How to Disrupt Diet Talk this Holiday Season

This time of year can see increased stress around food-related anxiety. These expert nutritionists have tips on how to effectively navigate unsettling holiday dinner table diet talk.

Photo: Andrew Zaeh/Getty Images

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Holidays themselves can bring about so many different feelings for different people. While many appreciate the traditions that come from the holiday season, others loathe the conversations that they might have to endure with family, friends, and others about weight and diet. The truth is, conversations like these can trigger stress around body image and encourage restrictive and obsessive behaviors to surface. 

The endurance sports space itself is rife with diet culture, worshiping thinness and equating it with an ability to perform better, or attaching what you eat with some kind of high moral value. You’re often made to feel bad about yourself and what you eat, resulting in a push for weight loss. 

There is no one “ideal” body weight or diet for endurance runners. You have the right to shut down diet talk around the holidays if it makes you feel bad about yourself, or if it causes you to feel like you are engaging in disordered eating behaviors. However, this can be difficult to do when surrounded by family and friends that you might not want to upset. 

Emily Tessier, RDN, works with a lot of endurance athletes that struggle with disordered eating and eating disorders and states that “she sees stress levels are significantly increased around food and body image around the holidays. Reasons include frequent parties and gatherings involving societally deemed ‘unhealthy’ dishes and desserts, comments around fear of weight gain from friends and family, and the popular “near year, new me” diet culture mentality when it comes to food choices and exercise. Combine these with the running off-season and it’s a recipe for panic”. 

There is hope. We can create resiliency through boundary setting and coming up with a set of skills or responses to help in response to these stressful scenarios. 

RELATED: Let’s Talk About Disordered Eating.

Setting Conversation Boundaries

Boundary setting can be difficult to do, even downright scary, but Tessier reminds us “It’s not your responsibility to manage other people’s feelings or reactions, and that it is your right to express your boundaries and communicate how helpful this can be for you.” 

It is ultimately your choice as to how you set boundaries, but they can range from informative to blunt, and there is really no one right way to handle these situations. For family members, sometimes playing on emotion versus using informative talk can be a more effective way towards change because they love you and want to support you. Remember, you may not be able to change a friend or family member’s mind about diet culture in the moment, but you may spark them to think about their thoughts and comments in the future. 

Once the boundaries have been established, the hardest part may be having them stick. You will need to be adamant about reinforcing them over and over again. Tessier points out that “In the moment, it may feel time-consuming and ineffective, but repetition will emphasize how important this is for you. It can feel exhausting to set boundaries, and friends and family might push back at first. This isn’t because they want to cause stress or harm you – it is likely because they’ve never felt they had permission to do what you’re doing, or even crossed their mind as a possibility. By sticking to your boundaries, you’re not only protecting your own well being, but you’re also planting the seeds for others.”

It can also be helpful, if you are going into certain situations you anticipate will be particularly difficult, to have a spouse, friend, or other family member help you reinforce your boundaries, if you find yourself there. It can help you feel safer to have a support system when everything else seems a bit overwhelming.

Once you have in mind that you want to set your boundaries, coming up with a set of techniques and sample responses can help you think of how to handle yourself at the moment. It can be helpful to write out these responses so that you feel prepared to have a toolkit to reference in most any situation. You never know when and how they will come in handy. 

RELATED: The Importance Of Eating Enough Food

Use the following examples if you find yourself struggling to disrupt the diet talk this holiday season: 

  • Running group friends are talking about the latest diet they are trying: 

What Response Technique to Use: Change the subject.

Example Response: “I haven’t heard about that diet. But have you all heard about the new restaurant that just opened up in town? We should try it soon!”

  • Your aunt makes a comment about how your body has changed:

What Response Technique to Use: Approach with empathy.

Example Response: “I love you but I really don’t enjoy talking about weight or diet culture. I’ve been really loving listening to my body and fueling it, so I’d really appreciate it if we could avoid this subject right now.”

  • Your coach says something to the effect of how everyone should “watch the treats” this holiday season so you can be fit and in race shape in 2023:

What Response Technique to Use: Put the focus back on them.

Example Response: “Why is eating treats a bad thing? The holidays are supposed to be enjoyable, and treats help us fuel our bodies just like any other food!”

  • Your partner makes a comment at the dinner table about “eating clean” after the holidays:

What Response Technique to Use: Take the time to inform or explain.

Example Response: “I don’t believe that labeling foods as good or bad makes sense. Plus avoiding certain foods will only make me want them more.”

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