How to Navigate Unwanted Food and Body Comments During the Holidays

Young people talking beside a holiday tree

Eating disorders can make the holidays especially stressful. The increased focus on eating this time of year often comes with unwelcome comments about food, body, and weight. When in recovery from an eating disorder, you are already battling disordered thoughts, and oftentimes people’s comments on food and body can confirm your judgments of yourself—no matter how well-intentioned. Remarks on these subjects can even trigger eating disorder behaviors. 

Before attending a holiday event in eating disorder recovery, we encourage you to prepare for comments you may receive about food or your body. You may feel comfortable challenging the person asking or commenting something inappropriate or you may prefer to set the boundary that certain topics are off-limits around you. If you don’t have the energy for those options, it may be better for your recovery to simply change the subject or excuse yourself instead. Learn more below about how to navigate unwanted comments during the holidays. 

Respond Concisely and Move On

You may decide that the best way to manage unwanted food or body comments is to prepare things to say in response. By imagining the worst things that could be said to you or someone else, you allow yourself to plan a quick response that shuts down the conversation.

Here are some examples of triggering body and food comments and how you could respond: 

  • “Are you really going to eat all that?”
    • “Why are you so concerned with what I eat?”
  • “I’m being so bad for eating this treat, but it’s okay because I’m starting a diet tomorrow. Want to do it with me?”
    • ”I would prefer to spend my time and energy on other things besides worrying about food.”
  • “Don’t worry, I made a ‘guilt-free’ version of [insert food].”
    • “We do not need to feel guilty for eating any kind of food. No food is ‘good’ or ‘bad.’” 
  • “You look great, have you lost weight?”
    • “What’s looking great have to do with weight loss?”
  • “Wow, I’m surprised you’re eating all those carbs.”
    • “My brain and body need carbohydrates for energy.” 
  • “I feel so fat right now.”
    • “Fat is not a feeling. How else could you describe how you’re feeling? Are you having a bad body image day? Do you feel full from the meal we just had?”

You may feel uncomfortable being this direct, or you may feel that it would not lead to a productive conversation with a specific family member or friend. If this is the case, there are other ways to deal with such comments. 

Set Boundaries

You may have to set boundaries with your loved ones to protect your recovery and mental health. Think about the conversations you’d rather not have with your friends and family and make a list of what is off-limits. Share the unwanted conversation topics with the support people in your life. Some examples of these off-limits topics of conversation may be:

  • Diet talk
  • Negative body image talk
  • Clothing sizes or shopping
  • Food, including comments on how much someone is or is not eating
  • Comments on anyone’s body

You may eventually get to a place where these types of conversations won’t exist in your household. But, if that is not currently the case, add the specific topics that cause you stress to a list of off-limit conversations. If someone brings up one of the discussions you set as out-of-bounds, you may find it best to respond with something like, “Can we talk about something else? This conversation is making me uncomfortable.” Such a statement will help identify the issue as well as state your desire to change the subject. If needed, practice having this conversation in your head. Doing so can help you stay calm and lower anxiety by being prepared.

Change the Subject

When someone brings up a conversation that is difficult for you to talk about, changing the subject can move the conversation in a different direction or allow it to be picked up by someone else. There are many conversations that you can have instead, and thinking of these beforehand can be tremendously helpful.

If someone brings up that they are planning on losing weight in January, for example, you could counter with something that you are planning on doing in January. Are you picking up a new hobby in the new year? Painting, crafting, woodworking, or gardening might be your fun new adventure that you can discuss with family members. “I didn’t know you liked to paint!” a family member may chime in, allowing a more creative conversation to roll from there. Below is an example of such conversation:

  • “I’m going to be starting a new diet in January. You should diet with me!”
    • “Oh, speaking of January, my friend and I are taking painting classes in the new year. What stuff do you think I should paint? Would you want one of my paintings?”

If a family member makes an unwanted comment about the food on your plate, you could quickly change the subject by asking them “Hey, which one is the better Christmas movie, Die Hard or Home Alone?” then let the conversation go from there. Hopefully, enough people will chime in, and your support people can help you guide the conversation away from triggering topics. 

Excuse Yourself

Sometimes the best thing to do is to excuse yourself and walk away from a difficult conversation. If you need it, take a step back, find a quiet room, and take a break. Excuse yourself for as much time as needed. There is nothing wrong with removing yourself from a situation that you feel is not helpful for your mental health.  

Overall, do what is best for you and your recovery. If topics are hard, you can always politely decline to discuss them by being very honest in saying, “I struggle (or have struggled) with disordered eating (or an eating disorder) and I would really prefer if we talked about something else.” Rely on your support people and professional recovery team as needed.  

Remember that recovery should always be a top priority, during the holidays and otherwise. Ask for support from those you trust and remember to take care of yourself first. Making a plan for the possibility of triggering comments is key. Preparation will make those comments easier to handle and give them less power. Be mindful of your needs and remember that the holidays in recovery get easier with time.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder this holiday season—or any season—please reach out to The Emily Program. We provide specialized treatment and care for all types of eating disorders. Give us a call at 1-888-364-5977 or complete our online form to get started.

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