What is Food Shaming?

Photo by Jenna Day on Unsplash

I know all about body-shaming, but I wasn’t quite sure what food shaming was until recently. I asked my husband about it, and he also didn’t know. Once I started investigating the phenomenon, I realized that I’d been both a victim and a culprit. Food shaming is negativity against any food someone else has decided to eat or chooses not to eat. My introduction to food shaming was rampant criticism towards vegetarians, vegans, ovo-lacto vegetarians, and other non-meat eaters. As time went on, the tables have turned, and the criticism is from both sides. Telling someone that she’s an animal killer because she eats meat, is food shaming. Saying, “You’re going to eat that?” to someone as they have dessert instead of vegetables, is food shaming. Food shaming is so pervasive that it causes flexible eaters to question their choices. Flexible eaters should be able to take pride in their individuality, not shamed into joining this food cult culture.


Why People Food-Shame Others?

This may be an unpopular opinion, but food shaming can be elitist. Many people around the world, including the U.S., don’t have access to healthy food options because they’re poor or live in food deserts with few options. Scoffing at Jenny at work because she isn’t having a salad for lunch, is wrong, and could be because Jenny can only afford to cook what she has at home, which doesn’t include fresh organic spinach, arugula or romaine lettuce. Warren Buffett eats McDonald’s every day for breakfast, but few people try to shame him, because he’s a billionaire and still living well into his 80’s. 

However, I think this food shaming epidemic began innocently enough. There was a push for Americans to eat healthier due to rampant obesity, diabetes, heart problems and other conditions that can stem from the food we eat. There’s a common term for Warren Buffett’s beloved McDonald’s with a side of cola, and that’s “junk food”. We’ve taken this early food shaming term from the ’50s, and broadened its scope. Now, if Kelly doesn’t think your extra cheesy mac is “healthy”, she scoffs because she thinks you’re eating “junk”. Or, she makes a snarky comment about how you can get away with eating anything because somehow you remain thin. The fact remains, that she thinks you’re just eating “anything”, which is code for “junk”. Kelly thinks your food choices are trash, but really, food shaming is trash.

There’s another side of this that forces kids and adults to finish everything on their plates because, as my mother used to say, “There are starving children in the world.” Finishing a meal that is too much for you eat, will not feed a child, and teaches children to overeat because the food is present. My own husband used to food shame me when we were dating. I don’t have a large appetite and usually take smaller portions. However, in Korean and Nigerian environments where people served us large plates of food, they shamed me because I couldn’t finish those portion sizes.

Strong feelings—about ourselves and our relationships with food—also prompt people to food-shame, says Aner Tal, a research associate at Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab. “In some cases, the internal monitoring that goes on with one’s own food choices gets projected onto the outside world,” Tal says. “In a way, being critical of others’ choices is just externalizing the criticism or self-control you apply to yourself.” 


How to Deal with Food Shaming Comments?

The Refinery29 article nailed it, “Whether you’re unwrapping a burrito, microwaving leftovers, or shaking up a desk salad, lunch mates often feel the need to comment when the food arrives.” To combat food shaming, we must challenge the “food police”. My sister called me the “food police” when I criticized her for having a second slice of cake because she is a diabetic. Yes, I was concerned for her, but I didn’t check her blood sugar levels before making negative comments. She’s an adult and had her sugar levels in perfect order. Her nutritionist even warned her about people like me, who were ready to fire off veggies as we yelled, “Hands up! Put down the sweets!” My sister reminded me that I was not her doctor and didn’t know her body. We must remind our food critics that there is no blanketed right-sized diet for everyone. Back off, Kelly! 

Since there’s no one-size-fits-all diet, it’s time to stop judging others for what they put into their bodies. We can embrace our differences by sitting back and enjoying the camaraderie that comes from breaking bread with other people. The next time you’re at the table with friends or get the urge to comment, just try something new instead. Enjoy your meal!


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