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The language of dieting: How the way you talk about your health kick may be anything but healthy for your friends


May The Forties Be With YouIt is both Mental Health Awareness Week (which this year has a body image focus) and peak Beach Body prep time, as the media starts its annual shaming of anyone who is not a size 6 or dieting to become so. We all know that to be beach body ready, you simply need to take your body, as it is, to the beach, probably with an ice cream in hand. However, if you are currently watching what you eat or engaging in a fitness regime (which is fine if you’re doing it healthily, for the right reasons) have you thought about the way you talk about your endeavours with others? In this piece, I’d like to help you to rethink the language you use around food and fitness, so we can all feel a bit better about ourselves and our bodies.

First, a personal story: I was chatting with a friend who has recently become very enthusiastic about weight lifting and tracking her diet on My Fitness Pal, calculating proteins, carbs, fats and calories to the last gram and logging every rep in the gym. Now I’ve written about my experimental week using My Fitness Pal a while ago. Needless to say, I found it to be variously alarmist, judgy, inaccurate and boring. I have a pretty balanced relationship with food and exercise and it even made me feel guilty for eating. I’ve seen many people come and go in the gym, throwing themselves into training 6 days a week, tracking calories and macros and getting obsessive. Most of them last about a year (or less) but some stick with it, often developing a more balanced approach with time. Since my 20s (a very long time ago!) I’ve been through the gym-bro years, done a bodybuilding competition, experienced body dysmorphia and come out the other side such that I now train for fun, health and fitness rather than bums and tums. That’s not to say that I don’t still have body image hang ups. I do but I try to maintain a healthier perspective.

Talking to someone in those first few months of enthusiastic gym going is dangerous territory for me. It takes me back to my bodybuilding days when I was judged solely on appearance and body fat percentage. Having someone say (as happened last week) that I could look like them if I was just a bit more disciplined, tracked my intake and drank a bit less wine might be true (but it might not, for reasons I’ll outline) but it’s a dangerous thing to say when you don’t know a person’s background. Momentarily, I felt guilty, undisciplined, out of shape, unfit and unworthy. Clearly, I had strong words with myself subsequently, although I’d be lying if I said it didn’t have a longer lasting effect than I’d have liked.

The thing is, if you asked any of my friends what they thought of me, they’d say I eat very healthily, am dedicated to training but also that I know how to let my hair down, usually involving prosecco and/or gin, albeit not in the same glass. You’d struggle to find anyone who’d describe me as undisciplined or unfit. But I am not cover model ready because I don’t want to restrict every pleasurable food, all the time; I don’t want to miss out on social events because it’s time for meal 4 (chicken, rice and green beans again); I value my mental health and long term physical health which aren’t facilitated by maintaining sub-17% bodyfat status and finally because I simply don’t have the genetics. And that’s just fine. But others can make me feel like it isn’t, even though I know both professionally and personally that I have a balanced lifestyle.

Now clearly, not everyone feels like me but many people are dissatisfied with how they look: they yoyo diet, count calories, restrict what they’re eating, often to the point of social isolation, they inevitably fall of the unrealistic wagon, binge, feel guilt and worthlessness and then start over with just an extra serving of self-loathing. While some people like the competitiveness or social experience of being among fellow dieters, other people, who may have a fragile relationship with food, previous experience of disordered eating or body image issues may find them a hotbed of negativity.

And here’s the point, you can’t tell by looking at someone how they might feel when you start talking about your latest diet or fitness regime. Sure, we chat about stuff we’re up to all the time, so why shouldn’t you talk about eating and exercising? Well, of course you can but maybe think about the way you do it and try to avoid encouraging others to get involved if they don’t want to and definitely steer clear of language that makes others feel guilty or inadequate.

Here are some of my tops tips:

  • Take care to avoid using weight stigmatising language like “I feel fat”, “I feel so disgusting”, “I need to loose these love handles” with yourself and definitely not with others. Instead, focus on how you’d like to feel healthier or fitter or how you’re making positive changes to eat more vegetables and fibre and find a way of being active that brings you happiness.
  • Try to avoid attaching a moral value to food in which some foods are better or more virtuous than others. I personally dislike calling foods that we should eat less frequently (like chocolate or cake) treats, naughties, sins or cheats. This language variously positions food as a reward, morally corrupt or dishonest. Food is food. Yes, there are foods we should aim to eat more frequently than others and there are foods we like more than others (and they’re usually opposites!) but we should remove the moral judgement of foods.
  • Steer clear of the language of guilt when talking about eating or working out. Whether it’s berating yourself (publicly or privately) for eating something you think you shouldn’t have or for skipping a workout session. Move on. Tomorrow is another day and enjoying a cake or sacking off a gym session to go for a drink with your friends is good for your soul. Moreover, calling foods “guilty pleasures” or feeling that you have to work out to burn off the calories from a cake is not only needlessly guilt-inducing for you but also those around you who witness this behaviour.
  • Try not to use extreme language like “no pain no gain”, “I’m going to punish myself in the gym”, “I’m killing it” when it comes to exercise. Not only is this offputting to others who were maybe thinking of getting more active, it’s really not a good idea to train beyond a certain pain threshold as you risk injuring yourself. Of course, professional athletes will need to push themselves hard and some people get a great buzz from training hard but not everyone does and exercise can be beneficial, even if it’s gentle. You do not have to be permanently on #beastmode.
  • Don’t ridicule others who are exercising and struggling, particularly if they have a bigger body, are older or less able than you. They are trying to improve their health and your judgement could risk them walking out and not coming back. It could also alienate you from your friends, who may be feeling similarly nervous about getting active. The only exception here is reserved for the guys who load up the weights rack and then perform one rep, while screaming, with terrible form, because they just couldn’t leave their ego at the door!

Obviously, if you’re among close friends, you can probably gauge how they’ll react to what you say and do as they know you well. But even then, do you really want the sort of relationship with food yourself that involves punishing regimes and restriction, often isolates you from social situations and also runs the risk of upsetting others who may have their own battles with body image? Let’s try to be kinder in the language we use with ourselves as well as those around us.

Banner photo by Charles on Unsplash

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