Why I Quit Diet Talk and Why You Should Too
Diet talk. Early in my recovery, it was the phrase that changed everything.
Back then, getting food into my mouth felt like a Herculean feat. Eating in front of or with people was horrific enough — OMG I have to acknowledge publicly that I, a not skinny person, eats! The shame! — but what made eating around other people even worse was that the self-depreciating way everyone else talked about food.
A group of friends would go out for happy hour and the chorus of self-discipline began to ring:
“Ugh I’m so fat.”
“I guess today is my cheat day.”
“I can’t get the sandwich because carbs are bad for you.”
“I should order the salad, but I’m going to be so bad and get the soup instead.”
“Wow, I’m going to have to work out after this.”
“Good thing I went running so that I can eat lunch today.”
“No bread for me, thanks, I’ve been off gluten for 3 weeks.”
“I don’t do desert.”
These words the same that my eating disorder had been whispering in my ear for years: You have to earn your meals, there are explicit rules about good vs. bad food, eating a normal meal at normal mealtime is somehow wrong and shameful.
Around other people who talked like this, the Sisyphus-ian task of eating food in recovery became insurmountable. The people I loved and trusted were validating all the things that fed my self-hatred and sickness. If they thought those words were true, then surely my eating disorder was right, too. And what would those people think of me?
Then I found a name for this type of cyclical self-depreciating chatter: Diet Talk. When I first heard the term, it felt empowering. Naming something allows you to understand it, to control it, to say no to it. Putting a name to the practice helped me realize that we (everyone in America but especially women) are trained to do this: to devote substantial time and energy to disciplining our bodies through controlling what goes into them. Diet talk is a symptom of that system. Diet talk is robotically reiterating the lines we’ve been spoon fed since birth: body is bad, must be controlled, must take up less space. Diet talk is what happens when someone who’s relationship to food and body is so fraught with shame that they must externalize it.
I used to participate heavily in diet talk, starting way back when I began dieting over a decade ago. Now, even though diet talk is still all around me, I refuse to engage. Here’s why.
I don’t think about food obsessively anymore. How do you know someone is on a diet? They’ll tell you! And they won’t shut up about it! There’s a scientific reason why people on diets who are reducing their caloric intake talk and think about food so much. One of the major takeaways of the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, in which 100 healthy men were severely underfed for 24 weeks, was that not eating enough leads to a preoccupation with food. Starving or underfed people think about food all the time — it’s the brain’s way of telling you that it doesn’t have enough energy to do it’s job. So, it makes sense that people who are on a diet have a preoccupation about food and are eager to talk about it and the not-eating of it all the time. I used to be like that. When I was eating 500 calories a day or less, I was thinking about food every second of everyday. However, because I didn’t want to feed myself what my body needed, I talked incessantly about what I wasn’t eating: “I haven’t had a carb in 3 months! I don’t eat dairy! Or carbs! Or sugar! Or fat! Or protein! Or breathe air!” Once I began adequately feeding my body, those compulsive thoughts went away, and I don’t feel the biological urge to talk about food all the time anymore.
The diet/wellness industry is worth over $4 trillion and they don’t need the free marketing from me. Have you seen that meme of the woman laughing while eating salad? You know the one. Head tossed back, big bowl of leafy greens in one hand, a fork in the other. Feeding flavorless, textureless, iceberg lettuce into her big smiling mouth. She, and the industry that made her, is a liar. The diet and wellness industry profits exclusively off of the self-loathing it induces, primarily in women. It wants us to believe that the key to happiness and inner peace comes in a SlimFast bottle or through a number on a scale. They want us to believe we can have our salad and our sanity, too, for the low cost of a lifetime subscription to misery. To quote one of my sheroes, RuPaul, “if they ain’t paying yo’ bills pay them bitches no mind.” Diet talk gives the diet industry free airtime, and I’m not helping them get rich.
It’s sometimes gross! Do you know what happens to people who are lactose intolerant? Explosive shits or a complete lack thereof. That’s what I think about when people say they have a “dairy allergy” or “gluten allergy” when we sit down at the table for a meal. Why is that appropriate to share? It’s only appropriate to share because within diet culture excluding major food groups from your diet makes you a good eater. You get a gold star for all the things you don’t eat. Science has routinely disproven the existence of gluten sensitivity — you either have Celiac disease or you don’t — and people who are truly lactose intolerant seriously shouldn’t eat dairy, but most people who talk about those “allergies” on and off are just using them as an excuse to fad diet. Dietary allergies result in bad poops. Don’t talk about them at the dinner table unless you’re literally at risk of dying.
I don’t say anything about myself I wouldn’t want my nieces or sisters to say about themselves. My eating disorder developed directly out of dieting, which I learned to do because all the people around me growing up as long as I can remember were on diets or participating in diet-talk. When I think about my nieces and cousins and sisters, about how protective over them I feel and how I would do literally anything to help them have a happy life, my heart breaks to think that they too are being blasted with messages about why they should go to war with their bodies. I never want them to feel like they need to change anything about themselves to live a happy and fulfilled life, to find love, or to reach their goals. So, I don’t diet-talk. I don’t diet talk around them, but I also don’t diet talk around anyone else because the fewer people in the world who spread that bullshit, the better chance the people I love have of getting away unscathed.
It’s boring! GOOD LORD diet talk is so boring. To the person on a diet, what they do or do not eat is incredibly interesting (they can’t help it, see point number one). However, literally everyone on Planet Earth has to eat. There are so many interesting things about food that we could talk about: the cultural significance of regional dishes, the flavor complexity of different spices and ingredients, new recipes you found on Pinterest or old recipes your grandma passed down to you. The fact that you’re torturing yourself on Whole 30 yet again is not interesting in the least. Food is an integral part of human culture that adds richness and meaning to our lives. Within diet culture, food is punishment, sinful temptation, meager reward for self-sabotage and a source of shame. Diet talk is the symptom of that culture of self-deprivation, and it’s way less interesting than all the great things food adds to our larger experience of being human.
I don’t expect anyone to read this and suddenly give up diet talk. We’re steeped in it, and it’s incredibly difficult to unlearn, especially if you have spent a lot of time around people who place high value on dieting. What I hope is that you read this and reconsider how you talk about food and why. Could you benefit from reframing your relationship to food? Could the people around you benefit from you learning to talk about food differently?
When I asked myself those questions, the answer was a resounding YES, and my life is much better for it.