Everybody has that annoying aunt who feels the need to comment on every single bite of food you put in your mouth. At the Thanksgiving dinner table — her preferred battleground — things are bound to get ugly, fast.
From backhanded compliments to snide passing remarks masked as concern for health or outright attacks on food choices and habits, food shaming comes in many forms, all of which are equally unnecessary and unhelpful. “It can really create hurt feelings, awkwardness at the table, and literally shame, meaning that other people might be witness to it, which can be very embarrassing and hurtful,” Michelle May, M.D., author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat and founder of Am I Hungry Mindful Eating Programs and Training, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.
May adds that food shaming can have lasting implications, including secret eating. “People who are fearful of being food-shamed may find themselves eating one way in public and differently in private. I also believe that whenever we associate eating with guilt, it actually has the counterproductive effect of creating more eating, either in that situation or another situation,” says May. “For example, when somebody is feeling guilty about their eating because of being judged by someone else, they might eat more out of rebellion or they may limit their intake at that meal and then eat more leftovers later.”
May laid out three of the most common types of food shaming that she witnesses in her professional practice, and how to deflect comments and come out of Thanksgiving dinner unscathed.
1. “Are you sure you need another serving?”
The most common type of food shaming is rooted in weight stigma. “We’re less likely to do this with friends, but sometimes a family member who will say that they’re concerned about another family member’s health or weight will then judge their choices at the Thanksgiving table with the pretense of trying to help them with their health,” says May.
This type of food shaming also emerges with comments like, “Do you know how many calories are in that?” or suggesting healthier alternatives.
“I personally feel that dealing with it directly is the best way to [push away remarks without stirring up more commentary],” says May. “Say something like, ‘Thank you for sharing your opinion about this, but I don’t feel this is the time or place to have this discussion.’ That may be appropriate for a partner who’s doing it in front of your children, for example. If it’s a more casual acquaintance, you can say, ‘Well, that’s interesting,’ then turn away from them and continue to eat what you want to eat.”
2. “Can’t you give up your diet for just one day?”
May believes that people following diets are often shamed for the “burden” that they might be putting on the host. “People around the table may say things like, ‘You’re making it so hard on everybody. Can’t you just give it up for one day?’ Or, ‘Can’t you just have dessert this one time? Why do you have to make it so hard?’”
The food choices that you make for yourself don’t have to be cumbersome to others, and you shouldn’t be made to feel that way. “It doesn’t have to be a problem,” says May. “My daughter is a vegetarian, and last year my mom made a stuffing specifically for her with a cute sign that said, ‘Vegetarians like Thanksgiving, too.’ There are completely different ways to approach dietary restrictions that don’t tread the line of ‘too bad — bring your own.’”
3. “Don’t you know what’s in that?”
For some, personal food choices create an air of superiority or make people feel like they need to educate those around them about the contents or quality of their food. “It may be a situation that’s not weight-related, but they might say, ‘Don’t you know what’s in that? Don’t you know what they do to turkeys? Don’t you know how much sugar is in cranberry sauce? Aren’t you concerned about manufactured food?’ There are so many ways,” says May.
She says that deflecting these comments can be abrupt as well. “You can handle it assertively when it’s appropriate,” says May. “But if it’s just an acquaintance who’s blabbing on about their latest clean eating plan and what’s in all the food that you’re having, say, ‘That’s interesting,’ or, ‘Thank you for sharing,’ or, ‘I’m glad that’s working for you; that’s different from the choices that I choose to make.’ Make sure that it’s clear that their choices may be fine for them; you’re not going to judge them for what their choices are, but that you’re going to eat your way.”
In all three examples of food shaming, the overarching theme is judgment. “It’s one person feeling, for some reason, whatever that dynamic is, that they have a right to impose their opinion or judgment on another person for the choices that they’re making at that meal,” says May.
She feels that there’s never a right time to comment on someone else’s food choices or eating habits during a meal. “I think it’s certainly possible that people can have a friendly discussion about food, but I don’t think that it’s ever appropriate in the context of a meal or in relationship to something that somebody has on their plate or has brought to a meal,” she says. “They’re adults, they get to do what they want, and so whatever your feeling is about that, it’s not really your place to comment.”
Instead, if you have concerns about a family member’s health, there are better ways to have that conversation in a supportive way, but not in the context of the meal itself. In a culture where food shaming is rampant, that person is likely already struggling with guilt surrounding food.
“I saw food shaming today on the news. There are all these articles and news programs right now about how to cut calories from your Thanksgiving dinner — and that sort of thing, in and of itself, becomes a way that we begin to feel guilty or second-guess ourselves about our choices in our meal,” May adds. “Even if you don’t cut the end of the crust off your pie, in the back of your mind that suggestion has been given to you, and you feel you’re somehow not doing something that somebody else thinks you should be doing.”
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