#1055: Holidays in “Health” Hell

Dear Captain,

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

Dear Please,

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:

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.

268 thoughts on “#1055: Holidays in “Health” Hell

  1. LW, I’m in a similar boat. No one has an eating disorder, but I’m on the brink of developing my own because I have my mom lecturing me about portion control and what a “serving” of meat really is, I have my cousin calling people “disgusting” for overeating AT THANKSGIVING DINNER and has previously gone on rants about Americans are gross for eating meat multiple times a day right before Christmas dinner, and I have coworkers constantly talking about workouts, cleanses and no-carb diets like everyone should be doing them. It literally makes me wanna throw up. I want to love myself, and just make good decisions that work for me, but that’s wicked hard when it seems like people are indirectly calling me gross.

    Needless to say, I’m working on how to cope as well, and the best I can do is disengage, tune it out, and walk away whenever possible. CA’s suggested scripts seem good too, I may try to use them but man, I know it’s hard to shut that stuff down.

    So I know I don’t have the best advice to add, but I want you to know you’re not alone.

    1. I volunteered at a pop-up candy shop at our christmas festival this past weekend.


      The most annoying (besides someone talking about keto mostly because that’s a peronal pet peeve) was one person, a grown ass human being, bought a bag of candy and the woman I worked with goes, “Now don’t eat that all at once!” I immediately replied, “You eat as much of it as you want!” because, again, grown ass human being

      1. WTF, who does that?

        Let grown ass people eat what they want, why is that hard?

        Although that reminds me, sometimes someone will bring in donuts or something, and they’re set on the table outside my cube. Totally fine, great access to donuts for me! But all. FORKING. Day. I hear “Oh nooo, donuts, I shouldn’t have donuts! But I want a donut, maybe I’ll have just one.” Part of it is, I think people have to go through this apologetic “I know I shouldn’t eat this” monologue before eating something “bad” so no one judges them, but then I worry that they’ll judge me for not also acknowledging to everyone that I’m about to eat something “bad” and I am sorry or something, it all drives me batty as hell. So naturally, after getting a “let’s be more careful with our portions, sweetheart” talk from my mom, I found myself doing the same thing at lunch with my family. “Yeaaah, I know chili is bad for me, but I’m having this healthy sandwich too, and it’s turkey, sooo . . .” and my sister called me out on it and I wanted to smack myself.

        1. RIGHT?? I found that so tremendously rude and that was the quickest thing I could think of. I didn’t go into volunteering at a CANDY SHOP expecting to have to deal with food shaming.

        2. At a previous job, one vendor would send us a fifteen-pound chocolate bar every December. My boss put it out near my desk (because I was the person with the Swiss army knife, and willing to chop off chunks as needed).

          So many people would come over for chocolate, some of them repeatedly (which is fine, that was a lot of chocolate for a company our size), and say things like “I shouldn’t” or “I’m glad this isn’t at my desk” as they were reaching for the chocolate. I got to the point of saying things like “then don’t” and “either have some or don’t, I’m not judging you either way.”

          Nobody ever argued with that; I’d interrupted their script, but mildly. It would have been hard to get traction for a complaint like “I said I shouldn’t take any chocolate and she didn’t try to talk me into it” or “Vicki said she wouldn’t judge me for eating chocolate.”

          What I don’t think my coworkers realized is that if each person went through that dance on an average of once a day, that would mean I was expected to hear and respond to it several times an hour, which would have gotten boring even if it had been an unemotional ritual like saying “how about that local sports team?” as they reached for a piece of chocolate.

        3. I really liked the Capatin’s insight about how negative food talk is considered a bonding exercise for many people. That whole monologue is really weird for me too- why would they think I would judge them on their eating habits? Why would my coworkers assume that kind of judgement would even exist in a workplace (whyyyyy)?

          Usually I just respond in a way that models the types of eating comments I would prefer to bond with: like oh yeah, I really like having the donuts here!””, “”Ï had one earlier with my coffee, and it was a great midmorning treat.

          1. This reminds me of Mean Girls where they’re all crowded around the mirror like “ugh my pores are so big” and whatnot. Negative self-talk, diet talk, fat talk, etc. are absolutely a (mostly feminine) bonding ritual that people engage in.

        4. I live very, very close to a donut shop so I used to bring donuts in to work occasionally as an attempt to be nice. It mostly sparked a massive amount of self-flagellation about whether people were “allowed” to eat a donut, and also the slicing of the donuts into increasingly smaller pieces because no one wanted to be seen to eat a WHOLE donut.

          I stopped bringing them in because I couldn’t tell if it was making anyone else happy, and it sure wasn’t making ME happy.

          The other day I said something about an eating habit I had when I was a teenager, OVER A DECADE AGO, and my mom was like OMFG THAT IS NOT HEALTHY THAT IS SUPER BAD FOR YOU! and I was like, did you seriously just shame me about something I ate in the late 90s?

          1. I stopped bringing donuts to work for the same reason. I don’t need or want your mea culpa!

        5. The way I handle that social expectation of the apology dance – particularly around coworkers – is to say “well I’m just totally shameless and I’m going to eat that donut/umpteenth canape/chocolate/etc”.
          Sort of acknowledging it and making it clear I’m ignoring it.

      2. Also, like, you’re selling candy? So, like, go in the corner over there and eat it all and once, and then come back and BUY MORE?

      3. Holy crap, I would have asked for my money back on the spot! Tell me how to eat? Lose a sale.

      4. About fifteen years ago I had a server deliver a dessert to me with “Well, THAT’s going straight onto your hips!” Thanks, lady, I’ve just recently recovered from anorexia and I’m adjusting to the idea that I can occasionally eat things like this, and now you have ruined all the enjoyment I might have got out of it. And lo, many years later (and I am, fortunately, completely recovered now) I still remember that stupid remark. Because you do. That stuff has a way of sticking around.

        1. Holy forking shirtballs, I would’ve factored that into the tip and complained to management. Servers, cashiers, really anyone who sells or serves food shouldn’t be making comments like that about what their customers eat.

    2. A friend of mine is my hero. She bought a bag of chips at the vending machine, and was walking back to her desk, when a coworker said, “ooo, I see you hiding those chips.” My friend looked her in the eyes, said “I’m not hiding them. I’m proud of my chips. They are delicious and I’m going to eat them.”

      This inspired me to talk to my parents. When I was 15, they surprised me with a trip to Jenny Craig, as in didn’t tell me until we were in the car and I couldn’t do anything about it. This has led to a lot of dieting and food anxiety that I am still working on. As an adult, I finally told my parents that all diet talk was off limits: asking if I’m sure I wanted it, did I really need it, etc.

      Even after that, my mom told me, in a negative tone of voice, that I looked a little heavy. I asked her if she really thought I didn’t know what I looked like and what possible effect could a comment like that have other than hurting my feelings. Then I walked out. She hasn’t commented since.

      1. Ugh, my grandma took my mom to Jenny Craig when my mom was *seven.* And then when they were walking out, she pointed at a woman in front of them and said “sweetie, I just don’t want you to look like that when you grow up.”

        My mother has some pretty intense issues about food, health, and beauty. It’s both nice and absolutely enraging to know exactly why that is.

        1. My dad used to do the same thing, comparing me to others. It took me forever to stop constantly doing it to myself. I still have to catch myself.

    3. “has previously gone on rants about Americans are gross for eating meat multiple times a day right before Christmas dinner”

      Um. What? I know I’m late to this comment thread, but I felt compelled to point out that Americans? ARE NOT UNIQUE IN EATING MEAT.

      I wasn’t sure if the complaints were multiple times per day or the meat-eating was, but either way, it’s a weird thing to single out Americans for, and I’m sorry you had to listen to repeated tirades on the grossness of eating food.

      1. She was dating a French dude all the time, I’m sure that’s where the viewpoint came from. She might not still feel that way, but she’s still not shy about loudly criticizing how others eat.

  2. Can’t you just skip the holidays if it’s so stressful? If you did, your parents might probably get the message that it’s just unduly stressful to be around someone who just moans about food so much. Even if it means that you stay home and eat, you won’t be hungry.

    1. Good point. YOU DON’T HAVE TO GO, and if you do, reminding yourself that going is a choice can be powerful. “I came here by choice to see my parents” is a good mantra.

      1. And LW, if your first instinct about this suggestion is “but not going will cause a massive blow up because TRADITION! and faaaaaaaaaaaaamily,” then I’m here to tell you that yes, yes it will.
        Is that massive blowup going to sap more or less of your strength then going there for the holiday and being constantly subjected to such a stressful situation? Only you, dearest LW, can solve that math problem, and I encourage you to take the time to actually crunch the numbers because you may realize that staying home will be healthier for you in the long run. (Or it may not be: and if you’ve come to that conclusion, then you can go and keep that knowledge as a flame in the back of your mind to remind you why you’re there and putting up with this.)

        Advice of what’s worked for me: Cutting back the length of the visit. Christmas for me used to be 10-day affair, and it was a miracle if we’d made it to day 6 without a drop-dead-drag-out blowup. Now that I have some control over my own travel plans, I limit my visit to 5 days and things are a lot smoother. Does my mom still whine about me not being there the full 10 days? Yup. But it’s worth it, and there are less fights overall.

        1. Make a list of rules that are more important to you than family contact. If that list isn’t empty, tell your mother that these are the rules, and stick to it. If she won’t agree to abide by them, don’t go. If she lies, get up and leave. Instantly. Let her blow up at the empty chair. And next year, tell her up front, “Last year, you deliberately lied to me, so I’m not coming this year. I’d rather eat alone than listen to you.”

          You always have the option of just cutting off contact until she apologizes, and agrees – and means it – to abide by your rules. That may mean you never talk to her again. But from the sounds of it, that may be less painful than letting her ruin your health her with neurotic fad fetish.

          I’m reminded that there are support networks for people who are estranged from family.

        2. My limit is 2 hours with my mother; I think I’d lose my grip on reality after five whole days, let alone ten, haha XD

          1. I get along really well with my family and I’m still trying to figure out how I’d manage five days with them at Christmas.

          2. I often do lose my grip on reality, but I have more strategies now in my backpocket to get myself away from the situation for a bit and to reground myself. Therapy for the #WIN

        3. It used to be two weeks over Christmas for me. Now it’s two days, whittled down because work and pets and husband and We Have Our Own Lives In A Different City.

          …Those are the public reasons. They’re all real, but the main underlying (unspoken!) reason is that my mother focusses so hard on doing all the Christmas foods and Christmas traditions and wrapping etc that it’s been a couple of decades since the last time she *didn’t* throw a wobbly some time on Christmas day, and also she works right up to the day itself so has been pushing more and more of the (mandatory!) prep and cooking off onto other people. Largely me. Add food and weight shaming (my husband and I are the only non-skinny people in the family) and I nope right out of as much of it as I can.

          I have gotten her to stop 99.5% of the weight shaming, but just the awareness that it’s still going on behind my back puts my shoulders up around my ears the whole time I’m in her house.

        4. Other things that also work for me: meeting at a neutral venue, having a large extended family group there. I won’t spend huge amounts of time at my parents’ house or invite them to mine because my mother is emotionally abusive, but every year we meet at a city between their home and ours, for a meal at a pub or restaurant with my mother’s sister, her son and his partner and three children, my two brothers and my sister-in-law. Together with my own husband and two children, that’s enough people that I can sit far away enough that she can’t talk to me during the actual meal, but we still spend some time together with drinks etc afterwards at my cousin’s house.

          The only problem is that with a party our size we have to book WAY in advance, plus you have to be able to afford a meal out/transport etc, but if it’s a thing you can do then I’d recommend it. No dishes to do afterwards, either.

        5. LW, on this theme:

          Can you choose not to be there FOR food times? What about between lunch and dinner? What about after dinner? Is it conceivable that an unavoidable work commitment (a commitment to work on YOUR happiness) can pop up and you can only visit for a short time? Do what you have to do to make the holidays a safe time for YOURSELF, and do not apologize for it to anyone.

          Maybe it’s time to make some new traditions, like you and your siblings do food, and then you visit your parents together in a bunch for not-food-thing all together, and agree to deflect and use the same kinds of scripts?

      2. Also, limiting the amount of time you stay; give yourself permission to come late/leave early if you have to.

          1. That’s what I did when I traveled to see my father/his side of the family. I always booked a hotel room, stopped at the hotel & checked in and dropped off luggage before going to their homes so they couldn’t try to beg us to stay. “Sorry- already paid for my room and my luggage is there so….”

            I had the opposite problem of OP- when I visited my dad & his side of the family, they were always trying to push food on us. I had to learn to say no, thank you I’m not hungry/ no I don’t want a pound of bacon to snack on while I go back to hotel/ I’m fine, thanks!

            I think holidays make it a little tougher because so many are focused on food. Use the Captain’s advice, OP. I understand you are worried about your Mom, but until she decides to make a change, there is not a whole lot you can do. Good luck and hopefully the holidays are better this year!

    2. Seriously it was so damn transformative for me to stay home for a holiday rather than trudge up to stay in someone else’s home, either their shitty, bland, burned while also cold food that was like an explosion in my stomach.

  3. My family holidays are often a small minefield of gingerly side-stepping a lot of passive-aggressive commentary about my weight and what I eat/comparisons to themselves/comments on themselves. My solution (learned the hard way) is to NOT ENGAGE AT ANY COST, smile blandly, and change the subject right away. Don’t comment, don’t get sucked into a discussion, let any awkward insults hang in the air unaddressed and then mention something completely else, even if it’s, “Oh, Look, the cat is under the tree!” or “So are you going on vacation this year?” or “Who wants another drink?”

    1. Those comparison comments and the congratulatory comments about herself is what my MIL does. After smiling blandly to her face and bitching about her constantly to my husband behind her back for years, I finally told her in very plain terms to go fuck herself and keep her damn comments to herself. It was AMAZING!!!!!! Sure, it caused some ruckus, and I will forever be considered a bitch among my in laws, but I don’t GAF. She has been much better since then.

