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Don’t let someone guilt you over your food choices.

You’re at Sunday brunch with friends. Everyone is laughing and browsing the menu. When it comes time to order, you have a decision to make. Do you choose the low-cal option — egg white omelet with veggies? Or go for the decadent treat — stuffed French toast with a side of bacon?

No matter what you order, you know someone will have something to say. It could be a comment about how healthy your diet is. Or someone might casually note that you’re “being bad” if you opt for the high-calorie treat.

These are all examples of food shaming, which can take the form of a “compliment” or a criticism.

Tricky, right? But it happens all the time. So, know what to do when it happens to you.

What is “food shaming”?

Food shaming or guilting happens when someone judges or criticizes what another person eats, either intentionally or unintentionally. It can cause stress, embarrassment or guilt.

Judgments about someone else’s food choices stem from diet culture — the mindset that being thin matters above all else. “Diet culture examines food under a microscope, placing more nutritious or lower calorie foods on a pedestal,” explains Carolyn Finnerty, MS, RDN, “and making anything else seem ‘bad’ or off-limits.”

Food shaming comes in a few forms including:

Comments: Making remarks about another’s food choices: “Are you going to eat all that?” or “You eat like a bird.”

Thoughts: Having an internal dialogue about what someone else eats. “I wish I had her metabolism,” or “I should probably skip an appetizer tonight.”

Behavioral changes: Letting others influence your food choices. For example, ordering a grilled chicken breast for lunch when you actually want pizza because you think your co-workers may choose lighter meals.

Why do people food shame others?

Food shaming may be based on the idea that certain foods are “bad” or “good.” But such a thing doesn’t exist — food doesn’t have a moral aspect. Labeling a certain type of food creates an atmosphere of criticism, which can lead to food guilting.

All foods can fit into a healthy diet. In fact, avoiding certain food you’ve labeled as “bad” only increases the desire for that food, which can lead to bingeing or overeating when you allow yourself to eat it.

You’ve probably heard of a “cheat day,” when someone allows themselves to overindulge on foods they restrict on “good” days. But cheat days can end up leaving you sick, bloated, sluggish or uncomfortable. Allowing yourself to eat these foods when you crave them will decrease the need to overeat.

How to deal with food shaming

When someone chimes in on your food choices, they may not mean to be hurtful. But even the most well-intentioned comment about your cuisine can cut like a knife.

Deflect the critiques — and change your own attitudes, too.

  1. Speak up. If someone’s comments are upsetting, tell them. Whether it’s your well-meaning mother-in-law pushing a second helping or a friend commenting on your weekend snacking habits, ask them to stop, politely but firmly, if necessary.
  2. Change the subject. Not comfortable with what you’re hearing? Change the dialogue. You could talk about your favorite new song, weekend plans or the weather. But creating a diversion can be a good way to stop negative food talk.
  3. Explain. Defending your actions may help stop the comments. If the other person questions why you’ve turned down those hors d’oeuvres, give them a short explanation. And if someone’s policing your portion sizes, tell them you’re hungry and move on.
  4. Spread positivity. Think your friend’s burrito looks good? Tell them. And, to take the pressure off someone who may be struggling with what they eat, remind them of the importance of honoring their cravings.
  5. Reframe your mindset. Instead of thinking certain foods are off-limits, consider the idea that all food is just that — food. Some foods are more nutritious than others, but all food can fit into your diet. Understanding there are no good or bad foods can change the way you look at what you eat.
  6. Make room for things you love. Don’t deprive yourself of foods you enjoy just because diet culture has deemed them “bad.” Removing moral judgments from food is an important step in creating a healthy relationship with it. Enjoy your favorite dessert or snack in moderation. If you allow yourself these things, you won’t have the urge to binge or overindulge in them. Instead, they’ll be considered a part of an overall healthy diet.
  7. Go easy on yourself. There’s no such thing as a perfect diet, and there doesn’t need to be. If you’re unhappy with the food choices you’ve made, ask yourself why. If it’s due to a belief rooted in diet culture, reframe your mindset. If you feel physically uncomfortable after a food choice, remind yourself it will pass and use it as a learning experience. Leave today’s food choices behind you and focus on making new ones tomorrow that will leave you feeling satisfied and physically comfortable.

And if you do get “food-shamed,” Finnerty reminds you not to stress.

What you eat is your decision, not someone else’s.

Next steps:
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Here’s why stressing about quarantine weight gain isn’t helpful
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