How Not to Talk About Your Diet [Do you find "diet talk" annoying or interesting?]

by Charlotte on November 25, 2013 · 52 comments


Best kind of diet talk ever. 3-year-old gives himself a toilet pep talk and it is awesome. (click through to see video!)

Seven things you are never supposed to talk about in a social setting, according to a recent episode of This American Life on NPR: How you slept, your period, your health (beyond a quick, general description), your dreams (as in the nighttime variety), money, your route (i.e. how you got to the particular location you are at), and your diet. According to Maria Matthiessen – a rather stiff but nonetheless adorable matriarch of an older generation concerned about us young ‘uns and our atrocious manners – all of these topics are off limits not because they’re gross or inappropriate but rather because they’re boring. Except for money talk, which she specifies as crass, the other six topics are simply verboten because they make the subjects’ eyes glaze over. To make her point, she mentions dreams specifically, saying, “The dreams themselves were incredibly boring, unbearable if you had to listen to that over your breakfast table.”

At first I was all set to disagree with her – I am kind of the queen of overshares and there are very few topics I won’t discuss with joy and fervor. Especially when it comes to the big red punctuation mark! But then I realized that she wasn’t talking about it from the point of view of how much the talker enjoys talking about these things – because, duh, clearly they do or they wouldn’t – but how boring listeners find those particular topics. And she may have a point. After all, my kids love to tell me all about their dreams of the night prior and if I’m being totally honest, it makes me want to stuff breakfast sausage in my ears to make it stop. Dreams, for the most part, are interesting only to the dreamer. And route talk? Couldn’t care less. You made it here? Yippee! That’s all I need to know.

But the one I got stuck on was diet. According to Matthiessen, it’s the worst, “Especially at dinner parties, you don’t want to hear what people can’t eat.” Really?? ‘Cause I do. (I want to point out here that when I say “diet” I mean it in the more general sense of what people eat and why, not necessarily in the diet-to-lose-weight sense.) Not only do I love to talk about diet but even more I love listening to people’s diets: their food philosophy, why they chose it, how many they’ve tried, their intolerances, what gives them gas or acne, whether or not cilantro tastes like soap to them, what books they’ve read, what supplements they take, what workouts they do. Stranger, friend or family: I love it all. I’m utterly fascinated – sometimes to the point of rudeness because I ask too many invasive questions. Confession: I’ve actually stopped people in the store, on the street and in the gym whose physique I admired to ask them what they did to get it. And every single time, male and female alike, they’ve answered me with enthusiasm. I even had one bodybuilder guy let me rummage through his entire grocery cart to see what he was buying – lots of chicken, eggs, cottage cheese and protein powder! (On second thought, they probably all thought I was hitting on them but oh well.) It seems like everyone has something to say about their diet!

So doesn’t everyone love to discuss their diet? Apparently not.

Ira Glass, the host of that segment of the show, used Dr. Steven Bratman, the man who coined the term “orthorexia,” as an example. This man whose entire career is focused on unusual diets apparently isn’t really into talking about them. Despite this reticence, Glass points out that the press still constantly hounds him for interviews on the subject. (A point which gave me a shame shiver since I’ve actually interviewed Bratman – twice – for articles I’ve written for magazines. For the record, he was very gracious and accommodating.)

Bratman then says something rather astute to Glass: “Talking about diet is a fantastic interest to people who are obsessed with diet, of course. And that’s a lot of people. And to their fellow hobbyists, of course this is very interesting.”

Ira asks, “But to you?” and Bratman replies, “Um, to me, no.” He goes on to say he hates diet talk, finds it excruciatingly boring and will do anything to steer the conversation away from it outside his work. (Dear Dr. Bratman, I’m sorry.)

“Obsessed” with diet? Me?? Um, guilty as charged. And I know I’m not the only one – with the Holy High Carb Holidays fast approaching (T-minus 3 days to Turkey Time!), it seems like that’s all anyone can talk about. Maybe it’s just the circles I travel in but it seems everyone’s talking about “saving points” and which desserts are worth a “splurge” and favorite holiday foods and the lowest-cal options at the buffet and whether to start now with their diet or wait until the New Year like everyone else. And I’m kind of glad. For one thing, it’s a way to bond. There’s no more “common” a common interest than food! Plus, as a girl with a sordid past with dieting – I’ve got more food issues than Gourmet magazine – it actually helps me to hear how normal people deal with these issues in a normal way. Of course the flip side to that is listening to people with an unhealthy relationship to food discuss their rules and neuroses can make mine worse. Plus there’s the whole competition aspect that can emerge when you get two people talking about their pet diets. Yet even then, I still find it all terribly interesting.

