Food shaming can be detrimental to reaching your health goals! Here's what to do about it!

  • 3 Minutes Read

Yes, food shaming is a thing. How we talk about food matters. Learn how to recognize and respond to this core obstacle in a negative diet culture.

Food shaming

What is food shaming?

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) says, "Chocolate cake? Really? That's so fattening!" That's food shaming.

If you are watching your diet and counting calories, chances are someone has shamed you about your food choices. Why do people do it? And why do we put up with it?

My experience

I was a fat child with thin siblings. At some point, I was put on a diet. One night, when dessert time came, everyone else was served 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

Food shaming comes in as many varieties as there are dieters and diets. The judgmental shamer may think she (or he) is being helpful by pointing out the obvious to the foolish dieter - that a 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 proximity. Lots of fad diets start this way, with a long list of "bad" foods. In interviews, the diet book author gladly rambles on 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 bytes and supports a negative diet culture.

How do you politely deal with food shamers?

Food shaming never works. Don't buy 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?

Possible responses:

"I've been saving up all day to enjoy this, so thank you for keeping your opinions to yourself."

"I'm so sorry you have that negative attitude about food."

"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 the victim of food shaming, keep in mind that the person doing it may have a conflicted relationship with food. They may wish they were eating something delicious or tempting, but their rigid 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 subject of the conversation, say that the food looks delicious, or make a more appropriate comment.

Food shaming and children

Shaming children, either for their weight or their food choices, can be destructive. A study showed that children called "fat" at age 10 were far more likely to be obese at age 19 than children who did not experience that type of negative talk. Family members may think fat criticism would inspire the child to diet, but that idea backfires. And food shaming a child is just as toxic. Model good choices instead of blaming a child for poor choices. Avoid setting up children for failure; don't keep tempting junk food in the home. A parent's 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 choose to eat.

The best way for a parent to deal with something like 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 helpings of dinner. Both fat and food shaming prevention accomplished!

Don't let the food shamers get you down

Dieting and weight loss are hard enough. You don't need to deal with the additional emotional and psychological burden of food shaming. Don't let people do that to you, and don't do it to yourself or others. Food, including chocolate cake, is meant to be enjoyed without judgment.

Reviewed and updated by Sue Heikkinen MS, RDN, CDCES on April 28, 2021.

Additional articles you may find helpful

4 Strategies for creating a healthy lifestyle for your kids while trying to lose weight
How to build strong friendships around your health goals
How to get positive support to lose weight and keep it off!
The real reason you need to change the way you talk about food

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Weight Loss->Family & Friends
May 5, 2021
Donna P Feldman MS RDN is author of Food Wisdom for Women and "Feed Your Vegetarian Teen". She writes about food and nutrition at Radio Nutrition.

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