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Why You Have to Stop Comparing Your Eating Habits to Your Friends'

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Photo: Lumina Images / Getty Images

We've all been there: You place your order at a restaurant and are feeling good about the healthy, balanced meal or the worth-it splurge you're about to enjoy, and then...your dining partner says, "I'm not really hungry. I'll just have a salad." Or they ask for everything on the side and make so many substitutions that you wonder why they bothered ordering anything at all.

Immediately, you start questioning whether you should change your order or if you really made a good menu decision. Even though, logically, you know that every "body" is different and everyone has different nutritional needs, it's hard to fight that "less is better" or "salad for every meal" messaging you've had beaten into your head for so long.

Of course, this works the other way, too. My nutrition clients have often talked about feeling uncomfortable ordering healthy foods with friends who they might have previously pigged out with. Will it ruin the relationship? Should they hide their new habits from that person? Will your friend judge you or push you to eat more? (Related: How to Deal When Friends or Family Don't Support Your Healthy Habits)

It gets even trickier on social media. It can be especially tough during New Year's resolutions season or as summer approaches and people start obsessing over that #bikinibody, but it can be overwhelming any day. With everyone posting their food and workouts online, you're bombarded by images of what your body "should" look like, what you "should" be eating, or what kind of workout you "should" be doing. That post about an ambitious meal-prep spread, or a picture-perfect #keto or #paleo dinner recipe can make you question whether you're failing for not eating like this, too.

What's more, whether it's a friend IRL or a social-media stranger, this kind of comparison thinking about food has real and sometimes dangerous consequences. Someone with a history of disordered eating or body-confidence struggles, for example, can find these curated images overwhelming. For some, it can take days or weeks to shake off a food shame spiral. (This is probably one of the reasons why Instagram is the worst social media platform for your mental health.)

Falling into the trap of comparing yourself to others is bad for you mentally and physically—it chips away at the energy you need to meet your own goals. Getting into a groove with what makes you feel great can be so much harder when you're surrounded by distracting chatter.

The next time you're tempted to send your plate of chicken parmesan back and order the mixed greens with a cup of soup, instead, remember these key points:

What works for her might not work for you.

You are a different person than your friend or the girl next to you. Your friend might be on a clean-ish eating plan. She might be trying to lose weight with restrictive eating. She might be testing out the ketogenic diet. That's her, not you. Your body has different needs, and there's no such thing as a one-size-fits-all diet. That intermittent fasting plan might be working out great for your cousin, but if you know the idea of skipping meals rehashes old disordered eating issues, there's no need to explain to that family member why you aren't jumping on board. (Plus, the intermittent fasting benefits are probably not worth the risks.)

She could have her own eating struggles.

Just as your friend or coworker probably doesn't know the ins and outs of your health, you won't know what's going on behind the scenes with them, either. For example, maybe someone's struggling with a medical condition that requires certain diet changes, or maybe that person who picks at their food in public, secretly binge eats at home.

She may be spreading misinformation.

Before you get sucked into the food comparison game, ask yourself, where did this idea about what's healthy even come from?. I remember when I had a sudden realization about a friend who always found a way to work her jean size or how little she'd eaten that day into the conversation when we were talking about people trying to lose weight on The Master Cleanse (a liquid diet that was popular circa 2008).

When she told me that she would have the lemonade-like cleanse drink "as a snack sometimes," a light bulb went off in my head. Something about her looking at this weight-loss lemonade as a legit snack made me question her idea of "health." In her world (she worked in fashion), she was surrounded by people with all kinds of wacky ideas about food and body image, so no wonder she was so obsessed with her waist measurement.

You're on your own journey.

To get your mind off what others are doing, check in with yourself about what you're working toward and why, and highlight how much great progress you're making.

For example, if you've been working on finding a more balanced relationship with food instead of getting caught up in a restrict-binge cycle, take note of how great your energy has been since you've been allowing yourself to (gasp!) have carbs again and are enjoying oatmeal at breakfast. Remember that you are unique and so are your nutritional needs. Someone who's on their feet all day or training for an event will need to eat more than someone who sits behind a desk.

Sometimes you just have to avoid triggers altogether.

Coming to terms with the negative impact created from the "cleanse" convos I was having with my model friend made me realize how much her comments were affecting me. I'd previously leave our get-togethers feeling self-conscious that my friend who was so much taller than me could share my pants. Understanding where she was coming from made me realize that actually, I was a perfectly healthy weight for my height (4'11"), and it was kind of messed up that someone model-tall would brag about wearing a size 0.

Get real about what triggers negative thoughts about eating for you. If eating with a certain friend who always orders the most decadent meals or, conversely, someone who orders an appetizer for a meal every.single.time., is difficult for you, suggest going to the movies or for a walk around the park instead of your usual lunch date.

 

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