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What to Do If Your Family is Fat Phobic or Doesn’t Agree With Intuitive Eating

April 18, 2023

Self-Paced Course: Non-Diet Academy


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A Certified Eating Disorders Registered Dietitian (CEDRD) with a master's degree in dietetics & nutrition. My passion is helping you find peace with food - and within yourself.

Meet Katy

Welcome back to Rebuilding Trust With Your Body, I’m Katy Harvey your host. Today on the show we are going to talk about what to do if you have family members, a significant other, friends or other people in your life who are fat phobic and who don’t agree with intuitive eating. 

This can be so hard if you are trying to accept your body, and you’ve learned that diets don’t work so you’re working on eating intuitively and trusting yourself with food. This is such a counter-cultural thing to do in the first place, and usually the way people end up in this place is that they have struggled with food, and they’ve battled their body and their weight, and they are trying to heal from all the damage that diet culture has done. And frankly, when you’re on this journey the last thing you need is people doubting you and spewing their fat phobia and diet mentality all over you

So what do you do if you have people in your life who are nay sayers? Do you try to help them see your point of view and to change their minds? Or do you ignore them and just do your own thing regardless of what they think? Or do you set boundaries with them? If so, what’s the best way to set those boundaries? 

That’s exactly what we’re going to talk through today. I’m going to help you figure out how to protect your peace, when to say something, what types of things tend to be the most helpful to say, and how to set helpful boundaries. I’m going to give you some tools that you can use that are going to help you stay the course with your food freedom process so these people don’t derail you.

Before we dive into all of that, first we’ve got some Wellness Woo to talk about. Wellness Woo is the stuff that diet and wellness culture tells us we should do in the name of health, but it’s really based on pseudoscience, exaggerated claims, or just nonsense. 

This is a topic that a couple of people in my Intuitive Eating Workbook Study Club recently asked me to cover. 

Marissa asked, “How do you deal with fat phobia in family?” and then Ann chimed in and asked, “How do I discuss (or even deflect) parents’ concerns about my health? My numbers that count are all good, I only take anxiety medication, and I overall feel better than I have in a while. I’m 56 years old and my 94 year old father brings it up almost every time we talk.”

I’m sure a lot of you listening can relate to this. Or you might have coworkers, or siblings, or friends who frequently make comments about your eating or your weight. Or maybe they make comments on their own bodies or other people’s bodies. It can be hard to know how to respond to these comments – or if you should even respond at all. 

Let’s first acknowledge that this is a complicated topic and there aren’t right or wrong answers here. So much of it is going to depend on you, where you’re at with things in your own process, your personality style, the relationship you have with these other people and their personality style, and the context of the situation where these comments or discussions happen. 

I want to give you some things to think about, some overall strategies, and some tips and tools you can use – and you can decide what makes most sense in terms of how to apply these things in your life. You might have to experiment with it, and remember that the most important thing here is that you stay true to yourself and what you need, even if they disagree.

Things to think about

Some people aren’t going to change their mind, or they aren’t ready to change their mind. Remember that if you are working on body acceptance and intuitive eating, you are taking an approach that’s very different than what most of the world around us believes in. What you’re doing is not mainstream (yet, hopefully someday it will be), and it’s understandable that there are going to be people who don’t get it.

We live in a world that has a disturbing amount of bias and hatred towards fatness, and we’ve been taught to equate it with a person’s health and even their morality. We hear about the “War on Obesity” and it has become a war against people just for the size of their bodies, and the research on weight stigma is clear on how harmful this is. These studies have shown that weight bias actually leads to worse health outcomes because doctors and other healthcare providers provide sub-optimal care to their larger-bodied patients. And because they are treated so terribly and everything gets blamed on their weight, people at higher weights often then avoid medical care until their problems get way worse. All of this creates a vicious cycle that contributes to some of the health issues that we see correlated with weight. (And then of course the recommendation often given to people in larger bodies is for them to lose weight, which leads to weight cycling and further damages health.) 

So we have to remember that most people subscribe to this way of thinking because we’ve been told over and over again that weight gain is bad, that the BMI measures your health, and if you’re above a certain BMI that you’re unhealthy, that weight loss is the key to health, and that if someone isn’t losing weight they just aren’t trying hard enough. That’s what we’ve been taught to believe, and most people don’t even question it. 

Those of us who have realized the problems with dieting, and the pain that fat phobia causes, we think so differently about these things now. But I’m willing to bet that you didn’t always think this way. There may have been a time that you thought the same things that diet culture tells us to think. And there might have been a time that you weren’t ready to look at this differently. You thought that you had to lose weight, that you couldn’t be healthy unless you lost weight, and that you just needed to try harder and have more willpower. There was probably a point in time that if someone had asked you to accept your body or to try intuitive eating you would have totally balked. 

