Dealing With the External Food Police

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This article was written by Registered Dietitian Maeve Hanan, and Student Dietitian and Dietetically Speaking Intern Hanna Tejani.


With restrictions easing up and down the country it can be a really exciting time to start meeting up with friends and family. However, this also means being reacquainted with the dreaded Food Police. Their unwanted comments can result in an enjoyable catch-up becoming an uncomfortable and uneasy situation. 

Who Are The Food Police?

The ‘Food Police’ are described in the Intuitive Eating approach as “[monitoring] the unreasonable rules that dieting has created.” In fact, the fourth principle in Intuitive Eating is called “Challenge the Food Police” (1).

The Food Police comes in 2 forms: 

  1. The inner Food Police i.e. the inner critic when it comes to foods and labelling them as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, causing a lot of food anxiety 
  2. The collective or external Food Police i.e. other people who make unhelpful or judgemental comments about food or diets, or societal messages from the overall diet-steeped environment that we live in. The external Food Police are often unaware that they are being unhelpful, and often think that they are being encouraging or promoting health; when in reality this isn’t the case.

This article focuses on the external Food Police, and how to handle it when we are confronted with their presence in day-to-day life. Although some of these tips can apply to the inner Food Police as well.

Ultimately, the Food Police cross very important boundaries, and just like most boundaries, there are techniques you can implement to protect your space from their triggering harmful messages.

The following points are just suggestions, and will of course depend on each situation and the relationships you have with people who act like the Food Police in your life. You will know your own situation best, and if you are working with a Health Professional you can also discuss these approaches together to see what may or may not suit your circumstances. 

Preparing Responses 

If it feels comfortable and appropriate to you, it can be useful to prepare some generic phrases that can be used to respond to the common Food Police comments. These can be short and sweet but more importantly, they will get the point across and hopefully reduce their judgemental remarks. Here are some examples:

  • If someone brings up diets and weight loss: “I’ve been working on improving my relationship with food, so it would be really helpful if we could avoid talking about diets and losing weight”
  • If someone compliments you on your weight: “I appreciate your comment but I look great regardless of my weight and I am trying not to focus on my weight!”
  • If someone is critical of your weight or eating: “I know you don’t mean it in a hurtful way, but it really upsets/triggers me when you say that and I’m working on improving my body image/relationship with food”

Having some go-to responses can allow you to assert your boundaries and also make the other person more aware before they comment again in the future.

Communicating Your Needs

Having support can also be really beneficial in navigating these situations. Having an honest discussion with a trusted friend or family member that will understand can ensure that if those comments arise you will have someone to turn to, or even exchange a discrete eye roll with. This has been backed up by studies which suggest that positive peer, familial and social relationships can act as protective factors in developing disordered eating habits! (2)

This could also include speaking with those who represent the Food Police in your life to explain what you do and don’t find helpful and why. It can be a good idea to prepare for these conversations so that you can calmly explain this, without making the other person feel attacked or defensive.

If you are working with a Dietitian or Mental Health Professional, you can also explore whether you want to bring certain family members along to part of a consultation to discuss the best way to support you on your journey to an improved relationship with food and your body. 

Getting Space From the Food Police 

Getting space from the Food Police could mean changing the subject or literally removing yourself from triggering conversations by leaving the room. This can sometimes mean spending less time with the Food Police during times that you feel particularly vulnerable to their messages, but again this will be very individual and context-specific. 

But if these are unrealistic options, or if they feel too uncomfortable, another option is to put on your inner ‘Nutrition Ally’ armour and internally soothe or reassure yourself when confronted by the Food Police as described in the next section. 

Strengthening Your Inner Nutrition Ally

The Nutrition Ally is basically the opposite of the Food Police, as it is a very compassionate presence (which can also be an internal voice or an external person), whole also being logical and flexible when it comes to food. 

Strengthening your inner Nutrition Ally can involve working on counter-arguments to common Food Police thoughts that crop up, or learning how to observe these thoughts or worries without getting swept up in them. 