Part of me feels guilty admitting how fascinating I find diet talk and I wonder if it’s residual from my decades of both eating disorders and disordered eating. It feels like a guilty pleasure, like watching reality TV or wearing nail polish named “Conquistadorable” (because… conquistadors were known for a lot of things but I’m pretty sure none of it was adorable). But then I am who I am. I read scientific research papers about mice metabolism as related to their genetic expression for fun, because apparently I even love hearing about rodent diets. And most of the time I find the talk interesting, entertaining and even uplifting.

That said, I do have some ground rules for talking about diet.

1. No fat talk. For some, talking about what you eat quickly devolves into fat shaming – either of themselves or of others. Believe me, I understand the impulse to extrapolate from fried chicken thighs to your own thighs but I care about you and I don’t want to hear you denigrate yourself. Plus if you talk about your thighs then I’ll think about my own and that never ends well. So yes, let’s talk about how your favorite holiday indulgence is your grandmother’s peppermint mousse. But let’s not talk about how you feel like a fat cow after eating it.

2. No verbal food journaling. I love hearing how, why and what people eat. But I do not love hearing an endless list of every single thing you’ve eaten that day. I once had a friend who insisted on starting every conversation with a detailed rundown of every morsel she’d ingested since I last saw her – complete with calorie counts. I couldn’t decide if I was her food priest and she was confessing or if I was just a stand in for her food journal. Either way: booooring. If you made a particularly wonderful meal I want to hear all about it but I don’t want to hear all about every meal.

3. No advice. This one is SO tricky but I’ve found that lots of time diet talk turns into diet evangelizing and all of a sudden I’m on the receiving end of a “You should…” diatribe by someone who’s convinced their way is the only way to diet Nirvana. Not fun. And I say that knowing full well that I’ve done exactly that to people in the past. (Dear people, I”m sorry.) So by the same token I try to avoid giving any advice unless they specifically ask me for it.

4. No stats! I can’t listen to people talk about their weight, their BMI, their calorie counts, body fat percentages or grams of carbs. This isn’t because I’m not interested – Oh I’m interested! – but it’s definitely not healthy for me as I get caught up in the comparison trap. Suddenly I lose the detached observer perspective and start to feel guilty or bad about myself. But this might just be my personal problem.

So how do you feel about diet talk? Anyone else secretly love to hear about other peoples’ diets? Or do you find it mind-numbingly boring? Do you have any rules for talking about food? What do you think about the list of 7 things we should never talk about? (I mean, route talk really is annoying, right??)

 

{ 49 comments… read them below or add one }

Megan @ Meg Go Run November 25, 2013 at 5:56 am

I like talking about diets (not lose weight diets) too, as long as it comes up organically and as long as someone is not telling ME what to eat. And as long as the person I’m talking to does act “holier than thou” about the particular way they eat. Mostly, if I talk diet, it’s with friends I’m running with, it comes up naturally, and we just chatter. We don’t try to change one another.

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Charlotte November 26, 2013 at 8:01 pm

Sounds like you have some awesome running buddies! I’m always amazed at what comes out on a good long run – so cathartic!!

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Paula November 25, 2013 at 6:30 am

Hi Charlotte,
I have to say, I like diet talk. It’s a subject everybody has a perspective on and has something to say about. I also remember it’s one of the first things we asked each other as kids when we first met: what your favorite color? what’s your favorite animal? favorite food? Fries, yeahhh me too! and pancakes! Yes pancakes are good…. see, bond.

I also love dream talk, some of the most hilarious stories I’ve heard in my live are peoples dreams. And I noticed a lot of people (especially men) are interested in route talk, also it’s a nice conversation starter when you tell how you managed to get lost in one little village. So I do not agree with the entire list. I have noticed though that people hate it when other people talk about their health…. strange thing is though, they ask after it nonetheless.

