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The impact of diet culture on employee well-being

Tips for fostering a body-neutral workplace

Published on

July 4, 2023


It’s a familiar scene that can make you feel uncomfortable: You’re in your company lunchroom about to dig into a yummy salad when your coworker comes in. “You’re so good! I’m bad for having pizza and need to get back on track tomorrow,” they say, triggering a flood of thoughts.

Does this mean I’m bad because I ate pizza last night? I don’t feel comfortable talking about diets at work. How can I respond without putting them down?

Body image is a sensitive topic that affects most of us—73% of people wish they could change the way they look (Butterfly Foundation). Yet we speak about diets often and openly, perhaps to relate to others or with the hope we’ll feel better about our insecurities by doing so.  

Morgan Casper, our Director of Brand Experience, shared her insights on the topic at our webinar, DEI – An Introduction: Practical steps, key takeaways and lessons learned. “Negative body talk and diet discussions might provide us with temporary gratification, but the consequences it has on those around us can be long-lasting and detrimental. This is true even for those who don’t struggle with eating disorders or body dysmorphia. Negative body talk is contagious,” she said.

There is no good or bad when it comes to food

Food is morally neutral, it’s something we need to survive, and yet we moralize it by categorizing foods as good or bad. All food provides nutrition, value and support for the body and no single food can make or break your health. Eating more nutritious food doesn't inherently make you good, just as eating something less nutritious doesn't make you bad.  

Life is filled with imperfections, and food choices are influenced by several factors including a person’s circumstances (like income and access), tastes, allergies, preferences, etc.  

Tip: When we shift how we see food we can shift the conversations that we have. Think of our example above, moralizing pizza as bad led to an uncomfortable situation.

The impact of body image on employee wellbeing

Frequent conversations and judgments about body image can lead to feelings of shame, insecurity, and a decreased sense of self-worth. And as the impact of these comments builds over time, a team member may grow increasingly uncomfortable and eventually decide to explore new opportunities.  

People who are feeling this way may:

  • eat alone
  • avoid the lunchroom
  • stop participating in company events
  • become quiet when these topics come up
  • dread coming back to work after the holidays knowing there will be increased discussions of exercise and diet resolutions

If someone is struggling, it’s unlikely they’re alone. When your culture fosters a focus on body image and diet culture, it can lead to ripple effects on the overall well-being and retention of multiple team members. So, how can you shift your culture?

5 quick tips to help foster a body-neutral workplace

  1. Host events that don’t revolve around food. There are lots of team-building activities you can try instead like escape rooms, paint nights, trivia contests and more.
  2. Avoid scheduling meetings during lunch. Some people don’t feel comfortable eating around others, so try to reschedule that 12 p.m. meeting to keep lunchtime a positive experience for everyone.
  3. Have positive conversations about food. There's no need to keep the conversation off the table. Food brings people together and helps us learn more about one another. Avoid causing harm by keeping the conversation positive, skipping any diet talk and not moralizing food as good or bad.
  4. Avoid food and exercise challenges. Most of us appreciate a friendly competition, but rather than using food or exercise to compete, try something neutral like trivia or escape rooms. “We want food and exercise to be thought of as good for the soul—not a competition,” Morgan says.
  5. Support and encourage team learning. These feelings are often deeply rooted, so go beyond a traditional email and demonstrate your commitment by:
    • Booking an expert speaker
    • Providing resources that your team can watch and read
    • Hosting follow-up discussions where colleagues can openly share (if they’re comfortable doing so)

How to handle these conversations at work

When we’re fumbling for small talk, it’s often easiest to default to a familiar topic like body image. But remember, our bodies are not the value we bring to the workplace.  

If you’re meeting someone you haven’t seen in a while or perhaps you’re meeting in-person for the first time (hello, post-COVID life), you may be tempted to comment on their body. For example, “I didn’t realize how tall you were when we were on Zoom!” or “Wow, you’ve lost weight since I saw you last.”  Comments like this create discomfort by focusing on something most people don’t want to think about—our bodies. We don’t know what people are facing in their lives, perhaps their weight loss or gain has been caused by an illness or grief. Maybe their height is something they were bullied about in the past.

So, what should you say instead?

There are endless ways to shift the conversation away from food or body image.  

Tip: When you find yourself defaulting to negative body talk, try reframing common phrases as shown below:

What should I do if someone makes a comment that I’m not comfortable with?

Start by changing the topic of conversation. This will send a subtle message that you’re not interested in this type of discussion. For example, if your colleague says, “I just got back from vacation and I really need to go on a juice cleanse,” change the focus by asking about their favourite part of the trip.

Tip: Shift the conversation by focusing on the positive and see where it leads.

And for leaders, Morgan cautions against calling people out in a group environment. “Often, that can lead to more triggering comments for others and end up hurting the person who made the initial remark,” she says. Instead, talk about it one-on-one. Start by saying, “I want to be sensitive in bringing this up. I would like to talk about food and diet for a minute if that’s okay?” Then, share how their comment resonated with you and discuss the potential impacts it could have.  

Tip: Discuss it calmly and lovingly because you never know if someone is coming from a place of hurt in this realm, too. 

What about compliments?

When we give a compliment, we often default to body image by asking someone if they’ve lost weight or taken up a new exercise routine. Morgan challenges us to compliment others on factors beyond their body.

Tip: See what happens when you tell a colleague they look joyful or engaged, that you love their new shirt or the energy they bring to their work.

What should you do if you’re struggling with body image at work and want to talk:  

For starters, know you’re not alone. Many people struggle with body image. If you’re having a challenging time and want to reach out to a coworker for support, start by asking for consent. You could say, “Hey, I’m feeling some body insecurities today and would love to talk to someone about it. Are you okay with that?” Give them time to respond and be prepared to accept that their answer might be no. They may not be comfortable with this type of conversation.  

Tip: Be sure to do this in a one-on-one environment where you both feel comfortable.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to body image in the workplace. Over time, small efforts and mindset shifts will help foster a more inclusive culture.  

And remember, it’s not about being perfect. We’re human and mistakes happen. If you catch yourself making a negative comment, pause, be genuine, take responsibility and move forward.

Supporting your personal journey: Body positivity vs. body neutrality

In the workplace, it’s important to foster a neutral environment, free of judgement about our bodies or the types of food we eat, where we’re focused on our value as a person and a contributor. Understanding the difference between body positivity and body neutrality can help as we start a personal journey of learning and unlearning.

The concept of body positivity encourages each individual to love their body, regardless of size, skin tone, gender or physical abilities. It’s a movement that has had a tangible impact on body representation in the media and changes how people feel in their own skin, but the focus on positivity doesn’t resonate with everyone. For some, it can feel like toxic positivity—a feeling of self-blame when we’re not feeling great about ourselves.    

Body neutrality represents the middle ground between body positivity and body negativity. With body neutrality, the goal is to respect and accept your body rather than chase the feeling of total positivity.  With body neutrality, your value and happiness aren’t tied to your body image. For example, it encourages thoughts like, “I appreciate my legs for taking me on a morning walk” instead of, “I love how my legs look.”    

No matter which school of thought resonates with you, we hope that you feel empowered to take action towards a workplace where everyone feels valued for their contributions and not their physical appearance.

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