This is one of those things that people have to be ready to hear. And sadly, some people are never ready to hear it. Some people will eventually come around and will look at things differently. Other people will never change their mind and they’ll cling onto their diet mentality until the day they die. We can’t control that.

One thing that I have experienced myself is that trying to evangelize people who are naysayers is rarely effective. Trying to convince people to see this differently often makes them double down on their own ideology. I used to try and tell everybody about intuitive eating and why diets don’t work, and now I rarely talk about it in my everyday life unless I’m asked about it. And I’ve learned the hard way not to argue with people on social media. A while back this guy commented on one of my posts about how weight isn’t a very good indicator of health, and at first I thought he might be open to thinking about this differently, and it quickly spiraled into a back and forth argument on Instagram. I was so worked up by this that Trevor, my husband, came home from work and looked at me and asked, “What’s wrong?” I told him about this guy I was fighting with on the internet, and Trevor said, “Is that the hill you want to die on today?” And at that point I had invested so much time and emotional energy into the argument that I looked him dead in the eye and said, “Yeah, I think it is.” So I kept going back and forth for a while longer, and finally ended up deciding to just block him. The more I doubled down, the more he doubled down, and it was SO not worth all the energy I put into it. I would have been much better off using that energy to coach the students in my course, or to play with my kids, or to record a podcast episode for people who actually wanted to hear it. 

I’m not saying that there’s never a time or place for challenging someone or pushing back on something they say – but it also takes a level of discernment for when that’s productive vs not. I’ve learned this the hard way many times. 

So if you get into a conversation with somebody and it starts becoming an argument about who’s right about things related to food, nutrition, health or weight – back out. If you find yourself getting emotionally activated, pause, take a deep breath and say something like, “I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree.” And shut the conversation down. 

Ok, now let me share some overall strategies for dealing with people who are fat phobic or stuck in diet mentality. 

The first one is what I call the “force field.” When it comes to people making a bunch of comments like, “Are you really going to eat that?” or, “I could never let myself eat that.” 

Or maybe they’re saying things like, “Did you see how much weight Becky has put on?” or when they see you enjoying your food without dieting or restricting they might say, “I’m just worried about your health.”

When this is happening I want you to envision a force field around yourself. The force field protects you, and it prevents these comments from permeating and getting to you. I remember when I was a kid and somebody would say something mean on the playground at recess we’d say, “I’m rubber, you’re glue, everything you say bounces off of me and sticks to you.” 

The idea is that they can take their toxic way of thinking and keep it. You hand it right back to them. It’s not yours to hold or absorb. Even if the things they are saying are about you and your eating or your body, that doesn’t mean it’s about you. It’s about them. And they can have that right back. It’s their baggage, not yours to carry. 

Recently I was at a gathering and there were snacks sitting out and people were munching on them. There were crackers and dips and chocolate things and stuff like that. And everyone was raving about how yummy the snacks were and how much they were enjoying it – which was then followed by the self-deprecating comments about how they “shouldn’t” be eating it or how they are trying to be “good” with food and how guilty they feel and how they needed to stop eating the snacks. And I easily could have chimed in and said something, but I chose to put my force field up. I ended up walking away from the kitchen where the food was and started a conversation with someone on the other side of the room. 

The next overall strategy goes hand-in-hand with this. I call it “protect your peace.” This means that you don’t have to engage in conversations about this with people who don’t get it. This works well on social media when you unfollow or block people who are spewing fat phobia and diet culture. I understand you can’t always do this with family or friends, but you can usually mute or hide them from your feed. And in real life you can opt out of these conversations to protect your peace. 

The other thing that will protect your peace is to find a community of people that do “get it” when it comes to body acceptance and food freedom. My Intuitive Eating Made Easy FB group is great for this. If you have someone in your life that really gets this, or maybe they don’t know anything about intuitive eating per se but they just have a really normal relationship with food and a positive relationship with their body, then that might be the person or the group of friends you do things like going out to dinner with so you don’t have to listen to the diet talk. You might limit the types of activities you do with people in your life who are fat phobic or stuck in the diet mentality.  

And the last overall strategy I want you to keep in mind is what I call “stay in your lane.” This means that it’s not your job to change their mind or fix them. Just keep doing your own thing. Eyes forward on your own path. They can stay on theirs. If they veer into your lane that’s when we’re going to set some boundaries which I’ll talk about in a second. You don’t need to worry about what they are or aren’t doing with food. They might be doing some super weird or restrictive diet that you don’t agree with in the least, and it’s none of your business. Just like your eating is none of their business. And it’s ok if you still want to have a loving relationship with them. You can have separate ways that you approach your eating and your bodies, and still have a great relationship. 

