Stopped by the Food Police: How to Respond When Somebody Comments about Your Food or Your Body
People who comment on your food choices are called “food police.” They reinforce rules and ideas of how you should eat, without respecting the fact that your food choices are your own right and responsibility, not theirs. They may also police your body size, shape, and health choices.
We all experience a range of reactions from other people to our bodies and the food we choose to eat. The reactions could even be arranged on a spectrum of sorts, which can help us also figure out how to respond.
Depending on your body size and the situation you’re in, you might also find that you experience more interactions that are clustered on one end of the spectrum or the other. There are no hard-and-fast rules about this spectrum, or the placement of the comments on it. It’s okay to trust your own judgment about where you feel these interactions fall.
Allow me to introduce you to two hypothetical characters on the extreme ends of the food police spectrum: Extreme Mean and Means Well.
Extreme Mean is someone who’s being intentionally mean. They know it’s mean, you know it’s mean, everybody knows they’re mean. They don’t try to hide it. They might think it’s funny. But it’s definitely not “all in good fun.”
Means Well is someone who’s well-intentioned but doesn’t know how to help well. And by this I mean they actually care about you and want your best.
(Remember, we’re talking about extremes here. There’s a mix of both in the real world)
Because this is such a big topic, with many possible scenarios, we’re talking about two extreme examples so you can put together a strategy that works for you in any situation that falls between them.
Please know that a perfectly acceptable strategy could be to not engage (more on this later). You’re not obligated to pick the perfect response every time, or respond at all. Sometimes it doesn’t feel safe, sometimes it doesn’t feel good, sometimes we just don’t have the energy or desire. Those are okay to experience and acknowledge.
In this article, we’re going to walk through nine ways to respond to inappropriate comments, and at the end there’s a printable resource for more specific ways to respond (with some conversation scripts).
The Difference between Extreme Mean and Means Well
Sometimes the Extreme Mean sounds like Means Well, but they’re not the same. When Extreme Mean says “Oh, I was just trying to tell you to be healthy because I care about you,” they don’t mean they care about you, they want to cover up or excuse their comment as “concern.”
Means Well will say the same, but will actually be confused. They genuinely thought this was the best way to express their care for you. If they knew it was harmful in any way, they’d try to change the way they’re acting or talking, they just don’t know how to be helpful or they don’t know that it’s not helpful in this moment.
Here are nine different ways you might choose to respond based on the day, the situation, your energy levels, safety (physical and emotional) concerns, and where the interaction falls on the spectrum.
How to Respond When Somebody Comments about Your Food or Your Body
- Look for opportunities for discussion vs debate
- Remember that discussions take energy
- Find the common ground
- Respond in a way your future best self will like
- Change the subject
- Refuse to play the game
- Remember that it still hurts sometimes
- Recognize patterns
- Create and practice your own strategy
1. Look for opportunities for discussion vs debate
One of the biggest things to look for is the opportunity for Discussion vs Debate. Discussion is a conversation, debate is a battle.
A debate is where one person faces off against another person with an opposing view and the goal is to convince the other person to be on your side. There’s no middle ground, and there’s a whole lot of not listening–except to plan your rebuttal. Debates also have a winner and a loser.
In a discussion, there’s a conversation with lots of listening. There’s no expectation to convince the other person to join your side, you’re just sharing your experiences and listening to theirs.
In my experience (from my own interactions and from helping clients), there’s usually more opportunity for discussion with people closer to Means Well than Extreme Mean, since Means Well actually has your best interests at heart. Extreme Mean, on the other hand, doesn’t actually want to hear your side of the story, they’re already playing to win, and you’d likely need a debate just to get them to discuss.
I’d actually argue that there’s very little reason for debate when someone makes a comment that crosses your boundary. You don’t need to justify your boundary, it just is what it is. Contrary to this, a debate is essentially an argument over where the boundary is, and/or whether you’re allowed to have it.
A discussion gives room to acknowledge the boundaries (and to notice where they might be different than someone else’s), and to move forward from there.