      1. Mine goes the other way; I’m of a conventionally desirable weight and many of my family members feel the need to comment on it/slag themselves off/make weird and bitter personal remarks/seem to have no understanding that I could also have body image and weight issues and DON’T WANT TO DISCUSS WEIGHT. I can’t say anything because if I do they take it as me feeling superior (I don’t), I can’t ask them to stop for the same reason. So I’ve kept with the ABORT ABORT response until I can figure out a different one. I really wish people would just Drop It.

        1. (And by the way, when I say “conventionally desirable,” I merely mean a weight that society has deemed more or less desirable—not that I agree in any way. I do not. I’m just trying to leave out specific detail to adhere with the commenting policy!)

        2. Yeah, many years ago I used to be a size that you usually only see in photoshopped ads, and it encouraged a lot of negative talk like that (which didn’t hurt MY self-esteem necessarily, but it was hard to know how to respond to people I loved using me as a stick to beat themselves up with!) I wish I’d had the Captain’s scripts back then to shut it down.

  4. A great response, but I would say you should begin by telling her the frank truth – “Mom, you have an eating disorder, and we’re worried for you.”

    I say this because I know several people – including family members, and myself in the past – who didn’t recognise when they had an eating disorder. I restricted myself from certain foods, obsessed over healthy foods, regularly broke into a sweat in the supermarket trying to decide what to buy, but because I still ate I thought there was nothing wrong with me. I clearly wasn’t anorexic and bulimia, well, that was another issue that came later. It’s only in the recent years that words like ‘orthorexia’ have been cropping up to describe an eating disorder where the traits are an obsession with healthy food and exercise.

    Maybe if that word had been more common before, I’d have realised I had an eating disorder, before I started making myself throw up and decided this definitely looked like bulimia. But the point I want to make is, labels don’t matter. It took me a long time to realise that like most mental illnesses, not all eating disorders are alike. Frankly, what I know now is that an eating disorder is disordered eating which has come to cause mental distress, dominate a person’s lifestyle, and is out of control. It’s not a quirk, it’s an illness, and anorexia and bulimia are not the only ones.

    She may react with anger and denial. It may cause confrontation. But honestly, it lays the cards on the table. Mom, you’re not being healthy. I think you’re ill. And if that can make her question herself even a little bit – I think it’s worth the discomfort of ‘confrontation’.

    1. I would hesitate to flat out diagnose someone else as if it were a known fact. Suggest the possibility, bring in informational pamphlets, whatever, but not “You have X.”

      Also, one detail I forgot to include in my reply:
      “To be clear: she has no allergies, no sensitivities, no chronic illnesses.”

      That’s quite a blanket statement from someone who presumably has not attend all of their mother’s medical appointments. This may well be true; indeed, it’s probably likely true. OTOH, this might be YOUR assessment based on the information you have access to. Part of it might not be true after all, but your parents haven’t shared it with you (despite how much your mother obsesses over health and diet), or it may not yet be diagnosed. As far as you know, your mother doesn’t have any health issues where what she eats would be a concern. Great! I highlight this only as a caution against assuming your perspective is The Objective Truth.

    2. Maybe it’s time to just drip, drip away at the stone, and every single time she talks about food, say, “Oh, I see your eating disorder is surfacing again. I really wish you’d talk to your doctor about this.” Every time.

      Calmly, observationally. Don’t make it an argument; you aren’t trying to get her to agree with you right away. You just want to put out there, every single time, that this is eating-disorder behavior. State it as a fact. You’re just saying it to make sure it’s floating out there in the conversation.

      Maybe even observe, “You have such stress around food–that’s clearly an eating disorder. I wish you’d talk to your doctor.”

      (say “doctor,” not “therapist,” bcs her M.D. can help her get there, maybe more sensibly than you can)

      Factually and calmly. As if it’s as much a fact as the sky being blue on a sunny day.

      Also: Talk to your dad NOT about “changing” or “fixing” your mom, but about “creating financial protections so that she doesn’t end up giving too much money away, or getting scammed while she’s acting out her anxiety.”

      Treat this not as “a fault in my mother” but “a danger my mother faces.” If she had some degenerative physical disease that wasn’t particularly treatable, you’d all run around doing things like, “let’s put in a ramp now while she’s still mobile, so it’ll be there when she isn’t,” right?

      1. I mean, one, ew, no. Two, she does talk to her doctor about this. That doctor is terrible. That doctor will likely back this up.

        This is not a good approach. At all.

      2. I don’t think this is helpful. One can reprimand someone out of eating disordered thoughts. It sounds awful for the person with an eating disorder, who doesn’t want to have the obsessive, intrusive thoughts about eating correctly.

      3. OK, so not “you have an eating disorder.”
        But “This doesn’t sound healthy.” Some other sort of thing that defines the behavior as problematic. And simply state it.

        Don’t try to make the conversation be about you changing her.
        Make it be about defining the attitude as problematic.
        “This can’t be emotionally healthy.”

        1. Eating disorders are largely about control. Making an eating disordered person feel judged can often worsen that disorder, and also goes directly against the “adults get to monitor their own eating” advice (and also the “we don’t diagnose people on this site” rule). I think this is a terrible idea and advise highly against it.

          1. DING DING DING YES. Eating disorders are so hugely about control, any attempt to lessen the eating disorder that takes away that person’s control is basically a non-starter.

      4. OK, call it “your food anxieties”:
        “That sounds like your food anxieties talking, Mom.”

        1. Don’t call it anything. Just be polite and change the subject.

          Commenting in this manner is 100% going to make things worse both for mom and for LW, regardless of the underlying issue.

          1. I agree with not calling it anything. But LW, here’s the thing: you don’t have to.

            All you need to say is:

            -“*I* don’t want to talk about diet stuff.”
            -“*I* am glad I’ve got no food restrictions; they sound really boring and unpleasant.”
            -“*I* am sure there’s something more fun to talk about than what foods people won’t eat!”

            It’s those I-statements again, but in this case they don’t even need to be bringing your feelings about the whole thing to the forefront if you’d prefer not to deal with a confrontation. (You *can* talk about your feelings regarding the way your mother badgers you about food and ‘health’ issues, if you want to — there’s nothing wrong with doing so! But it’s also not necessary in order to handle the situation, if that isn’t where you want to take it.) The thing about the I-statements in this context is that they make it completely impossible to refute what you’re saying, since you’re not talking about anyone but yourself.

            So, if you want to say that you’d like to change the topic now, say in blunt terms that you, yourself, would like to change the subject. You don’t have to justify it; you don’t have to defend it; you don’t have to convince anyone else that their favorite topic isn’t the most important thing on the agenda for the evening. All you have to do is make the simple statement that you don’t wish to discuss it, and so you’re not going to discuss it anymore; end of topic.

            Then suit action to words by saying nothing further about her pet topics for the rest of the occasion. If you can, continue on your own choices of topic and simply don’t respond when she brings up hers. “Are you sure you should be having that pie-nog?” “Hey, Mom, tell us a story! How did you and Dad celebrated your first holidays together?” If you think that would feel weird or abrupt, or might be taken wrong; or if she’s rubbing something in your face so much you just HAVE to respond, then you can give it the briefest possible deflection and *then* go right into your Designated Alternative Topic: “Sweetie? SWEETIE! I *SAID*, ARE YOU SURE YOU SHOULD BE HAVING THAT PIE-NOG??” “Heard you the first time, Mom; I just don’t feel like talking about it. Tell us a story instead! How did you and Dad celebrate your first holidays together?”

            You can make it clear, without ever staging a direct argument, that you Are Not Going To Discuss This… by making it all about you and what you are and aren’t interested in. You don’t need to make it about her, or about Health, or about anything else except what you do/don’t want to do.

      5. FWIW, I had to do something similar because my mother, who has some serious mental health issues, was just being so negative, pessimistic, and a shitty gossip (and liar) that I needed it to stop.

        “That’s not what happened.”
        “I didn’t say that.”
        “Joan didn’t do that.”
        “Yes, you did say that I deserved X, Y, or Z terrible thing to happen to me.”
        “I can spend time with my in-laws/friends/sister. They live here, too, and I want to see them.”

      6. Do NOT do this, please. Eating disorders aren’t things their sufferers are doing to other people. There are scripts at the NEDA website linked in the OP for how to talk to someone about an eating disorder (privately, gently). Harping on this is going to do no good and a lot of harm.

        The mom is still the boss of what she herself eats and commenting on it cruelly is not good.

      7. Oh my lord, PLEASE do not do this. It’s not only unhelpful, it’s extremely damaging and dangerous. Do not insist on telling people they have eating disorders, and do not bring up eating disorders every time someone is struggling with food. It will not help. You will make it worse. Don’t do this.

    3. Ew no. Stop diagnosising folks. You’re not qualified to do so and even if you are- you’d know better than to diagnose someone you’ve never met.

      Not cool.

      1. Agree, with a caveat.

        Based on the letter, in the LW’s shoes I’d probably be researching disordered eating and looking for scripts for bringing that up with my mom, like, “Have you ever thought you might have an eating disorder?” or “I read this article and it reminded me of you, what do you think?”

        I wouldn’t tell the person they had one, and it’s not okay to diagnose things here and deliver the info as fact.

        1. Maybe, maybe not? Maybe the mom only engages with this a little bit of the time but talks about it a lot with her children, or it gets worse around holidays, or she talks a big talk but doesn’t walk the walk. I know lots of people who are on a special eating plan but only stick to it a very small percentage of the time (which is fine) but talk about it every time the subject of food comes up.

          Point is, you can’t diagnose until you have a good understanding of both the symptoms and pervasiveness of them, along with the medical background to understand and contextualize the information. We internet commentors don’t have that knowledge.

        2. Our society promotes a lot of the symptoms of orthorexia to an extent that a lot of people sound like they might have it on paper. A ton of people are obsessed with eating ‘healthily’ and exercising ‘enough’ (words in quotes because ideas of what counts as of ‘healthy’ or ‘enough’ vary massively from person to person). A lot of those people talk about those things frequently. That doesn’t mean we can diagnose all of them with an eating disorder–plenty of them are just mirroring the kind of talk that the media constantly sprays over all of us.

          Diagnoses should be left to qualified experts who have actually met with the person in question and analyzed their symptoms first-hand. Laypeople close to the person in question can certainly suggest consulting an expert, but that’s not the same thing as being able to make an accurate diagnosis. Strangers on the internet who have never even met the person in question have even less ground to stand on.

          1. I have almost an inverse of this situation in my family! I have a specific eating plan, (which I don’t talk about unless asked, and then only in general terms) but a member of my family is so triggered by my food choices that it’s virtually impossible to have a meal with them. Restaurants are horrific, because in my world, asking the server if the chef can leave out the candied pecans is fine, and in theirs, it makes me the rudest most demanding expletive customer who ever ordered a meal. Heaven help me if I eat a salad, because my vegetables are viewed as a personal attack on their food choices. It’s exhausting.

    4. I’ve had a talk like that with a loved one – though one who only does it to themselves – and it was basically some version of “Honey, you look very thin, like really unhealthy thin. And we never see you eating. Are you sure you eat enough?”

  5. OP, so many sympathies for you – my mom is a registered dietitian, and in her professional life it works out one way. However, you take her very real background and understanding of healthy eating and you add on other issues (in her case relate to religious dietary restrictions and declining to schedule doctor’s appointments because she’s too busy) and the end result is a family visit eating nightmare.

    My best survival technique is to make sure that there is food in the house that I can eat (and won’t offend her), as well as making sure that if I need outside food for a meal that I work as best as possible to coordinate that in a way that will bother her the least. Fast food/take out is never eaten in the house in front of her, because it will signal a sign that she’s not caring for me and open a discussion box that isn’t helpful. Basically, for whatever food memories some people have of going home for the holidays – I’ve just accepted that’s not to be for me. Mine are more often sneaking out of the house on Thanksgiving to find 24 hour fast food spots…..

    The Captain gives amazing advice, but I will add an example about taking the wind out of a conversation topic that I found recently that really worked. Among my mom’s food points of repeat conversation, there are multiple ways she’ll bring it up and one of those ways is as a joke. So, it’ll be presented in the variety of “Oh, I have a funny story for you, Auntie Jane Doe was watching me cook and asked me XYZ? Isn’t that funny? Like I’d ever do XYZ….” This time I told her back that I didn’t find the story very funny. When my mom asked why, I just mentioned that I didn’t find the way that Auntie Jane cooks to be very funny. The whole conversation was fairly flat and unemotional but resulted in taking the steam out of the conversation.

  6. Food is also A Thing, although in a very different way, at my MIL’s house. My strategy has been to always pack a few meal replacement bars in my bag before each visit – usually at least one for each day, just in case. They’re not amazing, but you can eat one quickly while “grabbing a sweater” from your room, or “freshening up” in the bathroom. I know this doesn’t help with your mom’s actual attitude toward food and how that invades your holidays, but hopefully you can at least not be hungry while dealing with her anxieties.

    1. Making sure you have food of your own on hand is a great idea! I recall a visit to a friend of mine, who had some faddy and restrictive ideas around food so that she starved her guests: I packed some shelf-stable, not-messy snacks in my luggage, which I could also throw in my purse – granola bars, trail mix, squeezy pouches of baby-food fruit and veggies. That was enough to keep me from going “hangry” and having a sobbing meltdown or screaming rampage. Small, nonperishable food items can be hidden in your clothes or the depths of your purse.

      Good luck, LW – I feel for you, and my shoulders are going up around my ears in sympathy.

        1. I have been starved by hosts once. It was spring break in college, and I went home with a friend. She was Catholic, I was Catholic, it was Lent, so I was expecting fish Fridays maybe. But nope. They cut down to one vegetarian meal a day, with a little proviso of, “You might not want to fast as much as we do, so there’s cheese and crackers if you want them.” But if I got caught actually eating that stuff, my friend’s siblings would shame me for eating. I would wait for everyone to be elsewhere, dart into the kitchen, and poke around for something, anything, to eat. Polished off an entire package of Oreos I found … but got shamed for that because OMG you ate COOKIES in LENT????