So keep those 3 overall strategies in mind: the force field, protect your peace, and stay in your own lane.

Now I’m going to share some more specific tips and tools that will help you with these people in your life. 

The first one is what Kristin Neff calls the yin and yang of self-compassion. The yin is the tender side where we are gentle and kind towards ourselves, and where we validate the pain and suffering that is happening when someone makes a comment that is diet-y or fat phobic or judgmental about your food or body, or someone else’s food or body. The yin is where you notice and acknowledge that it’s really painful to hear those things. And to comfort yourself with lots of empathy. You might put your hands on your heart when you do this, and say to yourself, “This is really hard right now. When they say these things I feel a deep sense of shame and insecurity. May I have peace. May I have comfort.” 

Then the yang of self-compassion is what Kristin Neff refers to as “fierce self-compassion.” This is the side of self-compassion where our mama bear energy kicks in and we take action. We do things like set boundaries and do things to help ourselves that might make us uncomfortable. You become your own coach or cheerleader, and you approach it with this attitude of, “I’ve got this!” 

We want to include both the yin and the yang with self-compassion. If you have one without the other it’s easy to end up stuck in a place that’s not very useful. If you have too much yin it can turn into wallowing and then giving yourself permission to do things that ultimately aren’t helpful to you like binging on food or eating things you’re not even hungry for as an f-you to that person. 

And if you have too much yang it can turn into you disconnecting from your feelings and just plowing ahead like a bull in a china shop. You might find yourself fighting with people about why diets don’t work (like I did with that guy on social media), or going nuclear and cutting people out of your life just because you don’t like the way they talk about food and weight. There’s a time and place for that type of boundary, but that’s pretty rare and we would want that to come as a result of deep reflection and self-compassion as well. 

So practice talking to yourself like you would a friend who was dealing with someone in their life who was making fat phobic or diet-y comments. What would you say to them if they were in your shoes? That’s usually a good starting point for self-compassion. And then think about how you can incorporate both the tender yin side, and the fierce yang side to help yourself.

Next let’s talk about boundaries.

This is really the most powerful tool that you have here. I’ve learned two really important things about boundaries in recent years. I’ve always had a really hard time setting boundaries and saying no to things or sticking up for myself. 

The first important thing I’ve learned is that boundaries are protective. They’re not mean, they’re not unkind, and they aren’t selfish. Boundaries allow us to protect ourselves and to stay true to our values. 

The second important thing I’ve learned about boundaries is that there are MANY ways to set them, and sometimes a really subtle or gentle boundary is all that’s needed, and if that doesn’t work we might have to build in some firmer boundaries from there. So you can start with what feels comfortable for you and then get more direct and assertive if needed. This has been so helpful for me, because I’m very conflict-avoidant, so setting boundaries feels like I’m hurting somebody’s feelings. And maybe I am. But that doesn’t mean I’m doing anything wrong if the boundary is what I need, and if I set it in a way that’s kind. Now, if we set boundaries that are kind and those boundaries are crossed or disregarded, we might have to get more assertive. Let’s say you’re at a bar and some guy starts hitting on you and you act disinterested, but he persists so you say, “I’m not interested,” and if he keeps persisting you might have to get blunt and say, “Get away from me or I’m calling the police.” Do you see how the intensity of the boundary can increase based on how the person responds? 

Let’s use a food example. Let’s say you have been working on letting go of dieting, so you’ve been doing intuitive eating and your partner says something like, “Intuitive eating seems like just an excuse to eat unhealthy things all day.” Or maybe you are chatting with your parents and one of them says something like, “We’ve noticed that you gained some weight lately and we’re just really worried about your health. Have you tried that intermittent fasting diet yet? My friend lost a bunch of weight doing that and she looks so good.”

How do you set a boundary when someone you love says something like this?

Gray Rock

Let’s start with the most subtle boundary – the gray rock. This basically just means acting as uninterested and bored as possible. The idea here is that if you don’t really engage in the conversation they’ll move on to something else. People with good social skills will pick up on this and will find something else to talk to you about. You could also try looking bored and changing the subject. 

Use Humor
Sometimes a well-placed joke or sarcastic comment is enough to get them off the subject. You might say, “Yeah, I’m totally just eating donuts all day everyday,” and laugh.

Validate Them and Change the Subject
Say something like, “Yeah I can see why you would think that this intuitive eating thing isn’t a good idea, so we’ll see how it goes. I might change my mind later but for now I’m going to give it a shot.” And then change the subject to something else. You could say, “So what’s going on with you? How’s work going?” Or, “Did you see that they’re renovating the WalMart?” It could be changing the subject or anything else. 

