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Bite Your Tongue: Have You Experienced Food Shaming?

Have you heard of food shaming?

While the term may be new to you, you’ve probably experienced food shaming in action, whether you’ve witnessed it, had it done to you or have accidentally done it yourself. It’s just what it sounds like: one person expresses a judgmental, typically negative feeling about another person’s food choices.

Food shaming comes in all forms. The keto diet evangelist explains to a co-worker that the banana they have as a mid-morning snack is practically poison. The meat-and-potatoes lover refers to a vegetarian’s lunch as “rabbit food.” The vegan eyes their dining companion’s chicken dinner and expresses dismay at their friend’s choice to eat animals.

Food shaming is rarely persuasive, effective or kind, yet many nice people do it without realizing it. So why do we food shame?

How food choices become food judgments

“We make 200 or more decisions about food every day, so it’s natural that we try to categorize food to make that choice easier,” says Lindsey Joe, registered dietitian, nutritionist and lifestyle coach in Nashville. “We all have our own diet philosophies, and when you make a food decision it is very personal.”

But eating is universal. Everyone does it. Everyone also talks about it — recommending restaurants, sharing recipes, watching TV shows about food. Add in a constant stream of nutrition-related information and weight-loss success stories in the form of advertising, and it’s not surprising food decisions may harden into strongly held food beliefs.

That’s when food becomes a matter of good and bad in your mind: There’s a right and wrong way to eat. Or, if someone knows what they’re eating isn’t nutritious and they see a friend eating healthy, they try to lessen their guilt by making a joke. Whatever the motive, the food shaming begins.

Food-shaming in action

While some people may deliberately insult another person’s food choice, most of us don’t intend to offend. You may have food shamed if you ever:

  • Rolled your eyes at a friend asking about the ingredients in a dish. Vegans, vegetarians, lactose-intolerant people and those with serious allergies all have medical reasons for wanting to know what’s on their plate. And many others may have strong philosophical reasons.
  • Responded to an offer to share a dessert with the comment that you feel so much better now that you have stopped eating sugar. Even if that is true, it comes across as a criticism of the other person’s choice.
  • Insisted that someone “just try a little” of something when you know they’re trying to avoid certain foods.
  • Remarked on how lucky someone is that they can eat such a large meal without gaining weight. (That one includes body shaming, too.)
  • Talked about the new diet or way of eating you have adopted and insisted it is the only way to truly eat healthy.
  • Pressured someone into having “just one piece of cake” at the office party when you know they’re trying not to eat sweets (This one works in tandem with peer pressure — it feeds off shaming someone into feeling like they’re not participating if they don’t eat what everyone else is eating.)

Whether intended as a joke or blurted out without thinking, passing judgment on another person’s eating habits is insensitive and unhelpful.

“Americans have a broken relationship with food,” Joe says.

“And so, just as with any other subject we find ourselves getting judgmental about, we need to check ourselves when judging someone else’s food choices. We don’t know what they have been through, or why they make the decisions about food that they make. We always have to remember that we don’t know other people the way we know ourselves.”

Nancy Henderson

Nancy Henderson, a writer and editor originally from New York, moved to Nashville more than 25 years ago and considers herself more Tennessean than Yankee these days. She has written about health care and wellness for a variety of publications.

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