          It was the only time in my life I have ever missed a period from starving so much. It was effing miserable and as you can see, I’m still kinda mad about it. If you fast as a family, warn people when you invite them for a week!

          1. Yikes! That’s the first time I’ve heard about enforced fasting due to Lent! I hope your friend wasn’t malnourished from a childhood of periodic starvation.

            I am always grateful I have grown up in a tradition where guests are always fed very well, if not overfed.

        2. I have been starved by my in laws. I don’t go there any more. Ever.

          They mean well but I can’t visit people who can’t or won’t feed me, and who throw a fit when I try to feed myself. So… people who are bad at feeding guests do this! Oblivious or inconsiderate or both.

          1. True story: it’s an improvement. I haven’t been there in… six years. (Either part could be fixed: they could make an effort, or they could be cool with me feeding myself, but neither? NOPE.)

          2. Not actually starved but the first time I went home with my now-husband for Christmas we ate breakfast and then everyone was busy with prep and it was like 4pm and dinner wasn’t until 6 and we hadn’t eaten lunch and I looked at him and opened my mouth and pointed at it (you know, the universal sign for “feed me!”) and he went “Oh no! We forgot to feed Stephanie!”

            His dad semi-fasts during Advent and skips lunch, and his mom I think was just snacking on the stuff she cooked all day. But I need lunch, yo. It was super embarassing then because I really wanted him to like find me some peanut butter on the DL (hence the faux sign language) and he went and made a big thing about it. But we’ve been married 5 years now and nobody ever forgets to feed me anymore so I guess alls well that ends well.

        3. I’m food adverse, and most of the time when I go to someone’s house they end up starving me without intending to. Even family! I’ve been chased out of the house when family made BBQ one time, forgetting that even the smell makes me horrifically nauseated.

          When it’s not something you have to think about every. single. meal. it is easy to forget, even for folks you care about. Making sure I, as a food adverse person who does think about it for every meal, know I’m going to be able to take care of myself without having to make my hosts feel bad is important to me.

        4. My in-laws don’t intend to starve their guests, but they’re pretty disorganized about getting meals together. I’m talking “Thanksgiving meal is planned for 1 but isn’t actually served until 9pm, after FOUR additional grocery trips” level of disorganized… and if you walk into the kitchen at any point in this process, or try to buy a snack while on one of those grocery runs, they will be hurt and will assure you with total confidence that dinner is only 20 minutes away. Even if the turkey isn’t in the oven yet. It’s simpler just to stock up on granola bars.

      1. Yeah, I used to do this while visiting my parents. They like to eat a light breakfast, skip lunch, and save most of their eating for dinner. I can’t do it. It was also logistically impossible for me to head out and get myself some food. Solution: pack like I’m hiking the Appalachian Trail. Or Pacific Coast Trail, if Mark Sanford ruined “hiking the Appalachian Trail” forever.

        1. When really you’re “supposed” to do the opposite – breakfast should fuel you up, lunch should top you off, and dinner should prevent you from going to bed hungry. I embrace this and give myself permission to fill up in the morning, but my mom often remarks that I eat “twice as much” breakfast as a normal person, and then packpedals and claims she’s not judging me. Clearly it’s significant enough to comment on though!

          1. You’re not “supposed” to eat in any particular pattern, actually. There is no definite answer on how to space out/eat your meals that’s best for a large percentage of the population.
            The evidence pointing to the “right” patterns of eating you’re talking about is not compelling, and mostly based on correlation that is hard to tease out into meaningful advice for people’s dietary choices. Even if you talk about it as “should” you’re still giving weight to something that has been blown way, way out of proportion in its media portrayal. You’re not making a “right” choice; you’re making the right choice for your body and lifestyle. Your mom is not making the “wrong” choice to eat a smaller breakfast (though she certainly shouldn’t judge yours.)

    2. I’m late to the party here, but I just want to add that I, as a self-preservation matter, pretty much *always* carry meal replacement bars (or nuts or something) in my suitcases when I travel, especially when I’m staying at someone’s house. For me this is a combination of 1) weird metabolism that demands breakfast immediately (so many people do not eat breakfast on a regular basis and do not think to provide it for guests), 2) being on meds that mess with my appetite and sometimes make me RAVENOUS at 11:00pm, and 3) having a few relatively minor food restrictions. It reduces a lot of stress on me to carry something with me to have as a back up, because I know I won’t have to be balancing being a bad guest by demanding food at weird times vs. being on the verge of passing out because my blood sugar takes a dip for the worst. My husband now and my mom back in the day also help me out with this, because they know not eating can have serious detrimental effects on my mood/day.

      All of this to say, LW, you do not need to feel like you are “sneaking” food into your mom’s house, and you don’t need to feel guilty about it, and you definitely don’t need to hide it from the other people in the house (siblings, other family, etc.). Sure, you might avoid Mom seeing it so you don’t have to have A Discussion About The Cliff Bar I Ate After Dinner, but there is nothing inherently rude about taking care of your own needs. You carry your own prescription meds, glasses, pjs, and toothpaste when you travel, don’t you? This is just another mental health/home comfort item that you are packing to lessen the burden *on yourself and your hosts.* (Sure, ideally, hosts don’t make you feel like you have to carry your own food, but clearly there are things at work here that make it so that asking for extra food would be a burden on your host, even if it shouldn’t be in an “ideal” world). And if you can get yourself in that mindset, it might be a good response if you are forced into A Discussion About The Cliff Bar I Ate After Dinner with mom when she spots the wrapper. Like, “Mom, I know food can be stressful for you, so I just grabbed a snack on my own so you didn’t have to worry about it. Anyway, tell me what you’ve been up to at work lately?”

      TL;DR: Carrying your own food is a normal, healthy response to traveling to a place where you’re not sure–for whatever reason–that food will be available at all times when you need it. Embrace that and roll with it.

  7. I’ve tried the be boring/respond enthusiastically carrot strategy with my mom, but it doesn’t work very well because she doesn’t seem to notice or care how enthusiastic her interlocutor is, she just carries on talking AT me about whatever.
    So, LW, you know your mom best and if you think she won’t notice you treating “””Health””” talk as boring, you don’t need to stick with it. Or with any other suggestion made here or elsewhere.
    Just like how you don’t have to follow her food restriction do jour 🙂

  8. I’ve had allergies/restrictions all my life that I’ve had to cater too. I stock my home with products that I can consume. If visitors want xyz they are more than welcome to bring it and make it as long as cross contamination doesn’t occur. You’re a grown up. In your 30s. Bring some food of your liking. And make it. You want stuffing with the meal? Make it, serve it, mom doesn’t have to partake. Explain to her that it’s for you and the others and she’s not mandated to eat it! Could you do that? Does it seem too pa?? Would you feel bad about doing that? My other suggestion would be to skip mom this holiday and create your own holiday!!

  9. “(And, OF COURSE, meals are the focal point for my family’s socializing.)”

    Another strategy to consider is changing this. I get during the holidays in particular that family gatherings tend to center on shared meals, but think about moving away from this?

    Arrange to join the family *after* the big meal, or arrive early to socialize and then leave when it’s time to serve up food. Make future food-related events happen outside the home in restaurants, maybe. Maybe your family can develop a set list of minimally acceptable restaurants to rotate among if eating together remains a central thing. That at least cuts out who is bringing what food item and whether it passes your mother’s “health” requirements. Plus, sometimes people perform better in public settings than in private homes in terms of behaviors and conversational topics. And it’s easier to just get the food that works for you from the menu (and pay your check separately) and silently chant “Not my circus, not my monkeys” regarding any other food happenings at the table.

    Have exit strategies thought out in advance. Be prepared to walk away temporarily, or to cut the visit with family short if need be, in addition to changing the topic of conversation. It’s okay to skip the family holidays too, especially as a way to begin to reset.

    And once the crucible of holiday gatherings has cooled off in the new year, think about offering to arrange family gatherings that DON’T center around food and eating together. Maybe in baby steps (activity + meal) over time until eventually food doesn’t even happen together anymore.

    You aren’t going to change your parents. The best you can do is stop joining in the food/health dance as an unwilling participant. You can try to redirect conversations that happen around you. You can reward the behavior you want to encourage and not reward the behavior that you want to stop happening around you. You can try to redirect family activities away from food. You can choose to step away to protect yourself. But you can’t control the choices of other people.

    I feel you on this. My dad has diabetes like pretty much all the adults in his family, except he’s convinced he doesn’t. That he’s managing just fine, and those doctors don’t know what they’re talking about. Unless I report him to Adult Protective Services, there’s not really anything I can do about that. I may be unhappy with his choices and attitudes, but at the end of the day, he’s still a grown-ass adult who gets to make his own decisions about how he wants to live his life. I no longer give him money, though, as I was really unhappy to find out during the medical crisis earlier this year that he was running up new debts. I do buy him groceries and have them delivered so at least I know he has access to food (whether he chooses to eat it or give it away, can’t control that).

    Good luck with the horrors of the season. I hope you are able to get to a new normal in your family that is less stressful for you.

    1. +1 to “have exit strategies thought out in advance.” Your _own_ transportation – whatever that looks like for you – is a game-changer. For me, getting a rental car has always-always-always been worth the financial expense in saved emotional expense.

      1. Even without having needed to actually use it to leave earlier than the rest of the guests, the comfort of knowing I have the choice if I need it is well worth the extra gas to bring a second car to family gatherings rather than riding with the rest of my immediate family. Absolutely seconding the suggestion of being able to escape.

      2. Sometimes these people can sense weakness. Just the fact that you *could* walk out at any time can make all the difference in how they treat you.

    2. Thanks for suggesting minimizing the focus on food, and finding other group activities. .

      A few alternate group activities: games or crafts session; concert, movie, walk, sleigh ride, drive around and view Christmas lights displays, zoo visit, Karaoke. Snacks and/o beverages might be involved, but not the “full meal deal”.

      I also support deciding how much contact, and for how long, works for you. Faced with seeing the same drama-prone folks for Christmas Eve AND Christmas Day dinners, I’m saying that I will be at the Christmas Day one.

      1. Yes! Back in the mid-’90s we somehow developed a family tradition of going to the movies on boxing day (Goldeneye was newly released and Mum thought Pierce Brosnan was a bit foxy, much to Dad’s amused chagrin).
        My parents are both deceased now, but my brother and I make a point to go see some improbable popcorn action flick in December.

        Also, our local Zoo is open EVERY day of the year…

        1. Oh, young Pierce Brosnan! *sigh* Man, 14-year-old me had quite the crush on GoldenEye Bond.

          1. Sigh, I’m old. My crush was on Remington Steele, the real young Brosnan (29 – 34).

    3. Accessible games–things like Jenga or Pick-Up Sticks where it’s not super involved and cerebral (Monopoly can reduce the best of families to squabbling) are good starters.

      1. Can confirm, Jenga is an excellent holiday game. Not only is it good to play in the moment, discussing epic Jenga games of yore turns out to be a really useful conversation-redirector that people tend to jump on without much coaxing!

  10. Just based off my experience with my mother-in-law, who has no food issues but is a truly terrible cook, I recommend bringing food with you. I usually hide a bag of food in our car, things that will last the weekend like granola bars, bagels, fruit in the winter time. Then I will go for a walk or go to let the dog out and grab food from the car. Sometimes I don’t need to use the bag at all, but I feel a lot better going up there knowing I have it.

    1. I’d assume that you were my SIL from this comment. Why is it that people who are such terrible cooks insist on running the kitchen??

    2. I have to do this when visiting my own mother, even though she’s a good cook. She will often delay meals as a way to get more “family time”, and will purposely not have foods for snacking, either. It’s an annoying thing she’s developed to control what/how much we eat and what we do while visiting, ever since I and my siblings moved away. Doesn’t seem to matter to her that I’m diabetic and fucking with when I eat is NOT COOL even if I am overweight(“oh, it won’t kill you to wait another hour” “actually, Mom…”). This is also why I only ever plan to eat one meal at home when visiting, and always make plans to have other meals with friends.

  11. Captain wrote: ” Look at her like she’s grown a third head”

    Because, you know, a second head is perfectly normal.


    1. (snort) I read that as ‘Look at her as though what she said is SO BIZARRE THAT IT HAS GONE BEYOND EVEN THE BIZARRENESS OF SECOND HEAD GROWING AND YOU JUST CAN’T EVEN’. Which I love as a concept.

    2. [somewhat off-topic] When we finally had a candidate for our position which had been open many months I said “they look fine on paper so as long as they don’t have a — no, wait a minute. We’re easygoing; we’d all just get used to a second head. As long as they seem to have integrity and honesty they’re in.”

  12. Dear LW,

    A friend once described the perfect NYC potluck party: everyone brings their favorite delivery menu and orders from it.

    I bring this up to remind you that you don’t have to eat the same stuff as your mother. Possible scripts include:

    – Yes Mom, I am eating this.
    – It’s okay for us to eat different foods.
    – I’m ordering [X type of food] from [Y restaurant]. Would you like anything?
    – This is yummy, thanks.

    Please notice that these scripts don’t comment on her at all.

    On a somewhat different note, for a while my mother would say “My, you look [beat, beat] healthy“. She’d say it when she thought I looked fat. Eventually I told her she wasn’t ever to comment on my weight again, nor was she to use the word “healthy”, and I reminded her of my eating disorder as a teen. She stopped. (She still has opinions, but she only voices the positive ones now.)

    I was in my 30s.

    So, I tell this story to indicate that your mother might change her manner. I believe she won’t change who she is.

  13. I second the advice to eat when you need to or not eat when you don’t want to. I was raised in a home where we ate at specific times, like a family, and where it was rude to eat when others weren’t. But I had gestational diabetes with both my pregnancies and didn’t want to tell people (to avoid unsolicited advice about what I should/shouldn’t be eating). It was a very weird feeling at first to open my purse and pull out some nuts without offering any to others or to go into the fridge and help myself to a slug of juice when i wasn’t an official snack time. But I was doing what I needed to do to regulate my system and tend to my pregnancy. It is not rude to eat when your body is telling you it needs food or to turn down food when you know you aren’t hungry or when it’s not the kind of food for you. It’s weird the first few times you do this, but you can totally get over the “we must eat together and we must all eat the same thing” with just a bit of practice.

