We have a problem in the modern-American workplace: toxic food culture. Our views around food—what’s acceptable to eat, what’s “good” and what’s “bad,” how people choose to eat their food—have become very distorted. We live in a culture of dieting and “lookism.” Lookism is judging people on how they look and treating them differently according to how they look; it’s essentially a prejudice. These issues can be detrimental to anyone, but it is especially harmful to people with eating disorders and those who struggle with negative body image.
Let’s look at an example of toxic food culture:
Mary works at a hospital as a nurse. She has a high stress job, but loves her work. Her coworkers take turns bringing in candy and baked goods to keep in the break room. Mary is in recovery from an eating disorder; she is no longer using eating disorder symptoms but continues to struggle with her body image and anxious thoughts surrounding food. On one occasion, Mary eats a cupcake. Her coworker responds, “Oh you’re having a cupcake? I can’t eat that because of my diet, I’ve been doing the keto diet because I need to lose weight. I can’t have all those carbs.” The next week, Mary decides to not eat the donuts at work. Her coworker responds, “Come on, Mary, have a donut! You can afford to eat that stuff, you’re not as heavy as me! Are you on a diet?”
Has anyone else been where Mary is? Mary can’t win with her coworkers no matter what choices she makes with food! Are you in a work environment where there is always someone who has to say something about your body, or the food you decide to eat, or what diet they are on? Comments like this create an environment where people feel anxiety about food and weight. It assigns the moral value of what is “good” and “bad” to both food and body type when in reality, these have little to do with morality. I’d love for everyone to replace the judgment and self-loathing with acceptance and self-compassion, but I’m a big believer in starting with baby steps. For now, here are five tips to handle the toxic food culture in your workplace:
1) Eat what you want and avoid a toxic work culture.
Don’t succumb to food pressure one way or the other. I have personally received comments in the workplace of both “why don’t you eat more?” and “Oh my goodness, you’re eating another one?” It doesn’t feel good, but I recognize that these comments have little to do with me and everything to do with the person’s own issues. In spite of these judgmental comments at work, the best thing for you is to just eat what you want. Listen to what your body needs. If you have a craving, listen to that; if something isn’t appetizing, there doesn’t need to be any pressure on you to eat it.
2) Set boundaries and practice assertiveness with your coworkers.
It’s helpful to reflect on what your boundaries are in the workplace; you are allowed to do your own thing when it comes to food. Bring in your own lunch, eat with coworkers, whatever you’re comfortable with. It’s also okay to be assertive with a coworker. For example, ask the coworker who keeps talking about their diet that you would appreciate it if the two of you could discuss other topics at work.
3) Practice positive reframing of difficult situations.
If you receive a judgmental comment at work, or even if you are just perceiving negativity in your own mind, you can positively reframe that. A good way to positively reframe is to gather evidence that your negative thoughts aren’t true. It is more likely that someone at work talking about food and weight in a toxic way is not trying to attack you personally. Many people have been culturally influenced to think about food and weight in a toxic way; that has nothing to do with you.
4) Practice acceptance without judgment.
There may be nothing you can do to change your toxic food culture in the workplace. In this scenario, practice acceptance without judgment. Your coworkers probably don’t know the level of negativity that this culture can bring to someone who struggles with food and body image. Let them be as they are and work to improve your own mindset, which is the only thing you can control.
5) If you have a hard day at work, keep up with your self-care.
Self-care is a great way to wind down at the end of a stressful workday. Specialize your self-care to things that bring you peace and joy. I also encourage variety in self-care activities whenever possible. Trying new, positive things to do for yourself can be very therapeutic.
Do you struggle with negative thoughts about food, weight, or body image? Set up a complimentary initial consultation with one of the specialized psychotherapists at Explore What’s Next today.
Christine Frank, LMSW
Trauma, Depression, Anxiety, Eating/Weight issues, Tweens, Teens, Young Adults
Christine understands what it’s like when you’re trying your hardest and an invisible hand is holding you back. It doesn’t mean you’re weak, or stupid, or unworthy of good things—it just means you could use some help. It helps to connect with someone who knows that your stories are worth listening to. Christine will hear your story. She’s a great listener.
Christine is easy-going, friendly, empathetic, non-judgmental. She’s funny and real in a down to earth way. She loves working with pre-teens, teenagers, and young adults to help them move through those difficult life transitions where a person can feel lost.
With Christine’s guidance and encouragement you can take the first step to a happier, healthier life.
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