Validate Them and Share Your Viewpoint

This would sound more like, “I’ve heard that intermittent fasting works well for some people. For me, I know that when I diet like that it works for a little while and then it backfires, so I’m taking a different approach.” I’d suggest keeping it short and sweet and pretty vague when you share your viewpoint. The more you get into specifics the more likely the other person is to want to argue those points. So just keep it surface level.

Tell Them You Don’t Want to Talk About It

You could say, “I’m really working on healing my relationship with food and this isn’t something I want to talk about right now.” And if they try to keep going you could put your hand up like a stop signal, and hold firm that it’s not up for debate.

Tell Them How You Feel and Shut the Conversation Down

You can use this template: “When you say _____ (and repeat back exactly what they said), I feel _____ (and say how you feel), so I’m not going to talk about this with you anymore.” 

Using our example from before, if your partner says you’re using intuitive eating to just eat whatever you want, you could say something like, “When you say that I’m using intuitive eating as an excuse to eat whatever I want I feel hurt and shamed. Therefore, I would like you to stop making these comments.” If they get defensive or try to argue their viewpoint you can decide if you want to continue the conversation, or shut it down. It depends on the dynamic in your relationship and how open the other person seems to hearing your point of view. You might say, “Look, I know you’re worried about me, and I appreciate your concern. This is what I am doing to help myself heal right now, and I really need your support, even if you don’t agree with what I’m doing.” 

Walk Away, Stop Texting, Disengage on Social Media

If the other person wants to keep going on and on about why you need to listen to their way of doing things, you have the choice to walk away, especially if none of the other boundaries have worked. If it’s a conversation happening on the phone or via text, get off your phone. If it’s on social media, disengage in the conversation. You might even need to block or unfollow the person depending on who they are. Sometimes we just need to remove ourselves from the conversation. 

Limit the Time You Spend Interacting

You might need to spend less time with someone who is making unhelpful or hurtful comments, especially if they aren’t honoring your boundaries, or if you are in a place where you are feeling really sensitive and easily activated by the comments. What you’ll probably find is that these comments get easier to brush off over time, but in the earlier stages of your journey comments that are diet-y or fat phobic can be super triggering. So if the force field isn’t working, limit your exposure. Spend less time with these people if you’re able, don’t look at what they’re posting on social media, and if you do get together with them in person you might opt to do things that don’t involve eating. If it’s your partner and you live together, you might have to eat separately for a while. Give yourself permission to say no to situations that invite the food and body commentary. 

Let’s recap those options for setting boundaries:

  • Gray rock
  • Use humor
  • Validate them and change the subject
  • Validate them and share your point of view
  • Tell them you don’t want to talk about it
  • Tell them how you feel and shut the conversation down
  • Walk away, stop texting and disengage on social media
  • Limit the time you spend interacting

So, back to the women from my Intuitive Eating Workbook Study Club who had asked this question. Melissa was asking how to set boundaries with people who are fat phobic in her life. She could try any of these strategies and see what works. I think it’s also really important to have that supportive community that isn’t fat phobic. I know it can be really hard to find those safe spaces, especially in real life, so it might have to be via connections that happen online. That’s one of the things I love about my FB group which has people from all over the world, as well as my group coaching programs where we can talk about these types of challenges and give lots of support, empathy and validation. We can’t necessarily change the way others around us are thinking or behaving, but we can change who we choose to spend time with to a degree, so choosing some of those supportive spaces online can be immensely helpful. Never underestimate the power of having other people who really get it that can say, “That sucks,” or, “Me too.” It’s incredibly powerful and healing. 

For Anne, whose elderly father keeps making these comments she could try the force field thing and the gray rock strategy. It’s unlikely that he’s going to significantly change his beliefs or behavior around this at 94 years old, so she can look at it as his issue, his bias, and stay in her own lane which was another strategy we talked about. She doesn’t have to take on his bias as her own problem. (Which is easier said than done I know, but reminding ourselves of this can help us stay out of that trap of taking on other people’s “stuff” as our own). 

Ok, I hope that was helpful. Let me know what you thought of this episode, or if you have a situation that you’d like me to break down and share some ideas for how to respond or what strategies or tools you could use. Send me a DM and let me know. 

And if you want to join my supportive FB community just type in Intuitive Eating Made Easy on FB or click the link in my show notes. I’d LOVE to have you inside the group. 

In the meantime, be gentle with yourself, and keep moving forward on your own journey. We all have different paths that we take in life, and yours is unique to you. I’m over here cheering you on and sending you lots of strength and support. We’ll talk again next week!

Links mentioned: 

Join the Intuitive Eating Made Easy Facebook Group

Join the Waitlist for My Group Coaching Inside Non-Diet Academy

Did you know you can listen to all this information in audio format?

I covered it all in episode 73 of the Rebuilding Trust With Your Body Podcast!


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