6 Things You Should Never Say To Someone You’re Dining With — And Why

“You just always have to be healthy.”

A former co-worker used to snarkily say this to me at every group work meal whenever I ordered a salad or something else vegetarian, which I was at the time. She always said it in a way that suggested she perceived what was on my plate as an insult to whatever she ate. It wasn’t, of course.

Her constant comments about what I ate usually led others in the group to laugh and ask me dozens of questions about my meals. Why was I eating this and not that? Was I on a diet? All the questioning and talk about what I ate for lunch made me so self-conscious that I skipped these group lunches whenever possible.

The habit of commenting on what others eat is common, said Heather Baker, a licensed clinical social worker and founder of Prosperity Eating Disorders and Wellness Center in Herndon, Virginia. “It’s a way to forge a connection with someone else,” Baker said. “Food is this universal commonality that we share, so it’s only natural that we have this desire to comment on it.”

But doing so can be harmful, she added.

“Comments about food and eating can be difficult for someone with an eating disorder or someone who is anxious about eating with others,” Dr. Evelyn Attia, a psychiatrist and director of the Center for Eating Disorders at New York-Presbyterian Westchester Behavioral Health, told HuffPost.

Attia said these remarks — even if they’re well-meaning — can make some people feel judged, shamed and self-conscious.

Experts say when in doubt, it’s best to avoid commenting on what others eat. Here’s why, which statements are especially harmful, and what to do if you often hear these types of comments.

Why You Shouldn’t Comment On What Others Eat

The simple answer: You never know what someone else is going through and why they’re eating what they’re eating, Brittney Lauro, lead therapist at eating disorder treatment platform Equip, told HuffPost.

Someone could be dealing with or recovering from an eating disorder, for example, and Lauro said remarking on how healthy they’re eating or that they’re “being good” by eating vegetables could come across as praise for their condition.

People might also have health conditions where dietary changes, such as giving up gluten or going plant-based, are necessary, explained Melissa Preston, a licensed professional counselor, registered dietitian and co-founder at Omni Counseling and Nutrition in Denver, Colorado.

Beyond health, people from different cultures may have experienced shaming around what they eat in the past, and comments can cause these feelings to resurface, Preston added.

The bottom line is, Baker said, “There’s no way of knowing how someone will interpret a comment about food, even if there are good intentions behind it.”

Something as simple as saying "that looks good” can potentially be triggering.

Tetra Images via Getty Images

Something as simple as saying “that looks good” can potentially be triggering.

6 Things You Should Never Say To People You’re Dining With

While Lauro said she believes most comments about what others eat are well-meaning, she said, generally, it’s best to avoid remarking on it. Here are some phrases that you should never say to the people you’re dining with:

“I would never eat ___.”

Pointing out how you avoid eating whatever is on someone’s plate, for whatever reason, could make them feel shamed, Preston said. It also reinforces diet culture and can seem like you’re comparing your body to theirs, Baker added, especially if you say something like, “I could never eat that much sugar, or I’d gain weight.”

“You’re not going to eat all of that, are you?”

Statements like this can make someone feel judged about their eating choices, Attia said. Also, avoid commenting on your own plate size or fullness—“I ate too much,” for instance — which might make someone feel self-conscious about what they ate, Baker said.

“Oh, you’re being good (or bad) today.”

Avoid labeling foods as “good” or “bad” or “healthy” or “unhealthy,” Lauro said. For example, if you say, “Isn’t that unhealthy to eat for breakfast,” it could foster a sense of shame and be triggering for some people. She emphasized the “all foods fit” concept, meaning there’s room for all foods in someone’s diet. “Nothing’s off limits unless, of course, you have a food allergy,” she said.

“Are you dieting?”

“Never comment on how food is going to affect someone’s body,” such as gaining or losing weight, Preston said. On the flip side, avoid talking negatively about your own appearance in relation to what you eat in the presence of others, Lauro added.

“I live by a phrase that I often hear in my field: ‘My appearance is the least interesting thing about me,’” Lauro said. “There’s so many more topics that we can cover.”

“You look healthy.”

This might sound like a compliment, but Baker said it could be misinterpreted by someone with an eating disorder as implying that they gained weight, which can “start a spiral of negative self-talk.”

She said, “Instead, do comment on the aspects of the person’s personality or self-hood that you are noticing more and are grateful to reconnect with.”

“That looks good.”

This is a tricky one. In some cases, it could be harmless. But Preston said some people, especially those in eating disorder recovery, don’t want any attention drawn to their meals.

“Letting someone know that their food looks delicious can be experienced as a message that suggests they are indulging in their choice of food or not valuing health in their food choices,” Attia said.

How To Respond To What Others Say About What You Eat

If you hear these kinds of comments often and they bother you, Attia suggested developing a strategy for responding and coping. This might differ depending on your relationship with the person and how comfortable you feel addressing remarks head-on.

First, avoid agreeing with the commentator and joining in labeling foods or discussing whether or not you should be eating it, Preston said. “That’s what the person is expecting as a response, comments like, ‘I shouldn’t be eating that.’”

Often, changing the subject is the best strategy. When someone says, “That looks really healthy,” say, “Oh, it tastes really good,” Preston suggested. That takes the attention off the health aspect.

Redirecting can help, too, Lauro said. When someone brings up something you don’t want to discuss, ask them about something completely unrelated, such as Beyoncé’s new country album or another current event.

If you feel comfortable being direct, Baker said to simply say, “Can we not talk about food or our bodies?”

Lauro said to always be kind to yourself, set boundaries and know your limits regarding what you’re comfortable (and not comfortable) discussing.

If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org for support.

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