Updated: Feb 26, 2022
Written By: Natalie Faella, MS, RDN, LDN | October 14, 2021
Have you ever heard a friend’s or family member’s voice in your head? For example, when I walk by my unmade bed in the morning and hear my mom telling me to make it. (And as usual, she’s right, it looks a lot better made). Sometimes we hear positive, helpful things that serve as reminders or motivators. Other times, we can hear unhelpful or hurtful things that impact our decisions or self-esteem. Like the reminders we might receive from diet culture.
Diet culture is a belief system that promotes a thin body ideal. It creates a morality around food — labeling some as good, healthy, or “clean," and others as bad, or even “toxic,” “addictive,” or to-be-avoided-at-all-costs. It also promotes weight loss as the solution to all.
It can sound like that little voice in your head saying “don’t eat the hamburger bun — it’s too many carbs,” or “you should order the salad instead of the sandwich,” or “you’re not going to lose weight if you eat dessert,” and so on. Some of these messages may be things you grew up hearing from those closest to you who were trying to watch their weight or trying to “help” manage your weight, but ultimately they all can be traced back to diet culture.
It can also be a friend, family member, or coworker saying these things out loud about their own eating and making you think, “well should I get the salad, too?” So if you weren’t already questioning the voices in your head, now there is a live one right there next to you making you second guess what you “should” be eating.
This little voice — live or inside is often referred to as the “food police.” One of the ten principles of intuitive eating is challenging the food police so that it can no longer influence us.
I want to note (or maybe hope), that most times people are trying to be helpful. Family members or friends that may have made comments about your eating thought they were going to help you be “healthier” by doing so. The coworker talking about their diet isn’t necessarily saying you should be on a diet too (though, misery loves company), and probably doesn’t think that talking about their diet is going to prompt you to question or feel a certain way about your eating habits. They think they are doing the right thing cutting carbs, counting calories, etc., because that’s what diet culture has told us to do.
For these reasons, I feel a little badly calling people “food police” because it’s not entirely their fault. I guess they are more like food influencers. You can probably think of someone who has had a positive influence on your life (mom telling me to make my bed) and a negative influence (Carrie Bradshaw giving me the unrealistic expectation that I could one day afford a chic apartment in a big city on my own).
So how do we not let the negative food influencers (both in and outside of our heads) get to us? Here are 3 things we can practice:
1. Make observations, not judgements.
When that voice comes up in your head about what you should and shouldn’t be eating, drinking, or doing, it’s usually pretty judge-y. “I can’t believe I had wine, bread, AND ordered dessert last night. I need to skip breakfast today.” Instead, try just making an observation about your night. “I had so much fun catching up with my girlfriend last night. The restaurant was adorable, the food was delicious — I enjoyed every course and the wine that went with it. And now I'm hungry for breakfast.” Don’t let those diet culture “shoulds” and “should nots” come in and ruin your experience. Yea, you ate dessert and it was probably an excellent ending to your meal. You still need to eat and nourish yourself today. Plus, depriving yourself will likely lead to overeating later, keeping those negative thoughts and that vicious indulge-restrict cycle going.
2. Take it with a grain of salt.
Your friend is intermittent fasting, your aunt is keto, your cousin exercises 3 hours per day… what does this mean about you and your lifestyle habits? Absolutely. Nothing. To some degree, we all compare ourselves to others and seek their approval. And whether we realize it or not, all this does is make it harder for us to be happier with ourselves. Just because someone you know is feeling great or lost weight (for now) on their diet, doesn’t mean you should be dieting, losing weight, or that you’d even feel great doing what they’re doing. Just because your friend ordered a salad at dinner and didn’t eat the bread or dessert doesn’t mean you did something wrong or need to make up for it the next day.
We only see a snapshot of people’s lives and it's the snapshot they want us to see. So when it comes to their eating and exercise habits, we really don’t know what the rest of their day or week looks like; maybe they aren't always eating "super healthy" or going for long runs. Even if they’re posting it all over Instagram, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true and definitely doesn’t mean it’s what you need to be doing, too. So take their advice, practices, mantras, etc. with a grain of salt. We all have different nutrient needs, food preferences, work and life schedules, levels of stamina, and desire for different types of movement. What works best for you IS what is best for you.
3. Change the narrative.
Like making observations, this helps us reframe our thoughts. I recently had food poisoning (or a stomach bug — still not sure, but I know it was awful). It only lasted 24 hours but I felt dehydrated, weak, and without a real appetite for about 3-4 days. I guess it really took a lot out of me. As someone who usually eats pretty balanced (love my veggies), drinks a lot of water, and moves regularly, by day 2 I was feeling awful. I was mainly eating Saltines, trying to take down some water and Pedialyte, and was lucky if I made it up and down the stairs once in the day. I was exhausted and the thought of eating anything that wasn’t an easily-digestible white starch turned my stomach.
Sounds like normal behavior after a bug but still, I was hard on myself. I noticed I just kept listing all that I was upset about in my head:
“I haven’t eaten a vegetable in 3 days"
"I haven’t grocery shopped this week"
" haven’t been physically active at all"
"I feel so lazy and gross”
And then finally realized this was only making me feel worse. I changed the narrative by showing myself some compassion:
“I’m so grateful I was only sick like that for 24 hours"
"My stomach went through a lot, so I need to keep eating plain until I feel better"
"It’s OK to rest, especially when you need it"
"Exercise is only going to dehydrate me more, and I probably haven’t eaten enough to sustain much activity right now"
"I will heal just like I’ve healed from things in the past and feel more like myself soon"
"I'm grateful that I'm able to recognize and honor what my body needs”
Being more compassionate with myself was really helpful. I thought about how my mom or another person that loves me would talk to me right now. They wouldn’t say “suck it up, it’s been 3 days — get on the exercise bike!” or “Crackers for lunch again? Really?” And I certainly wouldn’t talk to my mom, dad, sister, fiancé, best friend, coworker, client, etc., like that if they weren’t feeling well. For some reason, we don’t give ourselves the same compassion we give others. But when we do, it can make all the difference.
So next time you find yourself listening to the little negative voice in your head — whether it is the food police or some other judge-y commentator, think about trying these steps. First, shift from making judgements about your behavior to making simple observations and then show yourself some compassion. And when you start noticing that voice comparing you to others, remember to take it with a grain of salt. Who knows what that person's life looks like 24/7, what filter they're using on Instagram, or if what they're doing would even "work" for you.
I know these 3 techniques are easier said than done and will definitely take some practice. Some days it might be really hard to tune out that voice. But we owe ourselves a shot at a little more self-compassion even on those days, too.
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