Food Shaming: What It Is and What to Do About It 14 May 2014

You’re out for dinner with your family. The restaurant is famous for its chocolate layer cake. You’ve been looking forward to it, and you planned your calories for the day so this one splurge would be OK. The dessert menu comes. You order the famous chocolate cake. And your mother (or sister or aunt or husband or ...) says “Chocolate cake? Really? That’s so fattening!”

That’s Food Shaming.

Chances are good, if you are watching your diet and counting calories you’ve been shamed by someone in the past about your food choices. Why do people do it? And why do we put up with it?

Here’s one of my experiences. I was a fat child with thin siblings. At some point I was put on a diet. One night, when dessert time came, everyone was dished up heaping bowls of ice cream. I got one tiny scoop. My siblings snickered. My mother said something to the effect that I wasn’t allowed to have very much. Is it any wonder I started sneaking ice cream straight out of the container, which obviously defeated my diet.

Food Shaming is nothing new. It comes in as many varieties as there are dieters. The judgmental shamer may think she (or he) is being helpful by It comes in as many varieties as there are dieters. The judgmental shamer may think she (or he) is being helpful by pointing out the obvious to the foolish dieter – that food is high calorie and you shouldn’t be eating it. Or the shamer may have her (or his) own conflicts about food, living with a long list of “bad” foods and spreading that unwanted belief system to anyone in their vicinity. Lots of fad diets start this way, with a long list of “bad” foods. In interviews, the diet book author gladly rambles on about how this food is terrible, and that food is just awful and you should never eat these other foods. It makes for catchy TV sound bites.

Food Shaming only works when the errant dieter buys into the guilt. Granted, shrugging off the negativity may be difficult. If you’re the person with the delicious chocolate cake, how do you react to the critical comment? You could say “I’ve been saving up all day to enjoy this, so thank you for keeping your opinions to yourself”. Or “I’m so sorry you have that negative attitude about food.” Or, “It’s delicious, would you like a bite?” Or just ignore the person. You don’t owe anyone an explanation for your choices.

If you feel like you’re the victim of food shaming, keep in mind that the person doing it probably has a conflicted relationship to food. They may wish they were eating something delicious or tempting, but their rigid food rules have destroyed their ability to enjoy the food. There probably isn’t much you can do to change that mindset. If you’re a bystander to food shaming, you can change the conversation to a non-food subject, say that the food looks delicious, or make a more appropriate comment.

There can be a fine line here, especially when it comes to parents and children. Shaming children, either for their weight or their food choices, is an extremely bad idea. In fact, a new study showed that children who were called “fat” at age 10 were far more likely to be obese at age 19 than children who were not subjected to that type of negative talk. Family members may have thought fat criticism would inspire the child to diet, but that idea backfired. And Food Shaming a child is just as toxic. Instead of blaming a child for poor choices, model good choices. And most important, don’t keep tempting junk food in the home. Parents’ responsibility is to set boundaries, and the best way to establish healthy food habits is to model them, with what you purchase, what you serve for meals, and what you yourself choose to eat.

The best way for a parent to deal with my ice cream scenario above: don’t make dessert a nightly ritual. The other family members don’t need heaping bowls of ice cream either. If they’re hungry, they can eat second portions of the dinner foods. Both Fat and Food Shaming are prevented.

Dieting and weight loss are hard enough. You certainly don’t need to deal with the negative emotional and psychological of food shaming. Don’t let other people do that to you, and certainly don’t do it to yourself or to others. Food should be enjoyed.

Donna P. Feldman MS RDN

Nutrition journalist at Radio Nutrition

Co-host: Walk Talk Nutrition podcast.

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Disclaimer: The information provided here does not constitute medical advice. If you are seeking medical advice, please visit your healthcare provider or medical professional.

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