    1. Thanks for this comment!

      I think it’s important to keep in mind, nobody’s going to magically fix what’s uncomfortable right now (or magically feed you) if you don’t. Once you decide that it’s okay to take care of yourself, that it’s okay to disturb the universe to take care of yourself, nothing anyone says to you can really stop you from taking care of yourself.

      1. Once you decide that it’s okay to take care of yourself, that it’s okay to disturb the universe to take care of yourself, nothing anyone says to you can really stop you from taking care of yourself.

        I needed to hear this today. I don’t know how to do it, but I needed to hear it.

        1. I needed to hear this too!

          I did this today! I left a 3+ hour live music event this evening after only 30 mins. I was feeling anxious and unsettled and restless. I thought to myself, what is it that I would do right now if I wasn’t “shoulding” on myself (I should stay, my friends bought me a ticket). The answer was – I would leave.

          It’s freeing to just IDENTIFY to yourself what it is that you WANT to do. Many times I’m not able to do that. And if you’re able to ACT on it?? Immediately or the next day or seventeen tries later… and even if you have fallout from other people who have feelings about what you just did – that’s part of it, too. That’s part of changing the universe. And that’s a good thing.

          1. Yes! And even if there are legitimate reasons not to of the thing, it is such a good thing to identify clearly to yourself what it is you want, shaken free of all “shoulds”. THEN you can look at the shoulds and reasons and weigh it accurately against your wants to decide what you’re going to do about it.

    2. Huh. Yeah. I’ve been fortunate not to have many of the problems some people have (even if I have some), but I realised, I do something like this. Like, if people’s plan is “we’ll have a shared meal later”, I’ll usually want something to put me on so I don’t melt down, then help and eat later. If people plan “dinner is ready in literally fifteen minutes”, then I’d rather wait. If the plan is “not really sure and don’t want to think about it yet”, I’ll take an educated guess that we won’t be eating soon.

      But if I’m with people and we MIGHT eat together, I find it hard to get over, “it feels rude to just unilaterally do my own thing without asking other people if they had anything in mind”. But if whenever I ask the answer is still ambiguous, I’m left just as stuck 😦

      1. Ugh, I hate the ambiguous meal schedule. I’m perfectly fine with grabbing myself a snack to tide myself over if it’s going to be a while, but I need to actually know when the group meal is happening. Otherwise I either end up starving, or bolting the remains my snack while everyone bustles about impatiently wondering why I’ve not got my coat on already. Neither is fun.

      2. I have blood sugar issues that mean I can not only get hangry but also have other fun symptoms like feeling light-headed, confused, and/or shaky if I don’t eat when I need to eat. I also travel a lot for work, which can mean I’m not entirely on my own schedule for food. I’ve found a couple of mental tricks come in handy when handling food discussions with groups.

        – Asking about the next meal is often like being the kid asking a question in class – other people also wonder the same thing and are relieved that someone else has asked.
        – I mention my requirements ahead of time, when it’s not a food emergency, so people I’ll be working closely with or traveling a lot with are prepared. I tell them if I ever say I *need* to eat, rather than I’d like to eat or I’m a little hungry, it means I need to eat NOW or bad things will happen. A lot of people get it right away, especially since I’m not the only one like this in my department. At least one person didn’t believe me entirely until he forgot to order lunch for an all-day meeting. He never made that mistake again.
        – I generally check in to see if people need to eat and make time for it even if it’s not a food emergency for me. That way the focus is “eating when people need to eat is important” and not “rawr, all must feed me and despair.” I’ve literally fed one of my mentors breakfast out of my snack drawer because he skipped breakfast that day while visiting the site I work at. He came in the next day with breakfast for himself and a bag of snack bars for me. There’s reasons why we’re friends.

        Sort of a side note, but I’ve also found that if a group is having a tough time deciding where to go eat that the process of elimination works wonders. If there’s a few options proposed, people sometimes can’t or don’t want to pick their favorite, but they can definitely nix their least favorite option, then let someone else nix their least favorite of the remaining, until only one remains.

        1. This is great advice. When I hit that “food emergency” point, I don’t melt down, I shut down…which makes it nearly impossible for me to express my needs! (By shut down, I mean something that I think might be similar to yours–I get shaky, I zone out and have trouble focusing/processing what people are saying to me, I have a harder time making the words go so I get very quiet)

          I’ve gotten a little better at advocating for myself in that sweet spot of “I can tell it’s coming but I haven’t shut down quite yet,” but giving people lots of advance warning and a sort of code word (need vs. want/like) is a fantastic idea. I’m going to use it!

  14. This is also my mom, so I very much appreciate this advice. My mother LOOOOVES shaming everyone around us for the type/amount of food they eat while patting herself on the back for being so healthy (this is one of many facets her narcissism comes through). And she is also, oddly, super pre-occupied by strangers thinking she is poor and that that’s the reason why she and my Dad share meals when they go out. The food obsession is repetitive and exhausting. Like, I have to take breaks to get away from her after she tells me how much grams of sugar she didn’t eat that day or when we are out and I say “I am just not that interested in what other people eat” for the 16th time.

    The subject change + lots of breaks (even if it’s to the bathroom for 5 minutes to text my friends about how awful this is) has been my best friend. But just know that THIS IS EXHAUSTING. Constantly setting boundaries is exhausting. Having to stay aware and mindful of your behavior and response, is exhausting. Self-soothing when you’re activated is exhausting. It’s totally ok to want a break and like CA said, go hang out with a friend or “a friend” at your local favorite eatery to just to ingest food without a recitation of the caloric count first. And when you get back from the holidays, if you feel really drained and are able to take some time to recuperate, do it.

    1. Such good advice. It is really exhausting to simultaneously have to defend boundaries, and also monitor your expressions and reactions so that you don’t engage them even more, or get drawn into an argument.

      I’m already planning my Christmas survival plan.

      1. thetigerhasspoken & kitty, I also feel for the LW & the exhaustion of constant boundary maintenance with Mother.
        LW, my Mother has some similar & varied issues as you describe. Two of my siblings are virtually estranged from her & I try to maintain a semblance of relationship whilst protecting myself. It involves a lot of non reaction, internalising & empathy. A follow up debrief with a team me person is so important after we’ve interacted. Also, remembering it’s really not about me at all & only she can find her content place.
        When she’s particularly nasty or hurtful, I try to imagine what a horrible place she must inhabit inside her own head. I don’t want to be estranged, for my own reasons, but I’ve given myself permission to feel really disappointed & cheated by what I know I’ll never get from her.
        Good luck with Christmas & I hope you find a comfortable place for yourself in this.

      1. Yeah, I love the idea of pie-nog. One of my favorite comic books, many many years ago, mentioned a fictional extremely alcoholic beverage Oatnog. I’ve wanted to try making oatnog for about 18 years now.

  15. This past holiday, when the conversation seemed like it would veer into FAMILY AWKWARD NOPE territory, I pulled out some funny cartoons on YouTube (Simon’s Cat) as a distraction. It worked pretty well … my family members are all cat enthusiasts who view cat antics with the same amused exasperation, so we all got a laugh and enjoyed our pie. Not sure if that’s a tactic that could be applied here, but if you can find something similar as a fun distraction, it might distract from the food-policing.

      1. Okay I am adding Fiona the Baby Hippo to Cody the Teeny Tiny Alpaca. I had never heard of Fiona and I live in Ohio. So cute.

        And yes finding something cute or funny to derail the OMG that stuff again talk is a really good idea.

        1. There’s a VERY short video clip (probably on YouTube) of a baby panda sneezing and the momma panda startling that is funny. However, the setting is “bleak zoo” so if you’ve got animal rights people, it could get awkward.

          1. The setting of that video does scream “bleak zoo”–but just for a little more context, that’s the birthing room for the pandas at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., who have a generally very nice outdoor exhibit space. Mama panda can come and go from that room anytime for a break, but it’s where the babies are born and live the first couple months of their lives. It’s small and sparse to feel safe to the pandas, and to minimize disease transmission. The pandas in question are as happy as captive pandas can be 🙂

    1. I have a shelf full of board games I don’t pull out often enough and I might take some to my family’s holiday get-together because otherwise someone might start talking about politics and I Don’t Do Politics currently. We actually all agree about politics, but talking about it too much upsets me and my mother can’t seem to stop herself.

  16. Ohhh mums and food. The killer combination. My mum is forever attempting to engage with me on the same level as the Captain said, that body hating and hand wringing over carbs if some kind of rite of passage between mothers and daughters so I feel you there.

    Something I found that helped both her and me was firstly flat out refusing to engage in it, but also complimenting my mother, not on her weight or body shape, but on other things. When she’d start up I’d just say ‘Well I think you look beautiful, and it makes me really happy that I look so much like you.’ and ‘I love how you’ve redecorated in this room since I was last here, tell me in minute detail about every decision and let me nod along enthusiastically even though I don’t particularly care’ and similar things.

    It might not work the same for everyone, but for us it was kind of a sucker-punch in the love department. I realised that actually my mum doesn’t hear these things from anyone really, not even my dad, and I think that sometimes weight control can be an older woman’s way of waving their hands in the air to feel seen again, because society sucks and is only appreciative of older women when measuring how well they chalk up to being compared visually to a twenty-five year old.

    Again, I don’t think this would work for everyone, but I realised that I could halt a lot of the body hating and food policing talk with my own mum by just batting back with a shower of verbal love.

    1. That is really awesome 🙂 this approach would probably work for the dynamic I have with my mom and her food/diet/weight talk, when I have the strength for it. Thanks for the very sweet idea, Belle.

      My mom has always been vocal about both how much she dislikes parts of her body, and how much I look like her. So I really love the idea of turning that around on her. 🙂

  17. My mother in law has food obsessions and serious restrictions that I think are about her anxiety vs anything else. She treats food as something scary to be suspicious of, any meal we’ve ever eaten in her company includes a lot of her complaining and obsessing out loud about about it. She lives on the same five food items daily and will not deviate. It was a real puzzle to me re how to relate to that.

    I followed CA”s strategies re not pushing or engaging with obsessive talk. I stopped get drawn into anxious talk and made it boring for mother in law to keep cycling through work out monologues. I also realised that it is a kindness to stop trying to get her to enjoy eating. As a family we don’t push her yo try new foods, to let us cook for her, if we eat out, we let her pick the restaurant. She has a real panic about foods she isn’t familiar with so I try to let her see the menu ahead of time and when she fussed over the details with the waiter, I keep calm and let her do it.

    Any pressure to try a food or cajoling means she shuts down and is more restrictive and anxious next time.

    Eating together needs to be as low stakes as possible and we all work at being super chilled out about it. The trade off is limiting our family meals and finding non food stuff to do.

    It has got better. My mother in law has a health obsession that involved some risky behaviour around meds and lots of injuries involving hospital. We have a lot less peace about that, seeing her neglect her health and make herself physically ill is tough. I’m determined to be a quiet non judgmental port of call, whilst not enabling. The few moments where I had to reflect her choices back to her were scary, she was mad at me. But she gets over it because I am here to be present with her and love her as much as I can, I am not a critic. She will sometimes relax a little at mealtimes and that is encouraging that she feels safe enough.

    1. This is a beautifully empathetic comment and strategy. You’re doing a wonderful thing by keeping a long-term macro view of your entire relationship with her rather than focusing on just the frustrations around food.

  18. This letter truly resonated with me, thank you for bringing up this topic. I’ve been working through the more family-orientated exercises of Unplug the Christmas Machine, and there wasn’t too much of a mention of food/diet-shaming in the holidays (although there ARE tons of great examples of other issues that come up). I highly recommend this book for anyone struggling with family dynamics around the holidays, and thank you Captain for some scripts on this topic.

    I tell you friends, I’m going to enjoy my full-fat, whipped-cream in the filling, butter in the crust, traditional, just-like-Grandma-used-to-make, homemade pumpkin pie! The secret is to add roasted butter-nut squash to get the colour and creamy texture! I made it from scratch this year, and it will be absolutely divine. Just real sugar, real fat, and real-self for the win! In moderation of course, but definitely my favourite Christmas treat. If “they” don’t want any, “they” don’t have to have any, and I certainly don’t have to listen to the ridicule either. Scripts for the win!

    1. Have you ever tried a pumpkin pie recipe with sweet potato instead of pumpkin. It’s unbelievably good!

      1. Sweet potato pie is amazing. I made Stella Parks’ recipe (on Serious Eats) last year and it was the best. thing. ever.

      2. If you’re going to do that, for heaven’s sake tell people it’s sweet potato pie! I’m sure you’re fine about it, but years ago we had a situation where my grandmother made sweet potato pie, told us it was pumpkin, we ate it to be polite (none of us like sweet potatoes) and then had a a heck of a time convincing her in later conversations that no we did not like sweet potato pie and yes we could tell the difference.

        Of course sweet potato pie is a perfectly good dessert for people who like it!

    2. I love how this thread is turning into a recipe-exchange, and now sharing horror-stories of failed desserts. My failed dessert story – not cooking my pie long enough so it was stringy and gross in the middle, and polite people were like… it’s gooooooddddd… until I tried and was like “Hey guys, you don’t have to eat this.” I never heard the end of THAT one. ha ha

  19. Another script for the blowup might be: “Wow, that reaction seems really unnecessary. Let’s agree that I’ll eat what I eat and I’ll deal with the consequences.”

    1. Another script for the blowup might be: ‘Wow, that reaction seems really unnecessary.'”

      This is now my go-to, all purpose shut down for all snide & snarky comments emanating from my obnoxiously passive aggressive in laws’ face!

