When Dieting Is the Family Business
How to reframe "healthy eating," redefine comfort and set boundaries at family gatherings.
You're listening to Burnt Toast. This is the podcast where we talk about diet culture, fatphobia, parenting, and health. I'm Virginia Sole-Smith and I also write the Burnt Toast newsletter.
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Today we’re trying out a new format for the podcast called Virginia's Office Hours! This is a chance for a Burnt Toast subscriber to come chat with me about any question they're mulling over related to diet culture, fatphobia, parenting, health, etc.
The way I think of both the Ask Virginia column and what we do on the podcast with listener questions is not so much “here is an expert sharing their wisdom.” I think that’s the model we're all trained to expect with advice content—in large part thanks to diet culture. But I think of this as much more smart people having thoughtful conversations…the same way I do, and I bet you do. over wine or coffee with friends or over my group text chats with my friends. And, a big problem with trying to get advice about any these topics is that people boil it down to an Instagram post or a little nugget of wisdom and that just isn't applicable to all of our lives. So, a much deeper, richer and more nuanced conversation is what I'm aiming for with these Office Hour episodes. I see it as a chance to have the kind of conversation we often have on Friday Threads. But here we are, conversing more directly, Zoom face to Zoom face.
Today's Office Hours guest has asked me to change her name to protect privacy, so we are calling her “Serena.” We’ll be talking about how she can navigate encounters with extended family members who aren't just diet-y and on diets, they are diet culture creators. It's your uncle who's really obsessed with Paleo, but if your uncle invented Paleo. (Her uncle did not invent Paleo, just to be clear.)
This episode does contain some discussion of eating disorders, eating disorder recovery, and family medical crisis. If any of that wouldn't be good for you to listen to, please take care of yourself and give this one a miss. Everyone else, it's an awesome conversation and I can't wait to hear what you think of this new format!
Want to submit a question or volunteer to be an office hours guest? Please use this form.
Note: I am a journalist and human with a lot of informed opinions. I am not a nutritionist, therapist, doctor, or any kind of health care provider. The conversation you're about to hear and all of the advice and opinions I give are just for entertainment, information, and education purposes only. None of this is a substitute for individual medical or mental health advice.
Episode 60 Transcript
Hi Serena! This is the inaugural Virginia’s Office Hours episode, so we’re figuring out the format together and I appreciate you being game for the experiment. I would like to start by having you read us the question you sent.
Okay, great. So the question is:
How do I maintain a relationship with or move on from my extended family members whose livelihood is rooted in wellness culture, selling, “food as medicine,” and weight loss as a cure for everything from heart disease to type two diabetes to rheumatoid arthritis and lupus? During my years following their rigid vegan / whole food, plant-based, no salt, oil, sugar, etc diet, I developed severe anorexia from which I am just now extricating myself with lots of professional help and support of anti-diet journalism and podcasts like yours and Food Psych, for example.
It feels awkward to be around my family now that I’m trying to follow Intuitive Eating instead of the whole food, plant-based diet rules. They are famous, revered, and well-loved in their circles. I’m not necessarily here to bash them, though I now see their messaging as privileged, fatphobic, not at all aligned with my social justice values and the opposite of intuitive/anti-diet.
This question jumped out at me because you’re in a very specific situation with who these folks are and the work that they do, but I think there’s a lot that’s relatable here. Like even if someone’s cousin or grandfather isn’t like the father of Keto—which is not who her family member is, we’re not disclosing their identity. But you know, even if you’re not related to the founder of the Paleo diet, you might have a relative who’s a doctor or a dietitian or in health in a diet-y way in some other arena. And the authority that we give these folks in their professional lives can often show up in the personal interactions as well. So I just thought, Oh, I bet a lot of people can relate to what you must be feeling when you go to Thanksgiving dinner.
Why don’t we have you tell us a little more of your own story because I think that’s going to be really important to how we talk about how you’re navigating this. So, tell us a little more about when your eating disorder started. And what were some of the key ways you saw your relatives’ work in forming your disorder?
So my mom was kind of an early vegetarian in the 1970s, when she was pregnant with my brother, after me. And then my dad had a GI cancer in the mid-70s. Part of his treatment was a major operation of his whole GI tract that basically they weren’t sure he was gonna survive or recover from. So my family went into full on survival mode and a lot of that was figuring out how best to eat. Now I know it’s orthorexia, and yet it came out of this real fear of my dad may not make it if we don’t eat right.
My extended family, about whom this question is focused, started their vegan path in the mid-80s. So that was around when my immediate family also adopted this pretty strict way of eating. My first round of anorexia was probably my last year of high school and definitely grew out of a lot of that restriction, no animal products and all of that. But I pretty much recovered and found a somewhat of a middle ground, until it came roaring back in the last decade of midlife and changes with my children. I think it’s pretty common, coming around again during the changes of midlife.
Part of what did it was being diagnosed with Lyme disease and a fairly well-meaning health care provider suggesting that part of my recovery could be giving up other food groups. Kind of classic wellness culture around gluten and other things. So that got me back into that mode of “food as medicine” or rather, restricting food as the only path to wellness. So by the time 2015 rolled around, I was definitely deep in it and it was only just reinforced by not my immediate family necessarily, but my extended family.
