How to Challenge a Friend’s Eating Disordered Talk

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JoAnna Novak

My best friend and I have always been candid about our eating disorders. We’ve known each other for 20 years, and when we met, we were in the midst of anorexia. Our eating disorders were similar: there was no magic moment when either of us announced we were in recovery, not even when I went to in-patient treatment. 

Slowly, though, we began doing things that many friends probably take for granted like going out to lunch or getting the drink that actually sounded good from a coffee shop and not just the one with the fewest calories. Lately, though, my best friend has been focused on sugar—it sneaks its way into our most benign conversations. 

Being a health-conscious eater as someone with an eating disorder in my past is hard, but I try. With my therapist, I’ve grown comfortable determining what constitutes “normal” concern about wellness and what veers toward eating disordered thought. Still, I too have worried about sugar, so I don’t want to shame my friend. It’s just that her focus on the topic reminds me of our dangerous past.  

If you have a friend who’s engaging in talk that’s walking the line between disordered and health-conscious, how do you avoid being triggered? It’s hard—no one wants to tell their best friend that certain topics are taboo—but standing up for yourself and setting limitations is an important skill to develop in recovery.

I consulted with Dr. Nina Savelle-Rocklin, LA-based psychoanalyst and author of Food for Thought: Perspectives on Eating Disorders. Here’s what she advised: 

1) Tell her how her focus on food is making you feel.

Situation: When you talk about the evils of sugar…

Emotion: …I feel (ie, mad, sad, upset, anxious, worried, guilty)…

Thought: …because it reminds me of the worst time of my life, when I was fully into my eating disorder, and that is painful.

Separating the emotions from the thoughts makes it clear how she is impacting you, without you coming off as lecturing her.

2) Give Perspective.

A European friend of mine was musing about the differences between her country and ours. She said that in France, people enjoy food and when they’re out at restaurants or having dinner, their conversation is about politics, current events, and philosophy.  

Here, we talk about food, how much we weigh, and how much other people weigh. She said, “There are much more interesting things to talk about other than weight.”

Ask your friend, “Is sugar truly evil?  Is sugar worse than war, hatred, and bigotry?”

3) Ask what she’d be thinking about if she wasn’t directing all her energy toward health.

Sometimes, we focus on food and our bodies as a way of distracting ourselves from other areas of our lives that cause upset and difficulty. What does she hate and fear that is not sugar?

4) Set Limits.

Tell her that your days of focusing on sugar, calories, carbs, and fat grams are behind you and that you spent too much of your valuable time worrying and stressing over every bite. You’ve liberated yourself from all that and part of being free means not talking about food.

5) Deflect.

She says something about sugar. You ask if she’s seen the latest Game of Thrones episode.

She says you look great and asks what you’re eating. You say, “Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Hey, what do you think about a spa day next month?”

When you refuse to participate in the conversation about sugar, she’ll eventually get the hint and stop talking about it.

JoAnna Novak is the author of I Must Have You (Skyhorse Publishing 2017) and Noirmania (forthcoming from Inside the Castle 2018). A founding editor of the journal and chapbook press Tammy, she lives in Los Angeles.