  20. Good thing your siblings feel the same. Chat with them about Captains advice and work out how to implement it. Or change topics back each other in these by prolonging convo on set topic. Eg hows work describe great length ie projects then really hate the new govt regulation on X which means A B C then sucking says either yeah and go on or thankfully don’t have that but have this and describe in great detail. Offer to go with or suggest to go somewhere do something if your mum rants or blows up.

  21. This could have been a story about my sister’s relationship with food. Every time we see her (we live about 5 hours away), there is some new restriction or addition she is obsessed with. She will call me periodically to tell me if I just cut X out of my diet, I wouldn’t have my chronic illness (which has nothing to do with diet).

    It’s exhausting. The worst was when we, as an extended family, was trying to work out Thanksgiving this year and every idea anyone had was shot down by my sister. Finally, my mother said, in as frustrated a tone as she’s had since we were toddlers, “Why do you care? YOU aren’t going to eat any of it anyway!” Frankly, that outburst was rather liberating to all of us even though my sister was huffy about it for the rest of the evening.

    I’ve got nothing more than the Captain. Take care of you.

    1. I have instituted a rule where the pickiest eater/person has to pick out the restaurant. I don’t want to inadvertently poison someone, and if you have dietary restrictions they are your thing to manage.

      1. “I have instituted a rule where the pickiest eater/person has to pick out the restaurant.” I’ve pretty much done this for restaurants and ordering (if the person enjoys sharing food, which I do) for years and it saves so much trouble, and led to my favorite random restaurant compliment, which was Very Picky Eater Friend thanking me for being so accommodating and non-judgmental about her ordering choices when I suggested she pick both orders so we could share and I would be 100% fine with them because everything looked good to me. She as some textural issues that mean she doesn’t eat most vegetables and, appallingly, apparently lots and lots of people give her shit over it. 😦 It really almost made me cry.

        (On the opposite end of the spectrum, with my “will hem and haw indecisively about every choice for ages until we are alllllll HANGRY” mom, things run much more smoothly since I step in with a decisive restaurant choice answer after only a minute or two of hemming over it – at that point I know what her top three choices are and the reality is, she’s happy with any of them as long as she doesn’t have to be The Decider!)

      2. This rule is theoretically fine until they pick the nastiest, most boring/bland restaurant (or a buffet where other diners don’t practice appropriate hygiene). And then everyone except Grandma is miserable.

        1. Dude, my first thought was, “Well, that’s great as long as they don’t pick Golden Corral” and then I saw your reply and I lol’d. There is only one restaurant that has been sued 15 times for salmonella outbreaks, let’s please just choose literally anything else!

          1. So seriously, whenever my husband’s grandparents pick a place, it’s ALWAYS OCB. ALWAYS. It doesn’t even LOOK clean, FFS.

        2. Yeah, this has potential unintended consequences–I have a friend who’s really really particular about their food, and at first I was like “I’ll eat anything, so you decide,” but that meant going to Chili’s or Outback Steakhouse every time. Which would have been fine if we’d been ‘get together for dinner once a quarter!’ friends, but we were ‘get together for dinner once a week!’ friends, and I found myself not suggesting dinner purely because Chili’s and Outback get boring once a week. She could eat other places, with adjustments, but given her druthers she would eat at Chili’s ever night. So I started saying “hey, I’m thinking of Thai or Mexican tonight, want to join?” and she could say yes or no per her preferences, and I didn’t feel like I was doing to perish of Chili’s overdose or terminal Bloomin’ Onion fatigue.

      3. Yep, as a vegan with extra food intolerances on top of that, I usually bring my own food to events or eat beforehand to make it easier. In terms of restaurants, my friends are pretty accommodating going to vegan or vegetarian places.

        Sometimes they want to go to a place that’s not so vegan friendly though and would sometimes not invite me. So I asked them please invite me anyway to wherever you want to go and I’ll look up the menu to see what/if I can eat. I don’t wanna make them go to my favourite vegan and onion/garlic free restaurant every time! Though they do like the food lol.

      4. As the pickiest person in every social group I ever run across, I can find something anywhere except one or two particular types of food, and it feels like a lot of labor to be the one to pick the place every single time. It’s especially frustrating with my roommate, who knows I can eat pretty much anywhere, to have to pick the place every time.

        If you’ve got a group where the pickiest person isn’t always the same one, this is an awesome technique. In my social circles I would always pick every time, and that would not be happy for anyone.

        Something that has worked well for me is to make a list of places people come up with off the top of their heads, and then everyone gets to remove one. Pretty quickly you’re down to just a couple of places and can make an easier decision.

        1. YMMV may vary, but it works for me. In my immediate circle I have:
          Two vegans
          Two people who don’t eat pork
          One person allergic to celery, carrots, and something else that I can’t remember offhand but is related to celery and carrots
          One person who hates mushrooms
          One person who has celiac and also can’t eat soy or dairy
          One person who is just a super picky eater and whose preferred food is a variation of pizza and/or a plain hamburger with fries

          It runs the gamut from “I don’t prefer this food” to “I don’t eat this food for religious reasons” to “this food will put me in the hospital with a severe reaction.” I don’t want to be responsible for someone else getting sick, and it’s not my job to manage someone else’s food restrictions and/or dietary requirements.

          If you can find something to eat almost anywhere, it seems like a non-issue for you, yes?

        2. it feels like there’s a disconnect here, maybe between different meanings of “picky.” I have a friend who describes his own dietary preferences as “boring.” He can look “picky” in the sense that he’d reject 90% of what’s on most menus, but he isn’t “picky” for these purposes because he he isn’t picky about where we eat. He can find something he’ll be happy with in almost any restaurant, as long as his companions aren’t rude about him ordering boring food and not wanting to share.

          The person I’d say “okay, you pick” to would be the one who kept saying “no, we can’t go there, because…” without making suggestions. If I can eat at 90% of the local restaurants and someone else can only eat at five percent, it makes sense for me to ask them to pick “anywhere that I can get something that isn’t spicy.” It’s possible we’ll discover that there are exactly no restaurants that work for both of us, which would be unfortunate, but if so, once we know that we can agree to eat separately and meet up again afterwards.

  22. I love this advice so much. I particularly agree with the part about making sure YOU will have enough to eat, however that needs to happen. I am a huge advocate of having a bunch of food in my suitcase, and of “Going out on a quick errand” that involves also stopping for something to eat. I can deal with stuff a lot better if I’m not trying to do it on an empty stomach.

  23. Perhaps some books on eating disorders that are aimed at family members could help?
    I can’t imagine anything more boring than someone droning on and on and on about calories and diet. Actually, I can imagine it, I once worked with a group of women who did this constantly.
    I like the “Eyes on your own plate, Mom” suggestion. Keep talking over her head to other people at the table, failing to respond to any of her statements about food. Harsh perhaps, but eventually she may get the message.

  24. The part about parents externalizing their anxieties sounds familiar to me. My parents are like this (the specific issues are different but the dynamic is similar), and it often manifests as projecting their problems onto me, and being a bit controlling over decisions that, as an adult, are mine to make.

    LW: However you deal with this, may I suggest this mantra (which I use for myself): “I am a grown-up. My relationship with my mother is now grown-up-to-grown-up. I am allowed to have boundaries, and engage or not engage as I see fit.”

    And about the direct confrontation approach: you might be surprised at how well this works. Obviously I don’t know your mom, but most people respond pretty well to a firm but calm reminder that they’re not the boss of you, or requests to respect your boundaries. And if she blows up — well, that sucks and I’m sorry, but at the very least you acted like the grown-up you are. But I think talking about things directly is a good way to avoid blow-ups, in general, for most people (results may vary).

    P.S. Thank you, Captain, for alerting me to the existence of pie-nog.

    1. “And if she blows up — well, that sucks and I’m sorry, but at the very least you acted like the grown-up you are.”

      Also remember–you’re not going to get perfect results right away. It may take several blowups, but it’s likely that the intensity will drop off over time. And eventually, “that’s just how you are.”

      (in fact, say that: “Sorry, mom, that’s just how I am.” Listen, if it works for annoying people, it ought to work for us!)

      1. Sort of like sleep training an infant. It usually takes several consecutive nights, but their outbursts are briefer and eventfully stop.

    2. I would love to be able to pull that off with my mum, and get her to understand when a thing is my choice to make and to back off. But unfortunately through years of experience I know that she almost never admits wrongdoing or fault. I am not great at keeping chill when engaging in these conversations either, so they would usually spiral down into massive draining arguments where she would just deflect any responsibility for her behaviour and project blame onto me.

      So after a year of therapy, I’ve found a strategy that works better for me is just to not engage at all. If I just grey rock and give bland, non-committal answers, I can’t get drawn into an argument that leaves me trapped in an angry thought spiral after the interaction.

      And if she decides to throw a tantrum at my lack of reaction, I can simply hang up or leave, without feeling any regret or annoyance about something I’ve said or done. Then I get to switch to something I enjoy, without having to let her continue to rampage around in my head. 🙂

  25. This is great advice CA!!!! I’m printing and putting in my pocket for all of the many visits with friends and family this month to pull out as needed.

  26. “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.”

    Just a note that if the LW uses this script, she should suggest a (registered) dietitian, not a nutritionist. In the US and Canada at least, “dietitian” is a regulated title, with professional standards and educational requirements. “Nutritionist” varies, but in some places anyone can all themselves a nutritionist, including people who will push the exact same pseudoscientific crap or worse.

    I’m sure there are great, well trained nutritionists out there, but I can imagine LW’s mom seeing a bad one and then using that as further justification to talk at the LW about this stuff all the time, because she followed LW’s advice and the nutritionist confirmed her biases.

    1. As Dara O’Briain puts it, a dietician is to a nutritrionist as a dentist is to a toothyologist.

      1. And I say that as someone who is currently paying a nutritionist to help me with my food choices (I compete in a sport where weight classes are a thing). Completely respect her field of expertise but it’s not the same as a dietician’s.

  27. Direct is a kindness, in my experience. When someone is being indirect, I think, “How bad did I piss this person off? How long have they been pissed off with me?” With directness, I know precisely what I did wrong.

  28. One of my grandmothers used to have ridiculous controlling behaviours around food and weight. I never lived with her but found it so unbelievably stressful too eat at her house much less to stay there for a week or something (as I sometimes did). I can only imagine what it must have be like to have that constantly from your main attachment figure and role model. My heart goes out to you. I felt incredibly stressed whenever I had to eat with her and whenever she tried to check on my weight (eg by pinching my waist/back/hip a little when she’d come to hug me). She was hard to distract and it was almost impossible to change the subject but once I became an adult, I was able to take solace in the fact that she could not actually force me to eat or prevent me from eating anymore.

    As many people suggested, as an older teen and adult I’d go out to eat or keep a stash of non-perishables somewhere when I went to stay with her. Also the whole “my doctor says” thing (or my “doctor” says) can go both ways: “my doctor recommends that I [snack between meals], [eat more/less of X food], [stay away from diet talk because it’s bad for my anxiety], [eat if I’m hungry and not when I’m not].” My grandmother actually stopped bothering me when I told her my doctor said to eat more avocados. My doctor never said any such thing but I like avocados and I was extremely sick of hearing how fattening they are! If you’re supposed to listen to what her “doctor” says, she can listen to what your “doctor” says.

    1. My grandmother was the same way. I’d go visit, and the first thing out of her mouth was, “Haven’t you lost any weight?” and the second thing was, “Here”–handing me a piece of pie–“Eat. Eat!”

      1. My mother bases her assumptions about my eating habits (which she is sure are Totally Unhealthy And Piggy, because otherwise there is no possible way I could be fatter than her) on what she sees when I visit her. Which is at holidays, when she is cooking All The Traditional Rich Foods and pressing extra servings on me.

        1. Are you me? My mother vacillates between believing I’m malnourished and don’t eat nearly enough and believing I’m eating ALL THE (bad) THINGS ALL THE TIME because I only ever see her a) in the summer, when it’s hot and I don’t eat as much or b) at the holidays.

          1. Yup. Actually going to be rithlessly mining the Cap’s suggestions and links for my mum, not for me, but because we’re in this weird generational thing— my mother has always, always been ashamed of my fatness, even when I was a size [redacted, but generally considered “skinny”, even in New York/ L.A./ wealthy suburbs of Chicago], and now that I gained [weight redacted] because of a set of health issues that damn near killed me over several years, and I am slowly, healthily, and with white-knuckle discipline losing that weight, she is always, always commenting on that in front of my ass-kicking, beautiful, fierce daughter, who is healthy but has a higher-than-preferred BMI, and it makes my daughter feel HORRIBLE to hear how far I have to go and how I should be proud of myself, when I weight less than daughter does, and worse when I stand up to her well-meant, but painful, running commentary.

            Ugh! The things society tells women to keep them ashamed and “in their place” and too hungry to take care of themselves and make change!

  29. Just wanted to second (third) the Captain’s point that we can observe *traits and patterns* in people without diagnosing. Meaning, LW’s mom is showing signs of what is considered a “disordered eating” pattern of behavior. If LW’s mom were to see a therapist or doctor about her disordered eating, they may give her a formal diagnosis; however, we cannot do that over the internet and it actually doesn’t matter. The point is that the behaviors are already problematic, and having words to describe this pattern and understand what she (LW) is observing could be really helpful to her (LW).

  30. LW, I think your ability to help your mom around this issue is limited, and your ability to help her during a holiday visit with all the pressure and expectations in play is pretty much nonexistent. I’m sorry. But you can help yourself.

    For me, it’s been useful to take my own food needs very seriously. I don’t put myself in situations where I won’t be able to eat for a long time anymore. So that might mean visiting for a day or less, or staying somewhere other than your parents’ house. You don’t owe it to them to do what they want. You can do what works for you.

  31. Diet/nutrition especially is one area where so many people think They And Only They know the Truth! So you get people absolutely totally convinced that A is the healthiest/best way to do things, and B is fake crap. And also people totally convinced of the opposite. Just telling someone “this thing you fully believe is pseudoscience” is particularly unlikely to work in this area where there are So Many Opinions, and people will act not just as though “their” truth is obvious, but that you must be a huge idiot if you believe something else.

