This problem is tough to describe without getting perilously close to breaking the “no diet talk” rule, but I’m hoping I’m describing it neutrally enough that you can still help: my mother (almost 60) has a lifelong obsession with “health”, and it’s getting worse, and I’m worried what will happen if I don’t try to get her to stop.
What I mean is that she maintains a near-constant focus on exercise, severe calorie restrictions, and self-imposed rules around what foods she won’t eat. [Additional details available, but I don’t want to get sidetracked with diagnostics.] In the past, I’ve tried not to worry — she’s an adult and she gets to decide what she puts in her body. But the last few years, things have gotten more intense:
1) She externalizes it A LOT. “Health” is all she talks about. She uses her restrictions to dictate what my father eats, and where and what we can eat whenever we’re together. Holidays are really stressful — trying to meet her requirements, hold these constant conversations, AND eat any actual food myself (I have no dietary restrictions) makes meals absolutely exhausting. (And, OF COURSE, meals are the focal point for my family’s socializing.)
2) Her ideas about health are increasingly fringe. She reads pseudoscience blogs, and is constantly repeating “facts” she’s found (“Actually, skipping meals occasionally is good for you”). Recently she switched to a naturopathic “doctor” who ran a barrage of unnecessary blood tests in order to sell her his line of supplements. This feels like REALLY dangerous territory to me — financially, physically, mentally.
I have two younger siblings (we’re all early 30s), and they’re also concerned. We’ve tried, over the years, to enlist my father’s help, but he refuses to hear any “criticism” of her. We’ve tried to talk directly to Mom about it, but — well, we’re not good at confrontation (conflict TERRIFIES ME, because even the slightest wrinkle can turn into a blowout), so we just end up hinting and laughing nervously (“Maybe you shouldn’t listen to EVERYTHING that doctor says, haha!”) before changing the subject.
To be clear: she has no allergies, no sensitivities, no chronic illnesses. Anxiety runs deep in the family, but she refuses to see a therapist (I suggest it frequently, as a good hygiene practice). I’m sure her behavior is coming from a desperate fear of aging, and I feel for her. But I’m worried about how this obsession will play out as she gets older and her health DOES change.
I guess I’m writing you now because a holiday visit is looming and I’m either going to spend it miserably, silently tamping down my frustration yet again, or completely losing my shit. How do I get her to see that her “interest” is actually an unhealthy obsession?
Please Mom Just Eat Something
The holidays are a rough time for people with disordered eating patterns and anxiety around food, and our cultural messages of “TREAT YOURSELF, IT’S A JOLLY CELEBRATION TIME” vs. “YOU MUST ALWAYS BE TRYING TO BE THINNER” are both at peak strength this time of year. Add in the capitalist refrains of “BUY THIS, IT WILL MAKE YOU BETTER” and “YOUR HEALTH IS AN OBLIGATION YOU OWE THE ECONOMY AND ALSO AN INDIVIDUAL ACHIEVEMENT THAT IS 100% WITHIN YOUR POWER (IF YOU BUY STUFF)”…and…ayyyyyyyyy. All sympathies to everyone in Awkwardland trying to thread the needle of “What, you don’t want some pie-nog?” and “Are you sure you should be eating that pie-nog?” right now.
True story: Your mom is extremely unlikely to change her behavior and your dad is extremely unlikely to start supporting you in any conflict with her, no matter what scripts we author and deliver her way. That is depressing, but I hope that it can also give you some freedom and power back on your visit. In your shoes, here’s where I’d focus my energy:
A. Make sure *you* get to eat enough food on your visit. If that means eating at alternate times, jumping in the car or on the subway to go find food elsewhere, making brunch plans with old friends who live in the neighborhood (these friends can be fictional btw), or working on your boundaries to the point you can say “Eyes on your own plate, Mom” at any shared mealtimes, do that. It is okay to disrupt the rhythms of your childhood home in order to take good care of your adult self. “I was hungry, so I made a sandwich” is not some sort of crime.
B. Continue making it very boring for her to talk about her obsession. It’s okay to tune her out, interrupt the cycle, or generally wave it away. Never ask her questions about what her doctor said. Never treat it like it’s all that interesting to you. Let her fuss about it if she wants to, but don’t engage. Scripts:
- “Huh, I’m not sure that’s true, but you’re the boss of you!” + subject change, etc.
