Food boundaries aren’t just about food

Since 2009 (the earliest days of Whole30), I’ve spent a lot of time helping people say no to breakroom donuts, a slice of cake at the birthday party, and a glass of wine at happy hour as a means of honoring their Whole30 commitment. But those aren’t the only food-related boundary conversations I’ve had with people over the course of the last decade. In fact, in The Book of Boundaries, I’ve devoted an entire section to crucial boundaries around what I call “table talk.”

Here’s an excerpt adapted from Chapter 8, Clearing the Table: Setting Boundaries Around Food, Alcohol, and Table Talk.

Boundaries at the table

There are many problematic conversations or behaviors that tend to happen over and around food, where you may find a boundary is needed. Dieting, calorie counts, and weight loss are commonly discussed over food, and in a lot of families, so are bodies, especially related to weight or size.

Food is often a catalyst for body image issues, a trigger for disordered behaviors, and a tool of manipulation (especially targeting women). As many Whole30’ers have discovered, you may start to flex your boundary muscles over that piece of cake or glass of wine, then strengthen them further by asking others not to talk about their weight loss diet or comment on your body. The way I look at it, anything said at, around, or over the table is fair game when it comes to setting boundaries to preserve peaceful, healthy, happy mealtimes.

Breaking the cycle starts with you

“This pie is going straight to my thighs.” “It’s going to take forever to burn this off.” “I’m saving my calories for wine.” I’ve heard my aunts and cousins say stuff like this a hundred times during the holidays. It was passed down to them by their parents, and my young ears certainly picked up on the underlying messages: calories are bad, staying thin is the goal, food is the enemy, and any body part that jiggles is unacceptable. I’m now trying to interrupt these toxic patterns for myself and for younger generations.

Here are some things you can do to help break this diet culture curse.

  • DON’T talk about food over food. This is one of the simplest and most impactful boundaries you can set for your mental health and the health of your social group—see The Book of Boundaries for more.
  • DON’T talk about other people’s food choices. That also applies to comments about how much food is on someone’s plate or your perception of their appetite.
  • DON’T add morality or judgment to any food or drink. Avoid referring to items on your plate or anyone else’s as “good,” “bad,” “clean,” or “junk.”
  • DON’T talk about your body or anyone else’s body. This is especially true if the comment is negative or disparaging, but it applies even if you think it’s complimentary (like “you look like you’ve lost weight”). Find something else to compliment.
  • DON’T reinforce diet culture. Avoid making comments about food “going to my thighs,” telling someone they’re “good” for passing on dessert, or commenting that you’ll “work this breakfast off” in the gym.
  • DO lead by example. Proactively set clear, kind boundaries when conversation topics turn triggering or harmful.
  • DObe extra-cautious around children and teens. They’re the most impressionable, and the most likely to be harmed by the modeling of diet culture.

Boundaries for life

Sometimes even the people we love will say things about our bodies that make us anxious, unhappy, or insecure. Much like alcohol, setting limits around the kind of diet, weight, and body talk you will and will not be present for can be a necessity. If you have a history of disordered eating, diet talk can be incredibly triggering and detrimental to your recovery. Even if you don’t have experience with disordered eating or body image issues (who, tho?), I don’t believe it’s healthy for anyone to bring up body weight or food choices, especially if those conversations happen over a meal. We get enough reminders that calories should be counted, smaller is better, and worth is tied to the scale just by existing in our culture—we don’t need to hear any more of it over a delicious dinner.

Often, these types of potentially triggering conversations occur without anyone consciously choosing to bring them up; they’re ingrained in our social dynamics, especially in women. By clearly communicating your own limits here, you’ll not only preserve your healthy relationship with food and your body, but you’ll be helping others become more aware of how often they focus on calories, weight loss, or their bodies. In fact, your boundaries here could very well be the first step toward helping your social groups find other ways to talk about food and health.

Here’s an example of a script from this chapter, using my Green/Yellow/Red boundary framework:

My relatives are always commenting on my body—especially when I’ve lost weight. They speculate openly about how much weight I’ve lost and make comments about my food with respect to “keeping the weight off.” I find this uncomfortable and often triggering. How can I communicate this when they’ve never even heard of “diet culture?”

Green: “I know you mean well, but I’d rather not discuss my weight. Don’t you love this sweater, though?/Did you hear about my promotion?/I did just finish my first 5K, though!” (Direct them to something else to compliment.)

Yellow: “Please don’t talk about my body or my weight in front of me. Comments like that make me uncomfortable.” (Change the subject.)

Red: “I’ve asked you not to comment on my body. If you won’t respect that, I’m going to head out.” (Leave the table, room, or gathering.)

For people who have been deeply entrenched in weight loss diet culture, “You look thinner” is the ultimate compliment, and they might not understand why you’re not taking it that way. If they push back by saying, “No, it’s a compliment,” you can explain that regardless of how they meant it, you don’t want to hear ANY comments about your body, period. If you want to share more of your perspective or personal experience, do so after the meal. Just remember, people don’t need to understand your boundary in order to respect it.

Gain confidence in your Whole30 boundaries

The Book of Boundaries offers advice, conversational strategies, tips for navigating push-back, and word-for-word scripts around food, drink and table talk—and every other relationship in your life. Start by setting and holding boundaries during your Whole30 and watch that confidence spill over into your relationships at work, with family and friends, in your romantic relationships and co-parenting, even with yourself, as you set and hold the limits that help you reclaim your time, energy, mental health, and capacity.

Order your copy today and forward the receipt to [email protected], and we’ll send you a link to my special Holiday Boundaries SOS webinar as a special bonus. Dive straight into Chapter 8 to lay the groundwork for your January Whole30, or start at the beginning and set the stage for radical transformation in all of your relationships.

Best in health and boundaries,

Melissa

P.S. You can always find me on Instagram @melissau. Send me your questions on boundaries or the Whole30—and be sure to send me your success stories too.

Adapted from The Book of Boundaries: Set the Limits That Will Set You Free by Melissa Urban. Copyright © 2022 by Melissa Urban. Excerpted by permission of The Dial Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted withoutpermission in writing from the publisher.

Published by Melissa Urban

Melissa Urban is a 7x New York Times bestselling author (including the # bestselling The Whole30) who specializes in helping people establish healthy boundaries and successfully navigate habit change. She has been featured by the New York Times, People, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Today Show, and Good Morning America, and is a prominent keynote speaker on boundaries, building community, health trends, and entrepreneurship. She lives in Salt Lake City, UT with her husband, son, and a poodle named Henry.

Melissa Urban

Co-Founder / CEO

Melissa Urban is a 7x New York Times bestselling author (including the # bestselling The Whole30) who specializes in helping people establish healthy boundaries and successfully navigate habit change. She has been featured by the New York Times, People, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Today Show, and Good Morning America, and is a prominent keynote speaker on boundaries, building community, health trends, and entrepreneurship. She lives in Salt Lake City, UT with her husband, son, and a poodle named Henry.