We’ve all been at a gathering and heard someone comment about what was on another person’s plate. But when it happens to you, it hits a little differently. Doesn’t matter if that verbal missile was launched by your sweet little grandma or that friend who says all the wrong things when they’re tipsy. When the insult lands, it hurts.
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
Why do people feel the need to judge our food choices? And how should we handle those who always like to give their opinion about what’s on our plates? Psychologist Ninoska Peterson, PhD, explains why we food shame and shares some helpful tips for not letting someone get under your skin — or your potato skins.
Food shaming can come in many different forms. It could be comments about the type of food you’re eating. For example, if you’re eating your favorite ethnic dish and someone mentions how weird it is, that’s one form of food shaming. Food shaming can also be defined as commentary about the quality of the food, calorie/fat/carb counts or just examining portion sizes.
According to Dr. Peterson, these attitudes can stem from several things.
“These judgments could come from your own experience or the culture you grew up in. They could also be generational and framed by the trends of the time. Currently, it seems like a lot of these thoughts are influenced by social media. But family history, your relationship with food or even childhood eating patterns can play a role in food shaming,” says Dr. Peterson.
She points out that many people take an “all or nothing approach” to food. Some foods are “healthy” while others are “unhealthy.” And a lot of what we struggle with now is stuff from our past.
“We need food to fuel our bodies, but we create all of these food rules for ourselves, especially during childhood. They determined when we can eat, why we should eat and how much we’re allowed to eat. It’s a struggle to undo these established eating patterns. And when we don’t observe ‘our rules,’ we might experience feelings of guilt.”
To help overcome feelings of guilt, Dr. Peterson suggests putting food in two new categories that are more holistic in nature. Instead of assigning a “good” or “bad” label, try using the terms “nutritious” and “satisfying.”
“I often encourage people to look at food as ‘nutritious’ or ‘satisfying.’ Doing this creates room for some overlap. We love Venn diagrams so it makes sense to live in the ‘and space’ when it comes to eating. The ‘and space’ is the place of overlap. You want to eat things that are good for you (veggies) and enjoy satisfying things (dessert). If you’re only eating things that are good for you, your quality of life might suffer. The same could be said if you’re only eating satisfying foods. It’s good to eat foods that fit under both of these categories reasonably.”
Dr. Peterson says there are many good books and workbooks out there that can help us work through food-related guilt. However, a psychologist who specializes in eating concerns can guide you on your journey if you don’t want to take the self-help route. Whatever you decide, just know that avoiding the foods you enjoy or were shamed about is not the answer.
“There’s a funny quote that says ‘Dieting is eating foods that make you sad.’ That’s the mentality you don’t want to have — but many of us are trying to undo it. You don’t want to deprive yourself to the point where you’re miserable.”
Dr. Peterson also suggests writing down your feelings and evaluating them. Sometimes, we’re extremely hard on ourselves because we want to “do better.” By looking at things neutrally, we can stop perpetuating that cycle of negativity.
Another way to ease the guilt: Practice mindful eating if you haven’t been. Instead of rushing through a meal or dessert, slow down and savor every bite. Think about the flavors and ingredients that went into what you’re eating and just enjoy the moment. Dr. Peterson said the key is just to “have it, enjoy it and go on with your life.”
And now, the moment of truth.
You make a plate, sit down at the table and someone drops a judgmental gem on you.
How should you respond?
Hurling a fistful of mashed potatoes at their head or flipping the table is not the answer. Instead, be direct and calm with your response. Dr. Peterson recommends communicating assertively. Think of it like Mad Libs. You can say something like, “I feel (emotion) when you point out what I eat. It’s not helpful.”
If you think the comment wasn’t intended to be shady, you could go in the direction of, “I think that was coming from a good place, but try finding a different way to say it.”
On occasion, someone might say something because they are concerned. That concern could be mistaken for criticism. Dr. Peterson believes concern from friends or family members is good sometimes. It can help us recognize when a situation is getting out of hand, especially if a person is dealing with emotional eating or self-medicating with alcohol.
“Distress and disruption of function point to more serious problems. Your eating or drinking habits could be affecting relationships, work or even your bank account. We can be so preoccupied that we might not even realize it. There’s value in other people saying, ‘Hey, this is not OK.’ So, it can be helpful to have friends or a loved one point out when something is becoming a little dysfunctional.”