- “Mom, eat whatever you want! I’m going to eat (thing that I want).” + subject change, etc.
- “Mom, I feel pretty lucky not to have any dietary restrictions, and I’m going to enjoy myself. You eat whatever you like, though.” + subject change, etc.
You’re already doing this. It’s not making anything better but it’s not making anything worse, and sometimes that’s all the power you have in a situation.
C. Find some safe topics for those subject changes. Suggestions: A show or author you both like, a shared hobby, questions about family history. The family history one is an especially good one for redirecting food weirdness, for example: “What was your favorite thing that Grandma & Grampa used to cook at the holidays when you were little?” “What’s the first meal that you made when you married Dad?”
Give her very little attention about food-related topics, give her your full, positive attention about other topics and see if that doesn’t encourage a shift. In my experience, my mom thinks her discussion of diets & exercise (she is also obsessed) is a form of bonding. She thinks it’s normal girl-talk stuff and also that she’s setting a good example for me when she talks about it. She wants congratulations and approval and female bonding. We’ve had some frank arguments in the past about why I don’t want to engage with her about that topic, but mostly now we don’t fight about it at least partly because I tend to treat weight/diet talk like hearing that the paint dried exactly on schedule and save enthusiasm and attention and connection for other topics.
D. Do some research on how to support people with eating difficulties. Off the top of my head, some resources:
- National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) – They have info for friends and family members of people who display signs of disordered eating that might help you wrap your head around what you’re observing and approach your mom with gentleness and good information if that’s something you decide to do.
- The Fat Nutritionist – This might be a good resource for you in combatting toxic messages about food & health when your mom throws that at you.
E. Confront it directly if you need to. Sometimes overbearing people need a reminder that we mild-mannered sorts are choosing to let things go and that we could make a different choice. If things get out of hand, what do you have to lose by being very direct?
- “You seem pretty anxious about this.“
- “Quit talking about calories, Ma, nobody cares.“
- “Mom, you’re the boss of whatever you want to eat, but I hate discussing food with you. We need a new topic.“
- “Mom, I want you to eat whatever you want and feel good about eating, but you do not get to comment on anyone else’s food, especially mine, not ever.”
- “Mom, this doctor sounds more like he’s interested in selling supplements than in your health. But it’s ultimately your decision, and if you think they are helping you, you’re the boss of you.“
- “Mom, if you’re concerned about that, consult an actual nutritionist. But don’t try to sell me on this pseudoscience supplement crap, I’m not interested.”
- “Mom, I’m really trying to have a healthy body image and attitude around nutrition, and one thing that really helps me is to [not focus on food so much][to only say kind things about people’s bodies][to be morally neutral about food and not talk about it in terms of ‘sinfulness’ or ‘virtue’]. Can you help me out with that?“
- “Mom, the way you talk about food makes me worried for you sometimes. I know you want to be healthy, but you seem so stressed out about it. Are you sure you’re eating enough?
F. If she “blows up,” let her. You’re an adult, you’ve witnessed many, many times that your mom got very upset and yelled and said weird stuff and you’ve survived it all. You’re not dependent on her anymore, the world won’t end if she’s upset. Let her have a tantrum. Get up and walk out of the room if you want to. Look at her like she’s grown a third head and, when she’s finished, talk to her in a normal tone of voice about something else.
Your mom is probably not going to change. Nor is your dad, and you can’t save him if he’s willingly subjecting himself to her restrictions. You can have empathy for what she’s dealing with and see that it must be exhausting to walk in her shoes and see food as she does. Try to have empathy for her and also have compassion for yourself. You don’t have to adopt her worldview, you don’t have to absorb her obsession uncritically, and you can stand up for yourself and model being kind and gentle to your own body when you visit. Work on the things you can control (eating in a way that’s comfortable and right for you)(working on your constructive conflict skills) and have as happy a holiday as you can.
Comment Moderation Reminders:
- Please be kind and constructive. Focus on helping the Letter Writer grapple with the situation.
- No discussion of diets or weight loss strategies. Zero.
- No mentions of specific weights or clothing sizes. Zero.
- What foods you personally eat and don’t/can’t eat are interesting only to you. Please do not list them, call certain foods gross, or assign a moral value to specific foods.