So if you feel there’s an opening for a discussion with Means Well (or in less likely cases, Extreme Mean), then the next step is to decide whether it’s actually worth it for you, in this moment, to engage in that discussion.
2. Remember that discussions take energy
Responding to Extreme Mean seems on the surface to take more energy than responding to Means Well. However, you may find that depending on the situation (and specific people involved) that there are other dynamics at play that change the level of energy required to respond.
For example, Extreme Mean often triggers a stress response, which can feel threatening, especially if in a social or physical situation that amplifies the effect. Depending on your personality and biology, you may find that you get a rush of adrenaline and energy, totally freeze up with a blank mind, or have the sudden urge to escape, leaving no energy to respond.
It may be the end of a long week and you’re so tired and so overwhelmed and you’ve had 300 people commenting about your weight or your eating habits, and this is now the One Last Thing.
On the other hand, you might be feeling pretty confident, with so much energy to devote to this interaction that you decide to engage.
And it’s not just Extreme Mean that takes energy. Sometimes, Means Well is a family member in the middle of a large gathering that would require the subtle grasp of family dynamics and the micro-exactness of a hummingbird feeding on a flower, while being in the spotlight surrounded by other people who fall on various parts of the spectrum.
Even if Means Well is alone and actually would be totally open to a discussion, if you’re not in a place where you’re going to be able to educate, calmly and politely discuss, or even say “That wasn’t very helpful, can we talk about something else?” – then don’t do it. You don’t have to. They all take energy.
You can simply say something like, “I’m so glad you care about me,” and then move on. This is an example of seeking something you can agree on (even if implied, not explicitly stated).
3. Find the common ground
In a situation with Means Well, you probably have more common ground than not common ground.
So if this is our most extreme Means Well and it’s a healthy relationship, but they just don’t know how to express that in a way that is how actually helpful for you… finding common ground and simply thanking them for caring could be an appropriate and healthy response.
There could also be a lot of other responses, but I like and often use this technique personally because it makes them feel heard and understood. I don’t have to argue or even address the other part of the comment. (Although, if they keep bringing it up, then I might say something (see “Recognize Patterns” section below). If it’s one and done, I just thank them for caring about me and move on). And thankfulness helps because I emphasize the good, and the negative loses some of its importance.
4. Respond in a way your future best self will like
We’re not perfect, but in general, it’s always a good idea to try to respond in a way that the best version of your future self will look back on and say, “Oh, I’d still do that in the same way.”
No matter our body size or shape, we’re all allowed to feel and acknowledge our anger from injustices like being mistreated, receiving inappropriate comments, or being excluded, to name a few. And because we’re imperfect, we won’t always respond in the moment exactly as we wish we would have in hindsight.
There’s a difference between being nice and being kind. Nice means we act pleasant and agreeable. Kind means we act with consideration. Kindness may or may not seem nice. When we’re hurt and angry, niceness feels like a cheap cover-up, while kindness can feel empowering. Kindness doesn’t require a rejection of emotion.
You can feel angry, make a pointed statement, and still choose to be kind as you consider the implication of your words and actions. Sometimes the most helpful way to move forward is to give a direct calling out.
For Means Well, if you choose to respond to the comment, you might say something like, “I’m really thankful you care about me. It might be even more helpful to…” This gives them a different way of expressing their care, love, or concern, so that you’re both happy.
5. Change the subject
Maybe they said, “Do you really want to eat that? I know you’re trying to eat mindfully, and it’s your third one.”
You could reply and say, “It’s so nice that you listened when I mentioned I was trying mindful eating. Actually, mindfulness has really helped me in another way…”
And now you can talk about anything else you want to talk about, or even substitute some other way of helping that you’d appreciate more (“…mindfulness has made me more aware in general, and I realize that what would be more helpful is if you keep me accountable for how I’m doing on the job applications, because I’m looking for a new job right now”).
6. Refuse to play the game
Changing the subject could work well for Extreme Mean, who acts cruel and wants to get under your skin, to cause an impulsively emotional reaction. Or you may also choose to make a pointed comment back, calling out bad behavior if you have the energy and it’s aligned with how you want to act. However, you aren’t obligated to engage at all or at the same level as the person making the comment.
