods I shouldn’t eat this, but…” comments – fine, if you don’t want to eat it, don’t. Like the original post said, don’t make me feel guilty for providing you with baked goods when they were meant for the group as a whole – you can choose to eat them or not, but sharing with the world the fact that eating this stuff is guilt-inducing? Thanks.

      Mind you, I’m just as guilty of those horrible excuses and comments and invitations to judgement – I’m working on changing that. I just didn’t get the feeling that the OP was someone who bakes things for people as a method of sabotaging them.

    • I wouldn’t say anyone has ever sabotaged me, but I feel like I often have to choose between socializing and exercise. Recently, my group of friends has transitioned from the “Let’s do happy hour and then get pizza” crowd to a “Let’s take an exercise/yoga class then get smoothies” crowd. I’ll be honest, sometimes it’s exercise then pizza, which are my favorite nights. 🙂 But I like how we’ve widened our social scene to accommodate people who want to exercise, people who don’t want to drink, etc.

      • I have definitely been picked on by friends when they all order pizza and I order a salad, or if I’m the only person at the table who passes on dessert. The most common comments are similar to what other commenters brought up: stuff like, “you’re already small, just eat a piece of cake!!!!” Umm no thanks, I do not wish to eat cake at this time. It’s awesome that your friends enjoy exercising as a group– I really wish I could get more of my friends into similar hobbies as me. But the nice thing about sports or exercise classes is that you tend to make MORE friends who are into the same things as you 🙂

    • Obviously sabotaging anyone’s diet is a bad thing. Trust me, I’ve been the one being sabotaged; I know how not cool that is. Since this article was really about TALKING about food, not about actually eating food or making food or giving food away, I didn’t get into tons of specifics. But as Shii said, I get these kinds of comments when I bring baked goods to a party or to a dinner party (most especially from the women in my family). And I really want to say something like, “Well if you don’t want to eat them, don’t. Heck, I’ll take it home and eat it myself!”

      But your point is a great one, and one that I have trouble with at home. My husband goes on and off a low-carb diet, and he gets mad when I bake at home because he sees it as sabotaging his diet. But baking is my hobby and my stress relief, and if I can’t do it at home, then where can I? So we have to attempt to balance between his diet and my happiness. Not the easiest trick.

      • Oh yeah, if there’s food you can’t eat in your office/home that isn’t a gift *specifically* to you alone… Just don’t eat it! No need to comment any further than, “Thanks, but I can’t,” if you have to say anything at all. Not everyone is– or should be– on a diet at any given time. Implying that they should be is just rude.

  3. “Don’t give people ammunition against you. You don’t have to justify your food choices to anyone. It’s your body.”


    With anything!! I need to substitute “food choices” and “body” for anything I’m insecure about. I don’t have to tell people what I’m doing and why. I can just do it!! LOVE THIS.

  4. When I was in college I got really bogged down in some bad body image. The obsessive thoughts about my perceived inadequacy were really contributing to my depression/anxiety issues. I ended up getting some counseling, and the nutrition counselor helped me to name my real feelings instead of continuing to repeat distorted thoughts. (“I feel fat” is not a statement about your actual emotions – fat is not a feeling.) And me being part Vulcan, it was one stepping stone on my journey towards identifying and naming my feelings.

    • A book my counselor had me read was “Do I Look Fat in This?” by Jessica Weiner. At the time I read it, I really needed it. I think I actually read it twice before my next counseling session because it hit home for me. So I really recommend it to anyone struggling with positive body image.

  5. I enjoyed this article, and the comments. Talking about food is my job: I work for Weight Watchers. I hear so much of this negative talk in my meetings, and I try to reframe it positively. “I was so bad this weekend, I ate a brownie.” Why is that bad? Did you steal the brownie? If you think a food is worth it, then eat it!

    I hate when people ask what I do, and I have to say Weight Watchers. I don’t care what shape people’s bodies are, but I worry that others think I’m judging them. It’s uncomfortable. (Luckily for me I’ve finally got a full-time job after three years of looking, so it’ll be easier to not mention my side gig.)