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Charlotte November 26, 2013 at 8:03 pm

True story about kids! It’s funny how complicated grown-ups can make simple things:)

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reanna November 25, 2013 at 7:28 am

you’re not the only one. it’s addictive, but i totally get the problems. it’s really weird when my mother starts doing it :(

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Charlotte November 26, 2013 at 8:07 pm

Ah, family diet talk!! Nothing like it;)

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JLVerde November 25, 2013 at 7:53 am

It really depends on who is staring the diet talk and the setting.

For example, I HATE diet talk at the office. It’s so cliche that a bunch of office hens (yes, I said hens) will be clucking over how they “can’t have” this or that treat that someone brought in. Or the hens will get all a flutter when there’s an office party, clucking over how “I never eat this, but it’s a special occasion so. . .”. Or, the absolute worst, if one hen is doing something like weight watchers points and they have to Point Ponder every item in front of them then laugh and eat it all. No. Shut up, you’re annoying. (and right now one of my co-irker hens just had lap band surgery so we always have to hear about how much protein she ate that day or how this that or the other made her sick–yeah, she really needs to shut her hole).

But if I meet you a the fridge and we compare the nutritionals on our yogurts. Yeah, I’m ok with that. Or if we each grab a cookie off the tray and smile and say, “I need this today”, I’m ok with that.

(I’m not ok with food policing at all, though. Don’t point out to me how much I’m eating –that tends to happen at family functions but that’s another rant for another day)

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Charlotte November 26, 2013 at 8:10 pm

Good point about context and setting being SO important! Food policing is the worst.

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Naomi/Dragonmamma November 25, 2013 at 8:02 am

As a fitness coach at the Y, I am the sounding board for LOTS of talk about diet. A small minority of people can make any topic fascinating, but the vast majority can’t. I am a master of standing there with a mildly pleasant but neutral look of interest on my face while saying “uh-huh, uh-huh.”

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Charlotte November 26, 2013 at 8:11 pm

Which I know they are so very grateful to you for! Sometimes people just need someone to listen, even to the inane. On the behalf of chatter bugs everywhere I thank you:)

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Abby November 25, 2013 at 8:39 am

I’m sure you know this by now but no, no, no. I so hate diet talk. Even just a simple discussion of what foods people normally eat. I find it all too triggering. I wish I didn’t take it all to heart but I always end up judging myself, no matter what the other person says. In the right mood I can talk (and hear) about a delicious recipe I or someone else cooked but even normally that’s too much. And when people tell me about them “forgetting” or ‘being too busy” to eat… Ugh!

I mostly agree with that list because yeah, dreams are the worst, but I have to say route talk is interesting to me. I think it’s having lived most of my life in heavy traffic areas. I want to know how much traffic you hit so I know if there’s a better way and how long it took and how many stop lights, etc, etc.

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Charlotte November 26, 2013 at 8:13 pm

Yeah I so totally get that. The ED voices are still pretty easily triggered (although that is getting a lot better for me!). I really have to balance my innate curiosity with what’s healthy. And I’m so glad someone enjoys route talk!!

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Sam November 25, 2013 at 8:52 am

I don’t mean to be mean, but I think you have a fascination with hearing about people’s diets because you’re at least a borderline disordered eater with the attendant food obsession. I mention this because I am the same way, and talking about it too much makes my obsession worse.

I recently had to sit through an absolutely excruciating dinner with a woman who ordered nothing but a decaf coffee and went on and on about how she only eats this and only eats that. Come ON. I don’t mind talking about the pleasures of the meal while you’re eating it, asking for the recipe, but one of the pleasures of food is that it must be experienced to be enjoyed. I talk about food a lot less now that I EAT ENOUGH OF IT and can move on with my day.

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Charlotte November 26, 2013 at 8:16 pm

Not mean at all, Sam! That’s why I wrote the part asking if this was residual ED behavior. It still crops up in the strangest places. It’s frustrating sometimes to work so hard but then realize something I think of as “normal” is not, actually, normal at all.

And I’m so sorry about your “coffee dinner date”! That drives me nuts too. It’s a fine line between fun food talk and crazy diet talk.