    I get that it’s worrying when you are *sure* you know that what another person is doing is disordered/pseudoscience/etc. But, I have also seen people accused of having eating disorders when they didn’t, so I’d be really careful with assuming you know best. You might! But this stuff is seriously as fraught as religion at times where people think their strength of belief should mean it’s OK to push on other people because they are So Wrong It Hurts…and it generally does not end well. Even if you are totally correct, your surety of being correct is unlikely to change your mom especially when her doctor and her are both as “sure” as you are of something else being correct. She’ll choose what she likes best, in my experience.

    1. A lot of it actually has to do with tribal identity. People she respects and looks up to eat this way, so she wants to also eat that way. I’ve found with online communities, it tends to get more and more extreme as members add more and more things to the list of “stuff our group eats/doesn’t eat.” People get a sense of belonging, plus a feeling of being in the know, and superior to anyone eating the standard American diet.

      People do fad diets for a lot of the same reasons they believe in fake news or conspiracy theories. It’s a powerful temptation to go along with the special crowd that’s in the know. And it’s immune to reason. I never argue with someone who is into this sort of thing. They didn’t reason themselves into their beliefs and reason isn’t going to lead them out. You just have to respect where they are with it and let it go.

  32. My mother is one of those people who is not dissuaded by lack of enthusiasm from her listeners when she’s on and on (and on and on) about food and diet stuff. I have to actively say something to stop it. My most successful go-to script when my mother starts in on the topic:

    “Sorry mum, but I’m taking a long break from conversations about food and weight. You’ll need to discuss it with someone else. Thanks for understanding. Let’s talk about [topic] instead. How’s your [topic-related whatever]?”

    For her particular personality it strikes the perfect balance. It’s firm and non-negotiable, but it’s also gentle and doesn’t blame or censure her for bringing it up in the first place.

    Note: this is *after* I spent about 10 years fighting with her to explain that she did not get to tell me what was wrong with my body, my diet, my exercise regime, and so on “for my own good because she loves me.” Those were hard battles to fight, and when I eventually succeeded with that, I was disheartened that she replaced it with talk about all the same topics, just not directed overtly at me. Basically she thought she could still get away with it as long as she talked about it “in a general sense” without making specific connections to my behavior. This script is, thankfully, successful at shutting that bullshit down.

    1. Ughh, yes trying to sneak it in as “general” talk and soooo not directed at you, not at all.
      My mum tried this too, taking about a diet my cousin was on, and I tried to shut that down with the fact that I don’t want to talk about or listen to diet talk, whether or not it’s about me personally, but she still didn’t understand that I should have a say in what topics we discuss. She thinks that because she wants to talk about something, she has the right to talk about it, regardless of whether I want to listen to it.

      1. Ugh, this.

        Does she ever make your boundaries into a joke? Like “Haha, can you believe she doesn’t want to talk about food? How silly! Food talk food talk food talk”

        Because that’s a thing I’ve experienced.

  33. The official term for this type of disorder is “orthorexia”. Just like someone who is an orthodox religion, it can be very strict, very punitive, very detailed… and very boring. Much like anorexia, it can rule someone’s life, although not to death. People can just get consumed and obsessive. But make no mistake, it is an eating disorder. Look up “orthorexia” and you’ll find much more info on how to deal with it personally and in family situations. Best of luck.

    1. I’m not sure that it’s really a good idea to make this comparison, or to describe Orthodox religions in this way.

      1. You’re right and I’m sorry. The religion thing wasn’t kind. Any better similes, I’m happy to listen. Thanks for pointing it out. I must admit, I am prejudiced against controlling, rigid religions, having grown up in one. But that’s my deal to deal with, and I don’t need to condemn it and waft my prejudice out into the world.

        1. I’m ex-evangelical, so I get it. (Being an atheist is so damn feeing, LET ME TELL YOU.)

    2. Yes, ortho is a Greek prefix that doesn’t mean boring or strict, but more like right or correct. That comparison may work for you, but it’s not very kind, is it?

      1. Yeah, “Ortho” as a prefix for something usually just means that it’s a system with defined boundaries or parameters (and helping someone/thing) stay within or be readjusted to conform to those boundaries, such that there’s a clear answer as to whether something is or isn’t correct within the existing framework.

        Hence: orthopedics (the fixing of your skeletal system to conform to kinesthetic best parameters); orthodox religions (religions that are predicated at least partially on the belief that there exists a set of correct, defined parameters for best moral and religious behaviors that is at least partially known); orthochromatic (a picture replicating the colors in the real-world scene–or that is “correct” using the defined, finite parameters of the original scene’s appearance).

        Orthorexia, then, would be relating to food starting from a belief that there is a defined, static set of “correct” things to eat. While this is somewhat similar to orthodox religions in the sense that it assumes the existence of “right” and “wrong” behaviors, because of the context-specific definition, it’s presupposing *unreasonable* judgments about “right” and “wrong” things to eat (not “that arsenic is poisonous,” but “bananas give you cancer”). Orthodox religion isn’t defined as making unreasonable moral judgments or requiring unreasonable ritual, though in the extremes it definitely does; it includes the extremes but isn’t limited to them. Orthorexia, however, excludes the reasonable judgments about what not to eat (arsenic, so much ice cream you puke) and only includes the extreme.

        And, there’s a meaningful difference in why that is. With orthorexia–unreasonable focus and beliefs about “correctness” of foods–there is actually an objective way to measure whether a belief about food is reasonable and based at least somewhat in reality. “Do people die when they eat arsenic? Yes? Okay, don’t eat arsenic is a reasonable rule. Do any studies show that bananas are even moderately correlated with cancer? None at all? That one is probably unreasonable.” With something like “what does God like,” there isn’t an objective way to evaluate that. Muslims will have different thoughts on that than Buddhists do, and in that sense all religions are either equally reasonable or unreasonable-orthodox or not, and one person’s spiritually meaningful orthodoxy will appear oppressive and unreasonable to someone who doesn’t agree that God likes that set of things.

  34. Unrelatedly… Pie-nog? I want pie-nog now. Eggnog + pumpkin or eggnog + apple pie or eggnog + or something. Nog pie?

    1. I just made a Pie-nog. It’s basically an eggnog custard baked in a pie crust. And it’s delicious.

      1. Ooh, I would like that. I’ve put eggnog in pumpkin pie before and it was good, but that would be better.

        1. I developed a recipe for horchata pie, based on a dream, and make a series of cocktails based upon the baked goods in Robin McKinley’s _Sunshine_, as well as the “Nipples of Venus” mentioned in _Amadeus_. Nog-pie and pie-nog… thanks for my next projects!

          1. DropTable~DropsMic , I angered the gods of the Internet and managed to eat my own comment, but how *I* made horchata pie was to adapt the coconut creme/ Key lime pie custard recipe that uses sweetened, condensed milk and egg yolks, by dropping the lime/ coconut and adding a great deal of cinnamon and high-grade vanilla, BUT that other, better cooks than I have developed recipes for it, including the illustrious Evan Kleiman, if you’d like to Google. I also think a very cinnamon-y tembleque would work.

          2. Um 100% would eat *everything* in “Sunshine”, x2 for cocktail form, link me to this amazingness if such a thing exists online?

            (also want a “Sunshine” sequel SO BAD).

  35. LW, you mention that you think your mother should see a therapist. I just wanted to tell you that you too can see a therapist if you want. You don’t have to wait until your mother gets better/worse or until you get even more anxiety around holidays to book a meeting with a therapist, that’s not how therapists work. Generally they work the best if the person interesting in therapy is also the person going to therapy.

    As for the holidays, I agree with the tips about finding new activities and plan for you to get food. You can suggest a potluck or that you take turns cooking, that way you can make sure that you have something to eat. With a non-food activity, such as a tv series marathon or a walk in the woods, to gather around it’s easier to keep the talking focused on non-food things. What would you do in (character’s) situation? Look, a bird!

    Of course, another solution is to spend time with family on other times of the year, and spend the holiday with people who don’t make you anxious. Maybe you can have that tv marathon or walk all by yourself?

  36. LW, I am going to give you some practical advice here. My MIL is a lovely person. She, however, has some, er, unorthodox ideas about food safety. (Some memorable quotes: “yogurt never expires” / “sour cream doesn’t go bad, it just gets more sour” / “they put expiration dates on milk to trick you into spending more money”. I will never, ever forget finding a box of Stove Top that was over 10 years old in her cabinet. On top of this, my husband’s grandmother is the self-appointed Family Cook. She’s a truly awful cook who doesn’t like food with any kind of flavor and burns everything. The spiciest thing she cooks with is Cream of Mushroom soup from Campbell’s.

    After getting sick more than once, and unsuccessfully trying to start new family traditions centered around going out and getting out of the house (so as to avoid the old ass, bland food), we started planning to be out of the house around meal times as much as possible. It was an Issue at first, and trying to change the narrative from being centered around Nana’s cooking (and Temperance’s constant food poisoning) was really freaking awkward at first.

    Can you get your sibs and go out to lunch/dinner/a movie, avoiding your mother’s food policing and your father’s enabling behavior? It’s Sister/Brother bonding time, and how can they object to that?! As an aside, LW, if your mother is the type who is both a control freak about food and super weird about being the Center of Family Attention, she might try and guilt you for spending time with your siblings during meals instead of her. I don’t have a great answer for this, because, well, I chose to prioritize my sister and her kids over my mother and I don’t feel guilty any longer.

      1. Booth has a dog stomach. I also think it wasn’t quite so bad back then, because he has 2 siblings, and kids can eat a lot. So they were going through more food.

      2. Frighteningly, Mrs. Booth (not Tempe) is not alone in her beliefs. I know this because of my learnings, and also because I have watched several seasons of the Worst Cooks in America and have heard many people say such things.

        1. I worked with a woman who had to live with her ILs for a year (shivers). Her MIL used to check the trash can for anything that could still be used and would pull it out … including a mostly-eaten yogurt cup (that was expired, and had made my coworker sick). Her MIL actually ran around the house, shrieking that her grandchildren were “wasting food!” and she was going to make one of the little guys eat it before her husband interfered.

          BTW, they were actually a well-off family and hadn’t grown up poor.

          1. My grandma made white sauce out of the rotten eggs served & refused at breakfast & reserved it to her eldest son’s inlaws on their first meeting. She poured it over their meals so it wouldn’t go to waste.
            I’ll never recover from green beef mince & broccoli pizzas 🤢

          2. At my BF’s mom’s, we once found a box of Jell-O so old it didn’t even have an expiration date, and when we googled the history of Jello’s labels, IIRC we concluded it might have actually been from the FIFTIES. It went into the trash.

  37. This is from a webpage on orthorexia:

    “Orthorexia appears to be motivated by health, but there are underlying motivations, which can include safety from poor health, compulsion for complete control, escape from fears, wanting to be thin, improving self-esteem, searching for spirituality through food, and using food to create an identity.”

    Note that I’m not diagnosing Mother with orthorexia. I am suggesting that LW can find some of the information about it useful. No different from not diagnosing a friend with depression but still benefiting from info on how to help a friend with depression.

    In addition to changing the subject when Mother gets obsessed, it can be helpful to change the subject in ways that address a probable underlying problem. Mother’s self-esteem is low? So you slyly mention something she’s done well and has reason to be proud of. “The decorations look wonderful. I hope you’re as pleased with them as I am! Mother lacks spirituality? You put on some music from a faith tradition that you find inspirational, then ask if you might all attend a gathering with others who share the same (non-dogmatic, non-judgmental, possibly non-deity centered) faith. Mother lacks identity? No one can provide her with one ready-made, but you can mentions things about her that are unique, positive, and not food related.

    Mostly I try to remember that these people are hurting. They wouldn’t be trying to cure something if they didn’t feel sick, and while I would never suggest that Child is capable of curing Mother over a holiday visit, and while I would never suggest that sympathy can make someone feel better, coming from a place of sympathy does a lot to help me deal with behavior that’s otherwise obnoxious and maddening. (Compare it to thinking someone is keeping me up all night with loud noises because they want to to knowing that someone is up all night coughing because they have the flu. If I start out sympathetic to anyone who’s sick with the flu, I deal with coughing better.)

  38. My inlaws are weird about food, but more in the “take three hours to decide what to eat for dinner because we need to play some kind of murder mystery game to divine people’s true preferences” style.

    Bringing my own purse snacks makes everything easier for me – being hungry yourself makes other people’s food drama feel much more high stakes! I also find it comforting to know I don’t NEED these people to feed me – I’m here participating in a group activity, and I can put my best foot forward because I can trust that I’ll be able to take care of myself. Highly recommend your own snack stash!

  39. This all makes me feel so incredibly sad. How much pain people experience about food, weight and body image.

    1. Same. I applaud everyone’s compassionate answers! I’ve been so angry at / shamed by various family members with food issues for so long that I lose sight of the humanity under the bitterness/anxiety/etc.

      I can’t read their minds, and everyone’s different, but it’s a good reminder. (A reminder to be kinder! *ducks*)

    2. Me too.

      Having come from a birth family with Many Food And Body Issues I work hard to keep mealtimes as low-key as possible. It isn’t even hard: make sure there’s enough food with at least one tasty thing for every restriction about which I know (lacto-ovo, vegan, gluten-free, rawfoods, no nightshades, paleo, whatever) tell everyone it’s available and then say nothing further about what or if anyone eats. Buffet-style service rules.

  40. LW, I don’t think anyone’s mentioned this yet, but: you do not have to ensure that every dish you bring is compliant with whatever your mom’s current dietary requirements are. You can be bring smaller, simpler dishes so she has one or two options for side/main/dessert (and that is on the generous sides of things!) You don’t have to make sure every dish is complaint with your mom’s diet – you just have to make sure you’re letting her know what the ingredients are so she makes informed choices about what to eat and what to avoid.

    For our family holidays – I have a bunch of boring food allergies – there are dishes I can’t eat at all, dishes I can eat a simpler version of (for instance, Mom makes the green beans, puts some aside for me, then adds toppings to the rest for everyone else), and some I can eat without any modifications. The “simpler version” works for us because the only extra thing Mom has to do is make sure she has a smaller pan and a larger pan for some things but I still get to eat a full meal.