    I love discussing this sort of thing, if anyone’s interested in hearing from someone in The Industry.

  6. I like most of your article and really agree that the degree of calorie related food shaming that is seen as normal is disturbing.

    However, I do take issue with the final section. I’ve thought about this issue before, as I noticed people doing this at work. I think that one of the things I find bizarre about this that I do genuinely bring ethical, moral and religious considerations to the food I eat, just as those considerations impact on my other choices about my behaviour and what I consume. I’m vegan because I don’t want to support animal farming and I don’t suffer ill effects from a plant based diet. I don’t eat certain foods and fast on certain days of the year for religious reasons. I try to take into account the carbon impact of my food choices, just as I do when I decide what clothes to buy or where to go on holiday. I prefer to buy fair trade.

    I think the difference between this and the “I’m so bad for eating a cupcake” attitude is that my food choices are part of the wider choices I make about my life based on considered decisions about what I think the best way to live my life is. On the other hand the “pizza is my guilty pleasure” statements are a reinforcing a social norm that people, particularly women, are morally obligated to constantly monitor and minimise their weight and calorie intake. I don’t think that most people actually want to support that norm. I certainly don’t. I find the calorific value of food ethically neutral.

    • Nothing much constructive to contribute, but I agree as a fellow vegan. But then, veganism is an entirely different conversation than one regarding judgment of fat/calories – at least in my experience.

  7. Food–writing about it, developing recipes, cooking it, eating it…This is my greatest joy in life and I think the pursuit of good food is a perfectly worthy way to pass your time…I love this article! We’ve taken all the joy out of eating in a quest to be thin and instead it just makes us eat crap and be unhappy. Great thoughts!

  8. “Food-shaming” as a language is hugely problematic – and I feel lately that it’s a sneaky way of controlling women and shaming us out of our confidence, like so many, many things. Food is Fuel. Food is Art. Both of which are definitely necessary in a happy human life. As a recovering ED girl (in my case never really stops, you just get better at recognizing your flawed thought process and handling it before you take the wrong action) it really has involved learning a whole-new language while AVOIDING the calories in, burn it off track, which really trends towards complusion.

  9. So, the worst thing for me is when someone tries to be supportive and joins me on my venture to healthy eating. Recently I started cutting out gluten and other grains from my diet due to lupus and other GI issues it was causing (bloating no thanks) and while one result is some weight loss, it’s not a diet thing I’m doing to lose weight. I don’t think of it as restrictive as much as it’s about look at all these other options I can have… and it’s fun experimenting with almond flour and coconut flour etc.

    But to other people it’s restrictive… Like my husband. He wants to be supportive so he joins me on this change but my god the complaining and the whining and the I can’t have this and I can’t have that turned it into a terrible experience. And I saw him miserable… and I said, you don’t have to do this… but I’m being supportive of your need to change. No… no you’re doing harm in making this change a negative thing.

    • I follow a gluten, dairy, and sugar free diet, and I feel better than I ever have in my life. The food that I eat and cook is free of preservatives and useless “fillers,” and is more delicious than my food ever was back when I ate without restraint because it is all made from much higher quality ingredients. I’ve never been happier with my diet! I, too get ridiculous comments like “well what on earth can you eat?” “well you basically can’t eat anything, right?” etc. Ugh.

  10. For someone who doesn’t want others feel to judged or guilty, you sure have a lot of rules about what others can say about food and themselves.

    • Unfortunately, you have completely missed the point of this post. It is about helping others have a healthier body image and relationship with food, both of which become very distorted when we equate food choices with “good” or “bad,” shame, or feel the need for justification to others. The author is not telling anyone what to do or say or how to act; she is merely laying out ways we can help ourselves and help others NOT feel ashamed about or food choices.