Affirmations or mantras can be a good way to remind you of your progress and how the comments are a reflection on the Food Police rather than a reflection on you! These can be used as part of a daily practice, along with being a tool to use to ground and self-soothe in the moment when faced with the Food Police. 

It’s important that these resonate with you, but here are some examples of Nutrition Ally affirmations:

  • “We are different people on different journeys”
  • “That’s you and not me”
  • “Not today, food police!”  
  • “Food is my friend”
  • “I deserve to enjoy tasty & nourishing food”
  • “My weight does not define my worth”
  • “There is no such thing as ‘good or ‘bad’ foods”

Another option is to name and notice the presence of the Food Police using a technique from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) called cognitive defusion. This involves noticing the Food Police thoughts or comments and reframing this as “I’m just noticing the Food Police is judging my meal”, this can help you get some space from it, without fighting it but also not being drawn in by it (4). 

These steps can be implemented gradually and it may take some time to fully adjust. Perhaps try starting off with one you think will be most achievable and work your way up! If you are concerned and need more support reach out to a Disordered Eating Specialist Dietitian and/or a Mental Health Professional. 

Grounding Yourself 

In some situations, you either may feel overwhelmed or unable to challenge or respond to the Food Police; or the individual may not even warrant a response. This is where your grounding techniques can come in. There are many techniques that can be used in the case of unwanted opinions which help you remain calm and stay present. 

Common grounding techniques include breathing exercises, feeling yourself physically grounded to the surface beneath you, noticing thoughts and letting them pass by or tapping into physical sensations.

The 54321 technique is a nice example of a grounding technique where you tap into all 5 senses, keeping you centred and present. It involves:

5 – Sight – Try and notice 5 objects around you

4 – Touch – Notice 4 things you can feel around you e.g. your feet on the floor

3 – Sound – What 3 sounds can you hear around you?

2 – Scent – Can you notice 2 smells around you?

1 – Taste – What is something you can taste at this moment?

Don’t forget to keep your breathing relaxed while you do this! (3)

The 54321 is just one of the many techniques that can be used to ground yourself, there are many other options so it may be worth exploring and experimenting to find what works for you. 

Take-Home Message:

Unfortunately, we are unlikely to be able to fully avoid the Food Police, so it is important to build up a toolkit of options to help you respond to them whilst also protecting yourself and setting boundaries where you can. This can be a very tricky thing to deal with, and it takes time and practice to learn how to best handle these situations.

Hopefully, this post will give you some ideas, but as we have stressed throughout, what works for combatting the Food Police is very individual depending on circumstances and relationships. If you are struggling to improve your relationship with food or your body by yourself, then please seek support from a qualified health professional!

References

  1. Tribole, E. (2019). Principle 4: Challenge the Food Police. Evelyn Tribole. Available from https://www.evelyntribole.com/principle-4-challenge-the-food-police/ [Accessed 7 May 2021]
  2. Littleton, H. L., and Ollendick, T. (2003). Negative Body Image and Disordered Eating Behaviour in Children and Adolescents: What Places Youth at Risk and How can These Problems be Prevented, Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 6 (1), 51-66. 
  3. Smith, S. (2018). 54321 Coping Technique for Anxiety. University of Rochester Medical Centre. Available from https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/behavioral-health-partners/bhp-blog/april-2018/5-4-3-2-1-coping-technique-for-anxiety.aspx [Accesed 2 May 2021]
  4. Masuda, A., Hayes, S. C., Sackett, C. F., and Twohig, M. P. (2004). Cognitive Defusion and Self-Relevant Negative Thoughts: Examining the Impact of a Ninety Year Old Technique. Behaviour and Research Therapy, 42 (4), 477-485.

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Maeve has been consulting on The Food Medic Educational Hub for 12 months now and has been a huge asset to the team. Her ability to translate some very nuanced topics in nutrition into easy-to-follow, informative articles and infographics is really admirable.

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Founder of The Food Medic

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