    1. My mother, a very picky eater, had a lot of chewing issues her last couple of years. When I took her to holiday meals (we have a small group of friends that celebrate the traditional “family” holidays together) it was so lovely that people would make a special version of their specialties just for my mother.

  41. I think one point that’s worth bearing in mind here is that there are three problems here of which only one is your job to deal with.

    Problem 1: Your mother has some kind of major problem around eating, quite possibly to the point of some kind of eating disorder. Not your job to deal with.

    Problem 2: Your father is getting saddled with the consequences of this. Not your job to deal with.

    Problem 3: You are getting saddled with the consequences of this. Actually, still not really your job to deal with – just the one area here where you have some control and can set what boundaries you need and do what you need for self-care in this situation.

    The main message is that the first two are NOT YOUR PROBLEM. It is absolutely, totally OK to back away from them, leave your parents to make their choices and sort their lives out – or not – and concentrate on damage limitation for yourself. And on being you. And on living your life.

    It feels weird and strange and awful and hard-hearted to do this, because we’re all taught – especially women – that we’re supposed to take care of others, sort their problems out, help them. But sometimes that job is too big for you to do, and you can destroy yourself trying or you can back off and keep yourself safe and let adults either sort out their own lives or deal with the consequences of not doing that themselves. And it’s actually better to do the second one. So focus on you and your boundaries and your well-being, and accept that, as hard as it is and as much as you wish it were different, there is actually not much you can do to help your mother. But there is a lot you can do to help yourself. And that is also a good and worthwhile thing for you to do.

    1. “And it’s actually better to do the second one. ”

      OMG THIS. I had forgotten this story until this comment: I once had a friend ask for advice in how to handle her boyfriend’s eating issue, namely that he would forget to eat, sometimes for hours and hours and to the point that he might faint. She was stressed from having to constantly remind him to eat, make sure he had packed food to eat, check in and ask him if he ate, etc. etc. It sounded exhausting, that’s for sure. I listened to her whole explanation, and then I asked her “what would happen if you…just let him miss meals and deal with it?” She was appalled and HE WOULD GET SICK AND FAINT AND TERRIBLE THINGS WOULD HAPPEN. So I reminded her that every time she kept him from the consequences of not minding his own health concerns, she was keeping him from an opportunity to learn and grow on his own, AND basically treating him not at all as an adult – she was infantalizing him, and surely she did not want to do that? And that’s when I told her the story of the time I deliberately let my 8yo daughter walk face first into a parking meter*.

      *She was walking slowly and not looking where she was going because she was talking to the person next to her. I spotted the coming collision in time to warn her, but I had alerted her to look where she was going many many times before, and I decided that she was not walking so fast that she would really hurt herself and “what you learn yourself, you learn forever”. So she walked right into that parking meter (and was really just fine but suuuuuure startled) and after that, she didn’t ever make that mistake again!

      1. every time she kept him from the consequences of not minding his own health concerns, she was keeping him from an opportunity to learn and grow on his own
        Thank you – I needed to read this today.

    2. I wish that it was socially acceptable to say what one of the neighborhood kids did when someone snarked about his choice of ice cream. “Be nice or I will bite you.”

      Life would be so much simpler. I wanted to buy him another cone.

      1. I swear I’m using that the next time I hear any food policing going on. Including the “how do you eat that and stay so thin?” BECAUSE, I have IBS, and when it’s flaring my food doesn’t stick around long enough to maintain my weight (even the supposedly “safe” stuff), so when I CAN eat, I count my blessings and eat what I like, within the bounds of what won’t start another flare, and that includes this caramel brownie or whatever you’re marveling at. I don’t think you really want this “diet plan”.

        “Be nice or I’ll bite you” is so much simpler.

  42. My dad is kindof like this (“you could cure your autoimmune disease if you just ate the diet I follow that keeps giving me gout and that you’re allergic to”).

    Strategies that I’ve found that work are:
    -thanks for the suggestion, but I’m actually following my doctor’s instructions with my current diet. Could be adapted to: “thanks for your concern, but I’ve discussed healthy eating with my doctor and it sounds like your body has different needs than mine does.”
    -making the conversations boring and changing the subject
    -leaving, once or twice, but not needed anymore because it trained him well
    -preparing for meals out with him by making sure that there’s something on the menu that he can eat within his dietary restrictions and also that will be healthy for me. I don’t have to agree with his choices, but I know his diet and it’s just as rude for me to suggest something I know he won’t/can’t eat as it is for him to do it to me. When I know that the 2-3 restaurants I have in mind are, in fact, within his dietary requirements, it takes 2 minutes to pick from my list vs. 30 minutes of him suggesting food I can’t eat and me returning with food he can’t eat. It sounds like you mostly know your mom’s bogus diet, so stop suggesting things you know she won’t eat?
    -being comfortable pulling out my phone when I don’t want to pay attention to discussions he’s having with other people about this/other stuff I’ve made it clear I’m bored by. Is your mom going 3 rounds with your dad about diet during family couch time? Maybe it’s time to catch up on your blogs, then. It’s not rude to refuse to pretend you’re paying attention to a conversation two people are having without you.

    1. “you could cure your autoimmune disease if you just ate the diet I follow that keeps giving me gout and that you’re allergic to”

      THAT diet. I know that diet. Fuck that diet in particular, and if there is someone for whom that diet has worked who DOESN’T proselytize like an alien-parasite-possessed cult member in a badly-written movie of the week, s/x/he should write to the Pope, because that’s the next saint, right there, no matter what religious beliefs that person possesses.

      1. It is a terrible diet for your health, and it is also a terrible diet for the planet.

        Also, alien-parasites are TOO ON POINT. I feel like it’s ALSO the diet most likely to give people terrestrial parasites 😉

  43. My mom has always been this way about food. Eating food is nearly always something she feels guilty about, because she thinks if she were a better person she could “control” herself. If she goes most of the day without eating, she feels like she won the day. I can’t remember ever not being tired of it. I like food. I like all kinds of food and I don’t like being guilted over what I eat or what I weigh.

    Of course then I grew up and developed my kind of orthorexia — it had to be NATURAL! It had to be what my great-grandmother would eat! I guess I was just rebelling over all the skim milk and diet everything my mom ate. But I got tired of that after awhile. You can have the perfect all-natural diet and not feel any better, plus you’ve alienated all your friends because they feel judged and you never eat anything they make for you. So what’s the point?

    Unfortunately my mom’s food obsession is her problem. It’s not mine. I’ve had to disentangle from a lot of her issues, and that’s just one. We talk about other stuff — just not religion, politics, food, her marriage, my marriage, and her parenting choices. I’ve had to be ruthless about enforcing this — first changing the subject, and if she won’t move on, ending the conversation. It’s easier since I don’t live close, but when we visit I have a list of things on my mind I know she likes to talk about which she’ll hopefully join me talking about if I bring them up… and drop the unwanted topics.

  44. Oh wow LW I have ALL THE EMPATHIES for you right now. Reading this, I was like, wait, did I ever write to the Cap about my own mom?

    My mom was always extremely health conscious. I learned what lycopen was before I learned to write, and my mom made her own cereal, yogurt, germinations, etc. Growing up I ravenously desired yet feared all the tasty but dangerous “transformed foods” my mom would warn me about. Sugar was pretty much poison in my head but still everytime I was around chocolate I would stuff my face so much I’d puke. I was also of course terrified of becoming fat because my mom pretty much painted it as a death sentence (I became fat anyway and now I know it’s not).

    Thankfully, by the time I had become an adult, my mom had just really chilled out in general about everything. I started to slowly unfuck my relationship with food. All seemed good…until my mom got diagnosed with osteoporosis.

    Now, the doctors know it’s 100% because she grew up in poverty and didn’t get enough nutrients as a child, but my mom really wants to do all she can to revert or slow down her condition. So she’s been a little into pseudoscience lately. Nothing too intense, coconut oil, herbal teas, that sort of thing.

    However, long story short, she stopped drinking any kind of milk because of the idea that it makes the body too acid and fucks up your bones (which as far as science knows is impossible). So she’s not getting enough calcium even though she’s taking supplements. And she’s tiny and has a habit of hiking through the woods alone…

    Last summer she broke her arm after falling on the sidewalk and I am CONCERNED.

    But…she’s an adult. I want her to respect my choices so I have to respect her own autonomy. I’ve been focusing my worries into convincing her to get a cellphone instead so that if she gets hurts in the middle of nowhere she won’t end up as coyote chow.

    Yeah that was more of a “ME TOO” thing than a comment offering constructive advice, sorry about that. The Cap’s suggestions are excellent as always and I will be using ’em to avoid tricky food discussions this holiday season.

    1. I don’t know if it’s possible with your Mum but I wonder if you can sidestep the health and food focus and ask her about the fear you notice under it? Even something simple like ‘are you okay?’ can cut through the busyness and the noise.

    2. I don’t want to get horribly side tracked or invalidate your worry about your mom unilaterally deciding not to drink milk for scientifically wack reasons, but I do want to reassure you that:
      -it’s totally possible to get enough calcium without drinking any milk at all through supplements and/or other calcium rich foods (I can’t drink milk or most calcium-rich milk substitutes and doctors tell me I will be fine)
      -that also doesn’t mean your mom is doing it that way and you shouldn’t be concerned.

      But since you’re worried about your mom, and it seems like she’s willing/eager to discuss health issues with you, if you’re up to the discussion you might ask her if she’s told her osteoporosis doctor that she’s not drinking milk so he can tell her if she should adjust her supplement intake accordingly. I’ve found that (1) my own anxiety about others’ healthcare goes way down if I know a doctor is aware of and supervising their stupid choices (I ask my husband and my mom, end of list) and (2) sometimes when someone says “have you asked your doctor about that,” I realize the answer is “no, but I really should and never thought about that.”

      I hope you find some peace of mind either way.

    3. Is your mom by any chance conflating “lactose” and “lactic acidosis”? That’s the only thing I can think of to explain it…

      1. There’s a whole “alkalizing diet” thing (total bunk imo) and they label all animal foods as “acidifying” regardless of their actual pH.

  45. I just wanted to give a testimonial for the ‘be boring and redirect” strategy. I used to have very stressful conversations with some family members, until I realized and started using:

    1. I don’t have to give my honest, full, and complete opinion about anything. “Okay”+subject change is totally legitimate.
    2. I *can* actually be a directional force in a conversation by being passionate about the topics I actually want to share with that person. “Oh yeah, I wanted to ask you – did you see that movie? I thought it was great because …”

    It is actually startling effective at changing the behavior of the people I was talking to. Once I started seeding conversations with the stuff I want to talk about, and not engaging in the stuff I didn’t want to talk about, *they* would start bringing up the fun stuff themselves without my prompting. I realize it may not work for everyone, but I think, like the Captain said, a lot of times the stuff people talk about is really just about trying to bond. So, show them the way. ❤

  46. LW I am telling you this because you need to understand…….you CAN NOT tell her the whole health thing is unhealthy for her. I have a dear friend in a very similar situation (she’s practically family) no matter what’s happening or how much she is suffering from her health kick she will not listen.
    It hurts, it’s heartbreaking if it does go bad but she is an adult making her own decisionJUSY LIKE YOU.
    The best thing you can do is not get dragged Into the conversation like the captain says find some neutral ground to talk about and change the subject every time she pushes
    “I am so glad that’s working for you…how’s XYZ”
    she might get agitated and fight you about it don’t argue back if it’s too much just leave the space….have an exit strategy or someone cover for you.

    Or bring Christmas to your own territory make some things for her (what does she like? What can she eat) and make some things for you place it on the table and have everyone serve themselves.

    It’s a lot of work but it’s an option.

  47. I’ve had a strict no-diet-and-no-weight-loss-talk rule for over a decade, and one technique I haven’t seen mentioned here is leaving the room. It’s remarkably easy to leave the room. “Excuse me, have to hit the restroom.” “Oh would you look at the time, I have to be going.” “Crap (glancing at phone), I need to go reply to this work email.” “(incoherent mumbling in vaguely apologetic tone)”

    It’s best applied in a small group rather than one-on-one, and it sounds like the OP’s Mom is focused enough on this topic that she won’t be retrained, but it’s the absolute best for escaping a conversation you refuse to have. (.

    1. This! I’ve done this before with my mother (on another topic). It went roughly like this:

      “Mum, I’ve told you before I don’t want to talk about [X]”
      Mum continues talking about X
      “Mum, if you don’t change the subject I will leave the room.”
      Mum continues talking about X
      I would leave the room – no explanation – and if I felt like it I came back in a few minutes and started another topic of conversation. If I didn’t feel like it I just wouldn’t return.

      I think I did this maybe 3/4 times before she got the message.

      Now we actually can talk about [X] but she knows if I change the subject it stays changed.

  48. Since you didnt mention making a special trip or anything, LW, give yourself permission to leave. It doesnt sound like youre at the point where youre comfortable with uncomfortable, so you can say, “I dont feel well” and go. Neither your moms diet nor your parents marriage is yours to control, but you can leave.

  49. I had a similar situation with a roommate. Now, a roommate is not a mother, and also I was in better shape than her, performance-wise and appearance-wise (not that it should matter, but it’s waaaaaay easier to ignore someone’s constant broken record of diet woo if you actually are thinner and stronger than them*). However, what worked for me was 4 phrases: “yup,” “yeah, but I like it,” “nope,” and “thanks, that’s nice/interesting.”

    Her: “Are you making pasta carbonara?”
    Me: “Yup.”
    Her: “Wow, that’s so much meat. and cream. and you ate meat for lunch.”
    Me: “Yup.”
    Her: “You know, [blergity-blah about meat].”
    Me: “Yeah, but I like it.” [proceed to very noisily enjoy my pasta]

    Her: “Is that a [drink]?”
    Me: “Yup.”
    Her: “You know, an orange juice would [yammer, yammer, something antitoxins]”
    Me: “That’s interesting.” [take another sip.]

