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

Posted Nov 25 2013 2:06am

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?)


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