  11. I really liked this article and the comments and the only thing that I wanted to add was that I have found it particularly liberating to feel that the only two appropriate responses to being offered food are “yes, please” and “no, thank you.” Would you like a slice of cake? “yes please.” Would you like a third beer? “no, thank you.” No reasoning, no excuses. If someone’s going to judge me, let them judge. They’re the asshole in that situation.

    I will add that sometimes I add a small caveat if I’m worried that I am going to hurt someone’s feelings. Would you like a slice of this chocolate cake that I made myself? “No, thank you. I can’t eat chocolate because it gives me migraines.” Do you want the last slice of pizza? “Yes please, I’m starved because I went on a long run today.”

    Eating is not about my “being bad” or “earning” something, not eating is not about my “being good” or depriving myself of something. Eating is about finding my healthy balance between what my body needs to function well, what my mouth needs to be happy, and what my stomach needs at that moment. And I’m the only person who knows all the variables. So I’ll just stick with “yes, please” and “no, thank you.”

  12. It’s not directly related to food except for what I stopped eating/buying that contributed, but I cringe *so* hard when I hear “Oh my god, you haven’t changed a bit since high school!”

  13. I have suffered with an unhealthy relationship with food for my entire life. Overeaters Anonymous is the only way I have been able to have sanity around food in my life. It has given me a better life all around. This program saved me. 🙂

  14. I love conversations like this! I was made fun of for my weight most of my life, and also grew up in a family where my mother and three older sisters constantly focused on weight. On special occasions, I was scared to be in pictures because every woman in my family would go on and on about how they won’t get their picture taken because they are “too fat,” “ugly,” or “don’t look good.” I was always the heaviest woman in my family, so I thought that if my sisters were ashamed of their thin bodies, then I should be ashamed of my heavy body (and plenty of kids at school made me think that also). But over the last 12 years or so (since I was about 15), I started catching on to how insanely ridiculous all of this is. I have (very slowly) become that person who refuses to let weight dictate whether I get in that picture or not. Unfortunately, our society’s obsession with weight has followed me to every single workplace. There has always been at least 2-4 coworkers at every place I have worked that constantly talk about weight and food, and it actually depresses me, despite my efforts to love myself. It is a long process, but I am so grateful that I am beyond the point of obsessing over food. Also, avoiding negative body talk has literally made me happier!

  15. Thank you! I love this. We often have baked goods and treats in my office, and it drives me crazy to hear everyone constantly walk by and say things like, “What evil person brought these?” or debate with themselves out loud for five minutes about the merits of allowing themselves to eat a donut. Or the people who insist on trying to force someone to split a cupcake with them because they can’t bear to eat the whole thing.

    I also have a lot of friends who use the term “cheat day.” From what I’ve surmised, cheat days are basically a day that you totally pig out on all the unhealthy food you wish you could eat the rest of the week. I’ve never understood why this is supposedly better than just taking an “everything in moderation” approach… it always kind of seems like it encourages unhealthy bingeing, but maybe that’s just me.

    • My husband has an eating disorder. For him, the “cheat day” ends up being a necessary thing. Once he “allows” himself to eat one thing that isn’t exactly healthy, he can’t stop himself. But he can have enough willpower 6 days a week to not binge. So then on the cheat day he lets off the pressure when he does end up bingeing (even if he doesn’t want to binge). It’s a strict way to live, and tough for me to watch, but it’s his way of doing an 80/20 approach. 80% of the time he manages to stave off bingeing. The 20% where it happens, he doesn’t let himself get so depressed about it.

  16. Great article, thank you for writing it. I feel like the same can be said when talking about exercise (or lack thereof). People talk about it in the same way, opening themselves up for either judgement or positive reinforcement or even jealousy/admiration. I’m glad you mentioned it a bit on this and would love to explore it further.

    I used to hate posts about people’s runs or their posts about how they’re going to the gym, and now that I do it, I feel like I should respect my former self and avoid talking about it… which is sometimes difficult because I’m proud of my progress. Strange how we relate to our bodies and emotions through food and activities. Sometimes I want to be a robot, so much less complicated.

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