Although people don’t usually have bad intentions when they make unwanted food comments, they can cause real harm, especially for those recovering from chronic dieting or disordered eating. If you’re the one being triggered by food comments at work, it can be overwhelming to set boundaries with coworkers. It may feel awkward or uncomfortable, but there are ways to address these unwelcome comments. We spoke with a dietitian and therapist specializing in eating disorders and disordered eating to share their top tips for coping with triggering food comments from coworkers.
Remember unwanted food comments aren’t facts
When we hear diet-centric comments about food, it can trigger disordered thoughts or behaviors. The media is one of the biggest perpetrators of these comments. Social media is especially tough since it’s full of so-called nutritionists who have received little to no training in nutrition science.
Remember that your coworkers are also victims of diet culture. They hear the same misinformation in the media, and they may internalize it. So, when you hear triggering food comments, Allyson Inez Ford, LPCC, an eating disorder therapist, recommends reminding yourself that just because someone believes something doesn’t make it accurate. “They are speaking from diet and wellness culture misinformation, which we are all surrounded by, unfortunately,” Food says, “and while it is triggering, it is not based on facts; therefore, it’s not something you should take in as your personal truth.”
Be clear about your boundaries
Boundaries may not be everyone’s favorite topic, but they can go a long way for self-care and building healthy relationships, even in the workplace.
The way you go about setting boundaries at work may be a little different than with family or friends. You may not want to share as much personal information, but the foundation is the same. Ford recommends statements like “This topic doesn’t interest me, but I would love to hear your thoughts on ____.” Or, “I’m currently working on my relationship to food and my body and these comments aren’t helpful.”
For in-person interactions, Grullón recommends conveying the message that if it’s not on your plate, it’s none of your business. If you work remotely, Grullón says it’s important to state and uphold your boundaries from the Zoom room to the Slack channel.
Grullón even recommends contacting your human resources department, if your company has one, and convey that your co-worker’s unwanted food comments are affecting your sense of safety at work.
Build a support system
Finding support inside and outside of work can make a big difference; it’s something that both Grullón and Ford recommend prioritizing. If you have close coworkers that you trust, it may be worth confiding in them. They can help steer group conversations away from diets or at the very least, they can help you feel less alone.
If you work from home, you may not have close relationships with your coworkers, so, finding other local or online communities of people who are recovering from disordered eating or an eating disorder and are committed to a non-diet approach.
Advocate for company policy changes
To get to the root of the issue, if you have the capacity, Ford recommends advocating for company-wide policy changes that center on the needs of those with eating disorders. She says, “You can think of this like a disability accommodation because eating disorders can be incredibly disabling. This would likely include things like banning company wide weight loss campaigns.”
Alternatively, you could try increasing your coworkers’ awareness of these issues by bringing in an expert to speak on the topic of food and nutrition. “It could be helpful to hire dietitians as guest speakers to speak to your workplace about the topic of what to do and not to do in the workplace around food and how to create boundaries,” Grullón says.
Dealing with food comments at work can be tricky, but there are things you can do to minimize the harm these triggering comments cause. Setting boundaries may be intimidating, but it can help you feel more safe at work. You can also ground yourself in the fact that most of these comments are rooted in misinformation and lean on your support system in and out of work. Finally, if you have the bandwidth, advocating for company wide policy changes can help prevent comments from happening in the first place.