    Her: “You gonna do this fast with me?”
    Me: “Nope.”

    Just no discussion about the pros and cons. I’m doing it, I like it, and no, I’m not gonna do your thing – because I don’t like it. Now, like I said, it’s way easier to dismiss a roommate than a mom, especially when their diet plans aren’t working that well for them, but it still might work for you.

    * – not to get into a bunch of diet talk, but at least I wasn’t constantly farting my ass off because of all the fiber/other non-meat attempts at protein.

    1. Yikes, did you live with my cousin? She seems convinced that you should only eat meat once a day, ideally only a few times a week, and she has said that Americans are gross because they eat meat multiple times a day, and in bigger portions than they should. And it’s not necessarily untrue that many Americans could stand to eat less meat, but it was the whole “it’s sooooo gross” bit was what rubbed me the wrong way.

      1. Yeah, the whole “meat every day will kill you” seems to be the latest trend in Woo Diets.

        1. Noooooo! We should eat the cows! How can you just sit there eating pie-nog instead of steak, while shameless cows are stealing all the calcium right out of our bones?!?

    2. “I was in better shape than her, performance-wise and appearance-wise (not that it should matter, but it’s waaaaaay easier to ignore someone’s constant broken record of diet woo if you actually are thinner”

      Um, sorry, but thinner isn’t better, actually.

      1. Oh not at all, but the people who go on the weird diets tend to think so, so being thinner it makes it harder for them to try and push their food theories on you.

  50. [I don’t know if this strategy will be helpful in your situation, LW, but I’ll post it in case you want to give it a try]

    My mum has health issues that mean she has to follow some very unconventional dietary restrictions and limit her food intake. She feels very self-conscious about that and deals with it by projecting all over people what they should or shouldn’t eat, and how much. I, on the other hand, am a Hobbit: I love eating well and will eat anything, everything, and in very large quantities, especially considering I’m quite small.

    These conflicting dynamics tend to explode messily all over Christmas (cue a lot of concern trolling, body shaming, and food policing on her part). What finally got her to stop was this:
    a) one serious, sad, conversation in which I told her “When you comment on my body/food intake, you really hurt my feelings. I wish you’d stop that, because you are hurting me”.
    b) three months of unfailing cheerful and good-humoured reactions to any remark about food, bodies and weight:
    “Your ass looks fat” “Aw, thank you! It’s all that pie I ate last month, it was delicious!”
    “Are you eating *all* *that*?!” “Sure I am! It’s very yummy!”
    “If you eat all that you’ll get sick!” “Aw, don’t worry, mom, I’m hungry! And the food is absolutely great! Match made in heaven, if you ask me.”
    “I am only eating [a small portion of X] tonight” “Well, it looks delicious! Enjoy it!”
    And so on and so forth. She eventually learned that certain comments would only get a big grin and an upbeat answer or a compliment out of me, and stopped.

    Since then, I make sure to only ever say nice things when people comment on food or bodies. I’ve found that it stops the cycle of shame and, at least, it makes me feel better (I hate body- and food-shaming with a passion, so it helps me to be able to counter it with compliments). But all that positivity takes a lot of emotional effort on your part, especially at first, so if you’d rather not engage instead, that’s a valid option as well.

    1. Reminds me of the dad in Emma: “I’m sick so I’ll project my illness on everyone, because I can’t imagine they could be happy eating what makes me sick.”

  51. I was a late in life baby for my parents and going through WWII left them with some really odd behaviours that I had to begin unpick when I had my kids such as hiding food, my mom and me getting the ‘crappy’ food when dad got the good fresh food because he was the ‘breadwinner’ or plating enough food for a very large adult and serving it to me as a small kid and shaming for not finishing it but also calling me fat.

    It was so hard as an adult going for visits and seeing this once I had some perspective, and there were times when I had no idea what to say or how to react, and I wish I had these scripts back then.

    I’m starting the have some health issues that are moderated and potentially impacted by food choices but I try really hard to think before I speak in front of people (esp my 11 yo daughter), and this was super helpful to see the potential impact on her in a visceral way.

    It’s hard. Much energy and love LW if you want it.

    1. Just joining in (rather late in the day) to say that I think some of my family’s odd attitude to food stems from the war, too. My parents had this rule whereby if you didn’t eat every scrap on your plate, whatever was left would be served to you *at every meal thereafter* and you wouldn’t get anything else until it was gone. It took three days of me refusing a plate of cold liver for them to decide maybe I wasn’t going to crack and maybe they shouldn’t be serving me liver in future. *Three days*, with the same piece of cold meat turning up at every meal. They thought they were going to bully me out of faddiness, whereas I just felt ill at the very sight of the stuff – and always have since, too.

  52. Thanksgiving this year was at my partner’s parents’ home, and there was a lot of tension around food/”health” that had been absent at previous gatherings. I nearly had it out with Partner’s father, a man with whom normally I get along very well.

    I’m a big practitioner of “forgive, but don’t forget.” I will try to put people’s shortcomings and missteps behind me if I can (I understand this isn’t helpful or possible for a lot of folks, nor is it entirely possible for me in some instances), but not forget that it happened. What pushed me over the edge at Thanksgiving was having to witness Partner’s father comment on his own and his wife’s (Partner’s mother) food choices, which eventually bled over into a snide comment on me eating a snack before lunch. In the moment, I just I gave him a blank stare and continued munching, but told Partner in private that the next time his father made a comment on my food choices or eating habits, I would be telling him in no uncertain terms that I found it rude and condescending. No one speaks to me that way, not in their home, my home, public, or private. I didn’t expect my partner take any specific action at the time, but I wanted to give him the heads up that I would be pushing back, and that I expected him to support me and have my back if it came to it.

    There were SO. MANY. comments like “This is the healthiest lunch you [Partner’s mother] have had in weeks” and “30 years ago I was in amazing shape, even better shape than you [Partner] are now” and “I have probably tried more types of food than all of you combined”, to which I actually responded in the moment, “You don’t know my life.” Part of what helped me move from righteous anger to eye rolls to eventual forgiveness was trying to think about why Partner’s father had suddenly turned into a serious one-upper about food and health (among other things, but this was the big one over the holiday).

    Partner and I discussed it, and he’s the one who first realized that his father is desperately trying to cling to his position as “Family Patriarch” and leader. Partner and I are, frankly, doing better financially than his parents, have a few amazing trips planned over the next year, and are setting ourselves up for a comfortable, reasonably healthy (not “healthy” :P) future. Partner’s parents, on the other hand, are struggling with money as they help support his two sisters (both in their 30s – IMO, I don’t think their dad’s stranglehold on being the “Family Leader” has done them any favors as far as becoming independent adults, but that’s a topic for another day), live like borderline hoarders, and are both dealing with some medical issues brought on by not being proactive about their health.

    I can *sort-of* empathize: Partner’s father comes from a melting pot of extremely patriarchal cultures (Catholic, Hispanic, and career military – triple whammy!), and while I would absolutely characterize his beliefs and convictions as left-of-center in the years I’ve known him, that’s a whole lot of conditioning to overcome. His comments are an attempt to maintain a semblance of control and authority. It’s absolutely no excuse, but he’s human and the only way he is going to change is if Partner and I (and the rest of the family, but I can’t speak for them) let him know it’s inappropriate. So while his comments are and always will be unnecessary and unwelcome, I can forgive his shortcomings in this instance since they come from a place of insecurity. I won’t forget, however, and you’d better believe I will push back in the future. I actually think Partner may have said something to his father, since there were no more comments directed towards me that week, and there was a noticeable decrease in comments directed towards others.

    Just wanted to share in case this exercise helps anyone else. ❤

  53. “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.”

    I really needed to hear that and it’s helping make sense of a meltdown I’m having. Thank you.

  54. I just want to say thank you to everybody for sharing their stories. I just got back from a two week trip to hell. Actually, it was just the small, economically depressed, backward thinking upper mid-western town that I grew up in. So, hell adjacent. We went up for the Thanksgiving holiday and the second day in my mom ended up in the hospital with pneumonia. And even with a 102 degree fever, she was constantly going on about what she did and did not eat that day. The doctors said that she had to eat before they would allow her to go home and she still felt that she was being virtuous by harshly restricting her calories. She constantly cuts herself down for her size, and that size is smaller than me. When the subject of my adult daughter came up and she asked, “Has she put on weight?” I thought my poor husband was going to murder a sick old lady in her hospital room. That on top of a whole bunch of tactless family seeing me walking with a cane for the first time and asking every intrusive question that they could think of. (And then topping it all off with, “So when are you moving home?”) has me feeling emotionally fragile and just ragged still after being home for a week. I am sorry that so many of us have to deal with these kinds of parental food issues, but somehow I feel better reading these funny, well written, insightful stories from people who are in the same boat.

    1. Ahhhh! Folks saying, “home,” meaning , “where I live/want you to live,” has always made me nuts! I’ve lived in four different states as an adult (including my “birthplace state”), and will almost certainly never be moving back to my birthplace*. So I’ve gotten this a LOT, even from well-meaning friends. I started staring at the person in obvious confusion and saying, “But I already DO live at home! My home is in (current state)!” Cue sputtering, back-pedaling, etc. All possible sympathy!

      *My birthplace sounds very similar to yours! Throw in an abusive mother in denial that she ever did/could do anything wrong, and we could be from the same family! 🙂

      1. Ack! Apologies for the “nuts!” comment. Please substitute, “frustrated, aggravated and confused!”

        1. No worries! I had to edit mine for words like that because the people I grew up with make me feel like I am losing my mind. 🙂 That is my go-to response too. “Well, we’re headed home in three more days. You know, where our house and jobs are.”

      2. Not a fan of “home” meaning “your parents’ home.” Your home is wherever you live. I appreciate the sentiment, but it is not actually correct.

      3. I was in my 20s when I moved away from my parents’ house and started considering where I was living to be my home. Even so, I was in my 40s before I realized the extent to which my parents deep down thought this state of affairs was wrong. It was as though they thought a grown daughter moving away was okay as a sort of experiment, maybe like the way you try a new haircut before going back to the way you’re supposed to look, or the way someone goes wild and crazy with putting on a new style of music before putting the radio back to its regular station. I hadn’t gotten it despite the number of times my father told me my old bedroom was waiting for me. I did start to get it when it looked like my mother would need open heart surgery. I’d started making arrangements to be in town for it. When different doctors later said it wasn’t indicated, it was good news, and there was no need for me to travel. Later my father said that it was a shame that my mother didn’t get the surgery so I would come home to visit (!) That was when I realized how he sees things: My living with him is normal. Anything that returns me to the normal state is good. Trying to achieve that normal state isn’t manipulative; it’s more like water returning to level, just natural.

  55. I’m 42yo and it’s only recently that I’ve realized how much disordered eating behavior/discussion happens in my family & in my husband’s family (my MIL doesn’t believe in consuming fat, for example). Now that I’ve noticed it, I can’t stand it. No advice, just sympathy & jedi hugs.

  56. I hope I didn’t overlook this in the comments already, but if your mom respects information coming from a Medical Authority Figure, you could maybe add to your scripts “Mom, my doctor/therapist/….”

    -says I should keep following my own health plan
    -doesn’t want me to think on this too much, thank you though/ says I should stop discussing this
    -has this all under control
    -is the only one I talk about this stuff with now (emphasis on now, in case she goes “but we’ve always done it this way!” )
    -says it’s fine if I eat this (don’t give a reason why though, that makes it more arguable)
    -has given me strict orders to eat this delicious nom, no matter what. Thanks though.

    Normally I wouldn’t suggest bringing in a therapist/doctor and would just go straight for the topic change, but I have had to use this regarding triggering subjects and sensitive areas for both family and friends when I dramatically changed my routine (both eating and physically), and it took a lot of the burden of explanations off of me. I am also conflict adverse, and when I had to do some changes that were visible to people, it brought out the advice givers and crabs in buckets and old-habits-die-hard-boundary-pushers, and it is very tricky to argue against Your Team Of Professionals when the person is Not Your Team Of Professionals. A la “Well I’ve read this ” “Doesn’t matter, doc’s Orders” “doesn’t your doc-” “They are the expert. How about this weather yo?

    Again, I’m not trying to say you can’t advocate or help yourself here, but sometimes the immovable family/friend wall of “HALPING” can be sidestepped with an outside source. Note that the source doesn’t have to be real. Your professional can simply be Doctor Nostress, Ph.D Family Gathering Awkwarditis etc.

  57. It is possible that you do not understand your mother’s motivations and the potential benefits of her health choices. If you want to know, have a sit-down and ask. Be prepared to listen for a long while. Spend the time listening; avoid analysing her views or developing responses. Just listen. If you are asked if you understand or agree and you don’t, you could say so, like “no, but I want to hear what you feel/think”. When she is done or you can’t listen any more, thank her for talking with you *about how shes sees/understands/feels about health*. That part is important – that you thank her not for telling you an absolute truth but her own personal truth. Then I would suggest doing something by yourself while you digest, and deal with any desire to correct her.

    At 60, your mom is as capable of making good and bad decisions as anyone else. Like you, she wants her decisions about her own life and health respected. I strongly suggest that you work on disengaging from trying to change her mind about her beliefs. I would drop the whole conversation about health, unless she specifically asks you your opinion on her actions or views. That doesn’t mean she finishes a sentence with ‘don’t you agree?’, it means she asks you “so, what do you think about my doctor?” in a way that welcomes your personal truth.

    So you let her do her. You are still left with her disrespecting your decisions. Outside of a open-minded exchange of views, I suggest you do you. “would you like some of my heart-health drink?” “no thanks” without followup of your own or response to her followup. If you want to cook or order in something of which you disapprove, do it on your dime. If she objects, say “you don’t have to eat it” without followup. Use a light and polite tone. Neither of you has to be right.

    She does her, you do you, no explanation or defense warranted. When you feel that if you don’t respond the entire family won’t say another word, well, that’s ok. Work on becoming comfortable with your own silence.

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