Why we need to practice compassion when talking about food.

By Jessica Cording, MS, RD, CDN and Jessica Cording, MS, RD, CDN
September 05, 2019
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Have you ever been about to sink your teeth into a satisfying meal when your friend/parent/partner makes a comment about the amount of food on your plate? Wow, that's a giant burger.

Or maybe you straight-up changed your order from the start: Have you ever chosen something lighter after a friend made a remark about her own diet?

Or maybe you stopped eating when you were still hungry because the person you were with said they were stuffed and you didn't want them to think you were a pig. (Related: Please Stop Feeling Guilty About What You Eat)

This seriously needs to stop.

A seemingly innocuous comment can really stick with someone and lead to unhealthy behaviors like restrictive eating. I know, because I help clients through these issues as a registered dietitian and health coach.

I've also experienced this in my own life. It's an open secret that many dietitians found our way into this field as a result of needing to heal our own relationships with food at some point in our lives, and I'm no exception.

As a child, mealtimes with my extended family were stressful because my grandmother worried about food and her appearance. When she got cancer, the discussion took on a new charge. I remember a lot of mixed messages about what was "healthy." It sure didn't help that I was a tween in the fat-phobic '90s. I felt so overwhelmed, it got to the point where I felt terrified to eat anything.

Fortunately, I had parents who noticed that our f-ed up food culture was affecting me, and I started seeing a dietitian who taught me to call BS and give myself permission to ignore the chatter.

That early education was valuable and spared me a lot of drama going into high school and beyond. My desire to tune out the noise and to listen to my own body instead of all the competing "shoulds" kept me centered. It still does. (Related: 3 Questions This Body-Pos Activist Asks Herself Before Deciding to Respond to Hateful Comments)

A healthy diet isn't about judgment—it's about balance.

As a dietitian—and let's be real, as a woman—I still face that scrutiny, though maybe it's more intense because of my profession. People will often say, "Don't look at what's on my plate!" because they're afraid I'll judge them. The thing is, it's no one's job to play food police—least of all mine.

With my clients, I focus on coming up with a sustainable plan that suits their lifestyle and includes room for their favorite treats so they choose their moments and don't feel deprived.

At this point in my life, I'm very comfortable with honoring what my body needs, but that doesn't mean it doesn't drive me nuts when I'm about to eat some chocolate or cut into a steak and someone asks, "Are you allowed to eat that?" I'll laugh it off, but internally I'm fuming. I genuinely believe that an overall healthy diet includes room for an occasional indulgence.

I understand that it's a fine line—obesity is a major public health issue, and it's true that large portion sizes and increased availability of highly palatable processed foods engineered to be irresistible are contributors to that problem.

Another big issue? People losing touch with their own inner hunger and fullness cues, basing their choices on external factors and having a harder time trusting themselves because there's so much noise in their head. We need to be mindful that food is a loaded topic that comes with a lot of emotional baggage for almost all of us, regardless of whether or not we have an active issue with eating or weight.

We also can't ignore eating disorder statistics. At least 30 million people of all ages and genders in the US suffer from an eating disorder, which can be fatal. It's estimated that every 62 minutes, somebody dies as a direct result of an eating disorder.

You don't know what others *really* need.

We can rarely tell what someone is going through, where they may be coming from, and what they are dealing with at any given moment.

As we go through life stages and experience changes in our weight or body as a result of health issues or life transitions, we're especially vulnerable to internalizing comments from others and allowing them to warp our behaviors or damage our self-esteem.

For example, very stressful events, or experiences like pregnancy and the postpartum phase, surgery, illness, and aging are all things that may result in changes to our eating habits and appearance. They shake our confidence.

Unhelpful comments further clutter the communication between the brain and body and only make it harder for people to make choices that are truly right for them. If someone is recovering from an eating disorder, ordering a more indulgent dish they may have feared at the height of their illness could be considered healthy progress in normalizing food. See how harmful a comment could be?!

Start shifting the conversation.

And when you're on the receiving end of a "wtf was that?" comment and in doubt about what someone means, it's okay to ask for clarity so you don't overthink to the point of ruining your day.

I was recently at a wellness conference where meals were served buffet-style. As I spooned some roasted veggies onto my plate I heard a guy's voice behind me: "Don't take all of it!"

Huh?

I turned around to look at his face, but it was impossible to read his smirk. Was he serious? Joking? Flirting? Was I really taking too much? That last one seemed highly unlikely, though—there was only about a cup's worth on there.

Obviously I was overthinking, I knew, but what the hell? I'd like to say I kept serving myself until there was an amount on my plate that I knew would be satisfying, but I was so consumed with processing what he'd said that I stopped. As I turned to find my seat I was disappointed in myself for letting a man's comment about my food impact my behavior.

So I spun around and stopped him. "I just need to ask you something," I said. "What did you mean by that comment? I just want to know so I don't make stuff up."

He looked shocked at first, but also genuinely sorry, like the fact that what he'd said could be interpreted as anything at all negative had never occurred to him. "Wow, I am so glad you said something." He explained that he had been making a joke about the overabundance of food and about how it would be virtually impossible for someone to actually take all the roasted vegetables.

I explained that, as a woman, especially in my industry, I was used to scrutiny about my eating so maybe was on high-alert, but that his comment had confused me.

"Thank you," he said. "Nobody ever asks stuff like that. I'm glad you did."

Then I introduced myself, he introduced himself, and after chatting another few moments, we shook hands and went to our respective tables.

I have no idea if our conversation stuck with him or not, but it obviously stuck with me. A little compassion goes a long way, and it's also okay to ask for clarity. Both can help save a lot of distress and drama.

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