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Charlotte November 26, 2013 at 8:20 pm

And good point about the obsession with food being worse when you’re not eating enough of it. I think I can very honestly say I’m not restricting at all these days (even though I am making a concerted effort to avoid refined sugar). It’s nice to not be obsessed with cooking shows anymore but I still do have a fascination with how others eat…

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Sam November 25, 2013 at 8:52 am

I don’t mean to be mean, but I think you have a fascination with hearing about people’s diets because you’re at least a borderline disordered eater with the attendant food obsession. I mention this because I am the same way, and talking about it too much makes my obsession worse.

I recently had to sit through an absolutely excruciating dinner with a woman who ordered nothing but a decaf coffee and went on and on about how she only eats this and only eats that. Come ON. I don’t mind talking about the pleasures of the meal while you’re eating it, asking for the recipe, but one of the pleasures of food is that it must be experienced to be enjoyed. I talk about food a lot less now that I EAT ENOUGH OF IT and can move on with my day.

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Sam November 25, 2013 at 8:53 am

Sorry for double post! I’m clearly one of those annoying people who double-posts and likes to talk about dreams. And subway travel.

(But seriously, if you had the dreams I do, you would talk about them too. I feel like it’s OK to talk about a dream if it’s with the person you were dreaming about.)

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Charlotte November 26, 2013 at 8:22 pm

Now I’m kinda curious about your dreams! I agree that not ALL dreams are boring. Just the ones my kids recite;) (Kidding children, if you ever read the Internet! Mommy loves you!)

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Emmy November 25, 2013 at 9:03 am

Diet talk in hospitals is the absolute worst! This is especially true if you’re a Nutrition student and one of your preceptors hosts a weight loss class that tons of hospital workers attend (nurses, receptionists, techs etc) on a weekly basis.
I don’t know why but the conversations seem to A) center around food and B) devolve in to fat shaming
I would like to scream at them that they’re all beautiful people and should instead be concerned with creating a healthier, supportive environment for themselves but I don’t. Instead when they start playing their fat shaming, diet comparing games and look to me for input I just don’t say a word.
BTW this is my first comment ever here! I normally lurk but I needed this today.

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Charlotte November 26, 2013 at 8:24 pm

Good point about the place/context being SO important!! It seems like hospitals esp should be safe places from body/food/fat shaming:( And thank you for de-lurking!! It means a lot to me that you’d take the time to chime in!

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Dr. J November 25, 2013 at 9:20 am

I’ll add one more to your fine list: Your badges and banners! As in “I am an adult child of an alcoholic, etc.” If you tend to do this, I would suggest you consider that you are giving power to some “identity” in your life that is not in your best interest.

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Charlotte November 26, 2013 at 8:28 pm

Good point about giving our power away. I’m going to have to think on this comment some more!

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Yessenia Montolvo November 25, 2013 at 9:41 am

Oh goodness, that video just made my morning! Honestly no one wants to hear some one talk about how ‘fat’ they are or how ‘awesome’ their diet is, when it’s all a big fat lie.
I do however encourage people to be real with it, confide in me if I am helping you stay on track but don’t go overboard. Keeping a journal is easiest.

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Charlotte November 26, 2013 at 8:30 pm

You sound like a good friend!

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Jess November 25, 2013 at 10:19 am

I like hearing a little about it. I’ve had my own diet for many years and although I don’t like going into too much detail unless it is discussion with someone doing the same, I wish more people knew. Kind of a compassion thing. Which is why I care if others have restrictions from the norm. I like giving people treats and what not, but feel terrible if they can’t eat it for a reason I didn’t know. If it turns into a supplement/vitamin regime that I SHOULD take, I am out.
I don’t mind routes as I have a pretty good GPS in my head. If I learn of a new way somewhere, cool. If it’s a standard topic hit upon, no thanks.
I think it mainly comes down to whether I will learn something useful, bonding, or interesting.

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Charlotte November 26, 2013 at 8:34 pm

I love your “compassion” rule – I think that is perfect in ANY situation:) You sound like a fab friend, Jess!