While some might say it’s always beneficial to call out bad behavior at the moment it happens, I feel that, in real world scenarios, this can sometimes aggravate the situation. Even if you have the right to stand up for yourself (because you always have the right to stand up for yourself) you might make a different choice to protect yourself from further harm.
If you decide to call them out on their comment, try to do it without playing their game. This could look many different ways. If I choose to reply, I try setting and enforcing my boundaries without engaging in debate (remember, debate argues over boundaries; discussion acknowledges and enforces them).
Kindness (consideration of the people and situation) is key, but kindness doesn’t mean being a doormat. Depending on who’s saying the comment (like if you’re in a middle-on-the-spectrum situation), you could say something in a pointed but respectfully joking way.
If you’re tempted to insult, my recommendation is to consider not saying it. I encourage people not to cause more harm, since that’s already happening to you. (I’m assuming you don’t want to push harm back to others, even if they deserve it, because you know how being hurt feels, and having more hurt in the world isn’t a good thing. As humans, if we expect to be treated kindly, I hope that we’re also extending kindness toward others.)
A non-response, or a neutral response, followed by an exit could even be more powerful than a barbed comment, depending on the situation.
The “Gray Rock Method” may be helpful. This is where you act like a boring gray rock and give no emotional responses, theoretically leading to the aggressor becoming uninterested in continuing their behavior.
You could delete that troll’s social media comment. You could walk away from a conversation. Not engaging isn’t rude behavior in that moment.
If you want (or if it feels safer/more appropriate), you could do a little transition out of that conversation, but it’s never rude to enforce your boundaries or to expect that you’re treated with respect.
7. Remember that it still hurts sometimes
Even with these strategies, the words and the emotions caused by the words don’t’ automatically go away. Comments, whether they’re well-intended or not, can hurt. Sometimes you’ll be able to say something in the moment (“Ouch, that was hurtful”), and sometimes you’re going to have to package them up to hold on to for later when you can safely unpack them.
But in all of this, I want to remind you:
- you are worth having boundaries
- you are worth enforcing those boundaries
- you are worth standing up for yourself
- you are worth taking a break when you don’t feel like you can engage
8. Recognize patterns
If you’re always choosing to disengage and distance yourself, you might want to look at patterns. Are these specific friends that maybe you need to spend less time with and consider new friends? Or maybe this is a specific repeated trigger for you.
For example, I’ve had comments in the past that have really made me feel like I don’t belong, so every time I get another that makes me feel this way, I react really strongly, way more than the situation calls for. Part of being able to respond in an appropriate way to the situations I face moving forward is to learn to deal with the past situations, to heal those hurts.
We all have experiences that we bring with us, but many of us are still responding to the memories of past experiences, and that informs the way we respond to future experiences.
Quick note: It might not be about you at all
Maybe it’s about them, and the motivation for their comment is really more about “I don’t know how else I’m supposed to be helping so I’m going to try this comment.” Or maybe making the comment makes them feel more in control of a situation they feel out of place in.
Whatever their motivation, their intentions, thoughts, and comments are their responsibility. Your responsibility is how you respond.
9. Create and practice your own strategy
You probably have some example in mind, in the past or an ongoing situation, that may be helped by some of these strategies. Now it’s your turn. Take what stands out most for you and start to develop a framework of your own. It can help to practice thinking through situations before they come up, so that you’ll have more confidence and it won’t feel as new in the moment.
If you want more specific ideas of how to respond (some actual conversation scripts with real words to say) I have a printable for you called Silencing the Food Police 25+ Ideas for when People Overstep Your Boundaries. They’re a mix of polite, bold, and somewhat snarky comments meant to spark your own ideas, and there’s also room to start working on your own responses, based on where the comments you receive fall on the spectrum.
Share in the comments (or message me privately if you don’t want to share publicly): What do you do when someone comments about your food, weight, or body?
Grab the resource: Silencing the Food Police 25+ Ideas for when People Overstep Your Boundaries
Special thanks to Lindley Ashline for (paid) contributions and consulting on this article and resource!