The Way You Talk About Food Could Be Hurting Your Coworkers — Here's How to Help

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Kaitlyn Duling63
For many workers, lunchtime is a coveted part of the workday. It means a break from meetings, emails, and projects. It brings food, time away from a screen, and perhaps even a chance to socialize with coworkers. Who doesn’t love lunch? Ever since elementary school, I have looked forward to the promise of lunchtime with delight and expectation. It’s when the hungry, tired, cranky version of me gets rebooted into a whole new person. 
Unfortunately, lunchtime can also be a minefield of emotions and even, at times, pain. 
Growing up with disordered eating habits (thanks, society!) and a dysmorphic vision of my own body, my relationship with food hasn’t always been a positive one. In many ways, the office lunchroom can act like an amplifier for the voices and self-conscious concerns that I’ve worked hard to get out of my head. Needless to say, I now take care to avoid those lunchrooms that are emotionally toxic, because it can throw off my healing. In the process, I often miss out on valuable social time, the joy of not being at my desk, and even important networking and cross-departmental opportunities. 
If you want to ensure that the office eating-space is a safe place for everyone, here’s how you can help:

1. Don’t comment on anyone’s food.

Seriously. Is this that difficult? I know social situations can be tense or awkward, and sometimes finding a delightful conversation topic is difficult, but we can all benefit from keeping the convo away from what I packed for lunch. I can count on two hands the number of times someone has frowned at my food and told me it looks “healthy” or “weird” or even “nasty.” Ouch. 
Aside from being rude, this type of comment makes me instantly aware that I need to watch what I pack if I don’t want to receive a review from my coworkers. Suddenly, I might shun treats, avoid those leftovers, and ban carbs for fear of commentary. Far from considering what I should and could be feeding my body, packing my lunch turns into a worry-filled game of what my office-mates want to see on my plate. Nothing kills my appetite faster than the potential for coworkers to shame my lunch or the lunches of others. 

2. Don’t compliment my self-control.

Eating disorders don’t always look like binging or extreme restriction. What might appear to be small portion sizes, smart food prep, or a lunchtime smoothie could really be signs of a person’s troubling and unhealthy relationship to food and their body. Whenever someone compliments the tiny amount of food I’m eating, or says they wish they could eat like me, it only focuses my mind even more on food, body image, and calories. 
You know what your compliment doesn’t put my mind on? Work! Passion projects! Relationships, hobbies, and so much more can fly straight out the window when a person is obsessed with their food, nutrition, or weight. This does not make for a healthy individual, office environment, or workforce. So please, don’t give me high fives when I’m not feeding myself. You never know when you could be enforcing an unhealthy and damaging pattern of behavior. 

3. Don’t discuss fad diets (or ANY diets).

Dear, dear coworkers, I want the best for you. I truly do! If you want to make lifestyle changes for yourself, including informed changes to your eating habits, be my guest. But please, please, please do not tell me about it. When you talk about your efforts to cut out sugar, banish carbs, eat like a cave person, consume only smoothies, or similar plans, it sends my mind and heart into a tailspin. I question my own eating habits, instantly feel terrible about whatever I happen to be eating, and occasionally get into a frenzy of googling to figure out the facts behind these diets. 
What’s worse, diet discussions are often full of absolutes that simply aren’t real. When you announce that sugar is bad, full-stop, those words heap guilt onto those of us who happily incorporate sugar into our diets. (And sugar is not bad, full-stop, okay?) It’s important to note that recovery from disordered eating is a life-long process. Just because I’ll allow myself more than a teaspoon of ice cream today does not mean that I’ll eat all my meals tomorrow. One coworker’s apparent morality-based issue with bread can send me down a rabbit hole of regression. It sucks! Please leave your diet discussions at home, with people in your online community, or somewhere else. 

4. Don’t take your coffee break with a side of guilt.

I’ll repeat this as many times as I need to. Going to the vending machine for a treat does not make you “bad.” Eating a cookie that some well-meaning person brought into the office kitchen is not “sinful.” My lunch does not need to follow a “clean eating” pattern because no food is “dirty.” I will not applaud you for “eating right,” “making a good choice,” or “being good about food.” What you eat has nothing to do with your value as a person. What you eat has nothing to do with your value as a person. What you eat has nothing to do with your value as a person. You are already good. What you eat is good. Bodies need food. 
When we rattle off the previously mentioned phrases that equate eating delicious food with being “bad,” we are setting up unrealistic and harmful expectations not only for ourselves, but for the people we work with. I do not need my value, my morality, or my choices questioned in the workplace. No one does. 
I would love to share a lunch break with coworkers. Unfortunately, many of my workplaces have had toxic food cultures that encourage employees to comment on each other’s food, announce whether they are being good or bad, and talk constantly about the food choices being made in the office. The sooner we can all calm down and eat our food, rather than discuss it, the sooner everyone will feel a whole lot more comfortable and more welcome at the break room table. 

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Kaitlyn Duling is an author, freelance writer, and poet who is passionate about supporting and uplifting other women. Her work can be found at