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Charlotte November 25, 2013 at 10:56 am

As a general rule, I only share information on those subjects if something truly out of the ordinary happens. If you have a very bizarre dream, feel free to share it! But please condense it for the sake of my attention span. If en route to work you were delayed because of waiting for a herd of bison to cross the road, by all means share that too. But the mundane experiences that we all share are best left unsaid, I think.
I work in an office of only women, and have learned to leave the diet talk off the table. It’s triggering for some. And it’s just irritating to others. My boss is a very thin and athletic woman but every time we have an office lunch she must comment on what everyone eats, including herself. It is for this reason that I try my hardest to avoid office lunches because it seems to always make me terribly self-conscious. We women are rock stars, so why things always seem to come down to this is confusing for me, as it is disappointing.

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Charlotte November 26, 2013 at 8:35 pm

Oooh I love your “out of the ordinary” rule! I think that actually is the perfect solution to all the “do not talk” items. And amen to condensing!!

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crabby mcslacker November 25, 2013 at 4:01 pm

I totally agree with you, both on the question of whether individual food philosophies are interesting (to me they sure are!) and on the ground rules. Although a brief stat chat can be pretty fascinating too… (i.e. “I lost 200 lbs doing Atkins but turned into a raving maniac” or “did you know there are 47,000 calories in a Denny’s Grand Slam breakfast?”)

Note: MADE UP examples, I don’t want to get sued by Denny’s…

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Charlotte November 26, 2013 at 8:36 pm

Hhahah Denny’s is so coming after you now!! P.S. Totally agree with you about how fascinating stats can be!

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Stephanie November 25, 2013 at 5:27 pm

Great post! I love hearing about people’s food, too, which is the subject of my most recent blog post. In it, I not only tell you what I’ve just eaten (or, in this case, drunk), I’ve photographed it, too! I just think it’s fascinating how people arrive at their way of eating. But I think your list is totally sensible and I enthusiastically concur.

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Charlotte November 26, 2013 at 8:37 pm

Ooh I’ll have to go check your post out!

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Cindy November 25, 2013 at 5:31 pm

I am OK with most topics as long as you keep it short and sweet (no meanies). I do agree with you I find the topic of diet fascinating but there are a lot of ways you can go wrong on that topic. Best to wait to be asked for your input, then you can start over-sharing!

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Charlotte November 26, 2013 at 8:38 pm

Good point about waiting to be asked first!

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John Mc Laine November 25, 2013 at 6:12 pm

Nice rule of diet talk. Especially the rule of NO diet advice. Lots of people will want to know what is the secret of dieting but what they don’t know is that different people will have different success rate. It’s all depend on how hard you work your diet weight with and how long you can control it.

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Charlotte November 26, 2013 at 8:39 pm

So true – everything is so individual!

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Jessica Fletcher-Fierro November 25, 2013 at 6:40 pm

I just wanted to add that I totally thought of you when I heard that episode a few weeks ago!

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Charlotte November 26, 2013 at 8:40 pm

Hahah thanks!!

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Jody - Fit at 56 November 25, 2013 at 9:12 pm

I always get a lot of questions about how I eat when we go places…. I try to make it more genera; in that I do what is right for me & also allows be a balanced life for what it is right for me.. :)

I think if people can discuss without getting crazy, that is fine.. I always like to learn but I have had these times when it was – I AM RIGHT! That is when you shut it down! ;)

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Charlotte November 26, 2013 at 8:39 pm

I would love to see you “shut it down”! I bet it’s awesome;)

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Amy @Run Mom Run November 26, 2013 at 5:08 pm

I love talking about food, I love food. But diets – oh my goodness. So boring. Now, can we work on not telling the expectant mothers at every baby shower the worst labor and delivery stories known to man? Seriously.

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Charlotte November 26, 2013 at 8:37 pm

Hahaha! I’ve been to so many baby showers and that ALWAYS happens. I think it’s an illness. We can’t stop ourselves.

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Bek @ Crave November 27, 2013 at 1:49 am

I cannot stand talking about diet- it’s really triggering for me because I immediately begin comparing myself to that person and their diet :( Awesome post (as usual!)

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kathy gomez November 27, 2013 at 3:47 am

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Kat November 27, 2013 at 6:42 am

I am fascinated by the diets (both meanings) of others. As i work in the dietary field and have taken several courses, I am very interested in any topic related to food. I read up on all kinds of food issues as a hobby. I never offer an opinion unless asked, even then with caution. As adults, we all have the right to choose our personal diets without judgement. The only time i had a difficult time not commenting was when a teacher of mine told the class she avoided veggies because carbs are bad.

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