For many women, just being around particular foods can cause anxiety and guilt. Writer LaRue Gillespie draws on her own experiences with food shaming, as well as experts in nutrition and psychology, to examine why we do it and how we can end the cycle.
On a sunny morning at age 20, I was finishing up my breakfast (a bowl of Raisin Bran cereal) in my car when a man next to me rolled down his window and shouted, ‘You shouldn’t eat that! It’ll make you fat!’ Stunned, my cheeks flushed and tears welled up in my eyes.
That’s the first time I remember being publicly shamed for eating – or more specifically, what I was eating. And 20 years later, I still have anxiety about eating in my car.
A quick poll of my friends revealed they’ve had similar experiences, either from a parent, a loved one, or a complete stranger. What’s more, most of them admitted food shaming themselves; scolding themselves for indulging in foods they deemed ‘bad’ or secretly shaming others for what they choose to put in their bodies.
Shame and guilt for eating is often elevated at special events. Raise your hand if you’ve eaten at home before a party to avoid indulgent foods? Or tried to calculate every calorie you consumed during a meal out? Or felt angry with yourself immediately after your last bite of something ‘naughty’?
If your hand is in the air, you’re not alone. And while it may seem like those practices are helping you make healthier choices, they may actually be doing more harm than good.
Why we fear food
Experts say living in the information age plays a big role in our food shame. With so much nutrition information available, particularly on social media, comes a bevy of opinions from influencers and bloggers who vilify certain foods and glorify others.
‘Any influencer with a social media account has been effectively able to dispense nutrition information, much of which is inaccurate and potentially harmful,’ says registered Dietitian, Ilana Muhlstein.
‘When impressionable people listen to advice delivered with a strong conviction from someone they’ve grown to trust, [they] believe it and begin to cast judgments on themselves or others who don’t follow or comply.’
Major food manufacturers can also cause food fears by using the latest diet craze – be it fat-free, low-carb or gluten-free – to sell their products. ‘If a company helps demonise gluten, then they may have more success selling their more expensive gluten-free cookies,’ says Muhlstein.
Food shaming and fears could also be contributing to the multi-billion-dollar weight loss industry, which rakes in the dough by telling us what we should and shouldn’t eat. The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) recently predicted that the health and sustainability market could be worth over $25 billion by 2030. Yet two thirds of Australian adults are overweight or obese, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
That math doesn’t add up.
Ultimately, restricting ‘bad’ foods doesn’t work, says Jennifer Carter, a Psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at The Ohio State University in the US. ‘The foods we forbid ourselves to eat are often those we overeat later.’
Fears and anxiety linked to eating can be harmful to your mental and physical health. ‘Anxiety and stress cause our body to up the adrenaline and other hormones,’ says Abby Phon, a certified Holistic Health and Wellness Coach.
‘This changes our digestion and metabolism, and can lead to digestive issues such as gas, bloating, or irritable bowel syndrome.’
When the body is chronically stressed, it releases cortisol, a hormone linked to weight gain, fatigue, and high blood pressure when continually produced at high levels.
Food shaming can also lead to disordered eating, particularly for young girls and teenagers. ‘Many of the adolescents we treat for anorexia first changed their eating because they received a message from a teacher, a parent, or a coach that certain foods were ‘bad.’ These negative messages are rarely based in research or fact,’ says Meghan Feehan, a licensed Psychologist at the Pediatric Eating Disorders Centre at Atlantic Health System in the US.
‘Adolescents in particular take these messages to heart and may make changes based on the subjective information they hear.’
Bottom line: food shaming yourself or someone else in an attempt to encourage healthier eating habits doesn’t work.
‘As a personal trainer and nutrition coach, I can attest that not only is food shaming wrong, it’s ineffective,’ says Dani Singer, CEO and Director of Fit2Go Personal Training. ‘Shaming someone about their food choices makes them less likely to change, not more.’
How to end food shaming
Feelings of guilt and shame around eating are often deeply ingrained in the psyche thanks to years of messaging, marketing, judgements and learned behaviours.
When it comes to feeling food shame:
1. Be kind to yourself
If you’re constantly telling yourself you’re a bad person for eating ‘bad’ foods, try practicing self-compassion. Talk to yourself like you would a friend – make sure your inner voice is positive and uplifting. ‘There are many ways to change your inner voice,’ says Shawn Wells, an expert in performance nutrition, longevity, fitness, and supplementation. ‘I like to start with daily affirmations and simple mantras, where I only hear my voice saying positive things to myself.’
2. Realise food is just food
A food is not ‘good’ or ‘bad’. It has no morals. ‘Think of food as fuel, not as a reward or punishment,’ says Wells. ‘We eat to live, we don’t live to eat.’
3. Find balance
‘There are foods that should be chosen more often than others for optimal health, but nothing is off limits,’ says Rank. ‘I prefer to eat a certain way because it makes me feel good, is great for my health, improves my mood, and keeps my hormones stable. However, if I want a piece of cheesecake, I will have it.’
4. Practice mindful eating
If you have a treat, stay in the moment and enjoy it. Then, move on, says Phon. ‘You don’t get fat from one biscuit, just like you don’t get fit from one trip to the gym. It’s about the overall healthy habits you cultivate.’ Savour calorie-dense foods by eating them slowly and engaging your five senses. You might also consider intuitive eating – eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full.
When it comes to food shaming other people:
1. Mind your own business
If you’re thinking about shaming someone for eating a second helping of mashed potatoes, just stop. ‘It’s like sticking your nose in somebody else’s bedroom. It’s none of your business,’ says June Tangney, a Professor in the Department of Psychology at George Mason University.
2. Be a good example
If you feel the need to tell someone how to eat healthier, try leading by example. ‘The best way to help a friend or family member eat right is by being an example to them,’ says Susan Besser, a Family Medicine Specialist with certification in obesity medicine. ‘Not through shaming, but by eating right yourself.’
Want more articles like this? Check out our article exploring food addictions here.