So your whole relationship with food is rooted in this big trauma, right? This experience with your dad. That sounds so terrifying. And how that kind of informed the way your family was navigating food when you were a kid, is that right?
Yeah, I was five when he was sick.
That’s a lot. And it was all under the guise of “this is what we need to do to make him better.” And I’m guessing less attention was paid to, “what is the toll this is taking on all of us?”
Oh, for sure. No. It was all about how do we keep him alive and we’ll do anything.
Which, of course you would. But also you’re five and you’re having to eat in this really difficult way. Were you aware, as a kid, that your family ate differently from other families?
Oh, yes. And it was always kind of a “we’re better, we’re superior, we’re righteous, we’re healthy,” you know? “We’re eating clean.” So there was always kind of a comfort there to me. Not a shame or like, ooh, we’re different. And it wasn’t the kind of thing where I couldn’t eat birthday cake at a friend’s party or something. But at home, it was all very clean because of dad’s survival. And he is still alive!
Which we’re delighted about!
For sure, yeah. Whether it was the food or something else.
I’m just thinking about how that set you up to interact with food in a really specific way from the get go.
I’ve talked in the newsletter about my daughter’s medical experiences. We spent a lot of time with her on a really strict fat-free diet. It was necessary to save her life at that point in time, and because I was the adult in the situation, I was able to look at it and say: It’s a no brainer to do this to save her life right now. And, what are the broader implications of this? How is this going to impact her longterm relationship with food? What is it doing to us?
I think that part of the content of the conversation so often gets missed when we’re thinking about food as medicine. It may be that there’s a food restriction that’s necessary for a health condition, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t bring along all this other stuff. We’re given this message of “well, if it’s what you have to do, then you have to just be all in on it,” and you don’t get to have feelings about it being a hard way to live.
What was your turning point, if there was one? I understand you recovered from the first round that happened when you were a teenager and then this later around related to the Lyme disease?
There probably wouldn’t have been one because I really thought I had it nailed. I had gotten all the bad foods out of my diet, and I was eating as healthy as anyone could and you know, all that righteousness that comes with the territory. But during the pandemic, I was out running, and a friend of mine who also works in healthcare saw me, and emailed shortly after and said she was concerned because I looked like I was emaciated and not doing well, which was a shock to me. It hadn’t occurred to me that all of my healthy stuff was leading actually down a really dangerous path.
So, it was having a fellow healthcare person say that she was concerned that really got me to go for an assessment, plus the concern of my husband and other people in my world. I was referred for residential treatment, but I was in denial that that was really necessary. But I did get on board with a really amazing all virtual recovery team. And I’ve been doing that for most of the pandemic, all by telehealth.
I continue to just see how how sick I was where I had no clue. I really thought I was doing everything perfectly.
Yeah, the eating disorder can be so loud and very good at talking you into certain thought patterns. So in terms of both your earlier struggles and what you’ve been working through recently, are your extended family members, the ones who are so entrenched in this world, are they aware of what you’ve been going through?
I came out to most of my family and extended family pretty soon after I was engaged in recovery. Partly because I just needed them to know that I was kind of hopping off the train or exiting the cult or changing the narrative or whatever metaphor you want to use. I really felt kind of naughty and it was impossible to think of another way of living at first. But I did call them and I think I was looking for some sort of acknowledgement of, “Oh, yeah, I could see how all this restriction could have led down that path and I’m really sorry that happened for you.”
But I mean, there’s just such a… I don’t know if it’s blindness? Or just the assumption that it’s still really the best way to live and be and it’s your own personal failing if you take it to this unhealthy place. Or it was still very much my fault that it happened that way. And no one has really changed their beliefs.
Even just this couple of weeks ago, we were out there visiting, and there was still a lot of talk about clean eating and weighing yourself. And, “we don’t eat these bad animal products” and stuff. So coming out was important for me, but it also hasn’t really changed much. I still feel really self conscious doing things differently.
That is frustrating. Of course, we can never control other people’s reactions, but still such a letdown that they couldn’t say, “Wow, we’re really sorry this happened and we’re willing to look at the broader implications of this.”
Well, I think it would throw into question everything that is held as truth. It is a lot easier to see things in a very black and white, binary way. I think I kind of throw a wrench in their whole understanding of the world, that whole dogma, because it didn’t work for me or it worked so well that it just went bad.
Right, they don’t know what to do with you. You’re not the story they want to tell. But you can’t be the only person who has shared this with them, given what we know about the way these kinds of eating programs contribute to disordered eating and eating disorders. It’s fascinating to me, how often I see big diet brands, give this total stonewall response that’s like, “Well, that’s not what we’re doing. We don’t do that. We don’t want people to get eating disorders, we’re doing something else.” Even though the evidence clearly shows that what they’re doing is contributing to eating disorders.
Yeah. And the messaging around it all, as you’ve touched on before, is very slippery. It’s a lifestyle. It’s not a diet. It’s just how we eat, always, with all these rules that are just sort of baked in. It does feel a lot like being gaslit because there really is no problem there. I’m the problem.
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