Calling for a Truce in the Workplace Diet Wars

A couple weeks ago, Ask a Manager had a post “My Coworker Keeps Pushing Junk Food on Me,” that generated a lot of heated discussion.  The LW, on a weight loss diet, would really like the coworker to stop bringing in so many sweets and snacks, and to quit offering them to her.  There was, of course, the strong implication that the coworker was “bad” and “wrong” for offering sinful, sinful treats, and Alison did call the LW out for mentioning the coworker’s weight. No name was given, so I’m gonna call the coworker Sally just to keep things straight.

The thing that struck me the most is that respect for coworkers’ food choices has to go both ways.  A lot of people were really quick to assume that the coworker was going to get really pushy, when the LW had never actually said, “Actually I don’t eat X, please stop offering.”

Yes, there is a weird thing that people feel like they need “co-conspirators” to eat “bad” food, so people do try to get other people to eat treats with them to assuage their guilt.  But, the comments pretty clearly illustrated why that’s the case.  People attributed all sorts of negative motivations to Sally, made snarky comments about her weight and assumptions about her health.  It was kind of a microcosm of the judgment toward fat people eating anything other than a salad anywhere ever.

I feel like the way you shut down that dynamic, if that is what’s going on, is not to assert that your food is better or more moral and virtuous, but to just shut down any kind of moralizing about food. Don’t criticize Sally for what she eats, don’t complain that someone’s bringing in food to share, just politely ask her to quit offering food, you know where it is if you decide you want some.  But also don’t rhapsodize about how good you’re being by only eating a salad for lunch and how everybody should eat the way you’re eating.  Basically, if Sally is looking for a partner in crime, and you’re treating her like a food criminal, you’re feeding into that.

I really think the LW was approaching the situation as though her diet was clearly superior and Sally, with her Cheetos and cupcakes, was clearly in the wrong.  But if you’re going to judge someone else’s diet as sinful and gluttonous, you really have no room to complain if they judge yours as boring, insufficient, and no fun.

I feel like it would be better to approach all food as morally neutral and highly individual.  You’re trying to avoid sweets, fine.  Not everybody is.  Not everybody needs to.  But it might be better to treat it as if Sally brought in something that you happen to be allergic to, rather than that she’s the villain trying to sabotage your diet.

I mean, I sympathize with being offered tasty, tasty food that you really want but that’s not really your friend.  My coworkers have a cheese club, where we take turns bringing in random fancy cheese for everyone to try.  And at least half the time it’s some jalapeño, or habañero, or Old Bay concoction that would trigger my IBS.  And it sucks.   But my coworkers aren’t trying to make me sick.  They’re just bringing in stuff that they like, and sometimes it works for me and sometimes it doesn’t.  I also kind of suspect that the LW isn’t getting enough fat or enough calories to be satisfied (because you usually don’t on a weight loss diet).  So, of course she wants the freaking cupcakes, because she’s *hungry.*

Additionally, the distraction of being offered food is a whole separate thing.  It’s fine and reasonable not to want your coworker to swing by your desk two and three times a day and break your concentration.  But I wonder if the LW would be less annoyed at the interruption if Sally were offering hard-boiled eggs or protein bars, or whatever’s on her specific diet.  Because the distraction would be the same either way.

To me, there are a few rules about food at work that should be sacrosanct:

  • Don’t criticize or praise other people’s eating habits, and don’t try to pressure anyone about food.
  • Don’t deprive other people of food.  This includes both snagging more than your fair share of donuts and stealing other people’s lunches.
  • Clean up your own freaking messes.

That’s it.  I’d add “Shut up about your stupid diet already,” but some people enjoy those conversations, so I guess they can have at it.  And honestly, once you’re at a happy place with your own eating, those conversations are much easier to tune out.

Basically, if you want your food choices to be respected, foster an environment of respect and permission, to the extent that you can.  It’s “do unto others,” the food edition.

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