Why Food Shaming is a Problem – and What You Can Do About It

Joanna Foley

by | Read time: 6 minutes

Do you ever feel judged for what you eat? If so, you’re sadly amongst many. Making statements about your own or someone else’s food choices can cause a lot of harm, even if there are good intentions. Because food shaming is unfortunately so common in our culture, it’s important to gain a better understanding of what it is, why it happens, and what you can do to help eliminate it.

Fingers Pointing at Apples Instead of Burger and Fries to Represent Concept of Food Shaming | Vitacost.com/blog

What is food shaming?

Food shaming is a form of judgment, and it involves beliefs and statements about food choices and an individual’s morality. Food shaming can be both self-inflicted or inflicted on others.

Examples of food shaming statements include:

  • “Wow, are you really going to eat that?”
  • “If you ate better, you wouldn’t need to be on so much medication”
  • “I ate really badly over the weekend”
  • “She must eat junk food all the time based on the size of her body”

Food shaming isn’t only associated with foods that are believed to be unhealthy, though. People can be shamed for eating a raw salad in the same way that they can be shamed for eating a donut.

In this way, food shaming may look more like the following statements:

  • “I bet you only eat salads all day and that’s why you look so good, huh?”
  • “You must feel so proud of yourself for having such good discipline with food”
  • “I have been eating so good all week”

While food shaming can happen to anyone, there are certain groups of people that may be most likely to be subject to food shaming and judgment.

Examples include:

  • Those who follow restrictive diets, such as vegans, vegetarians or those following a gluten-free or keto diet
  • Those who work in the healthcare field, such as doctors, registered dietitians or nutritionists, and other health educators
  • Those who are overweight or obese
  • Those who are underweight or very thin
  • Athletes
  • Those whose careers involve food, such as chefs, bakers, food analysts, etc.
  • Those who are known to always clean their plate during mealtimes
  • Those who are known to either always eat very “healthy” or “unhealthy”

In addition, food shaming is not always verbally spoken, but often involves internalized beliefs or judgements. These beliefs can inadvertently influence what people think about others, as well as what they think about themselves.

Why does food shaming happen?

Food shaming stems from diet culture, which is unfortunately very prevalent in society today. Diet culture sends the message that food has moral value, and that you are either “good” or “bad” for eating certain foods. Moralizing food choices creates a subtle, often unconscious shift in behavior. It inflicts guilt associated with eating, and leads people to believe things about certain foods, as well as about themselves. These beliefs usually aren’t true, and are almost always not helpful.

Because diet culture messages are all over the media, people often don’t even realize or intend to adopt food shaming, it just happens. Unfortunately, the more people hear these negative messages about food, the more likely they are to be influenced by them and to share them with others, which can lead to more and more food shaming, creating a vicious cycle. Whether it’s intentional or not, food shaming can have major consequences.

Consequences of food shaming

If you’ve been involved in food shaming, you can probably identify at least a couple of ways that it has negatively impacted you. People who are frequently involved in food shaming may suffer the following consequences:

  • Feeling worse about themselves, leading to lower self esteem which can in turn have a negative ripple effect on many other areas in life
  • Feeling frequent guilt and shame associated with eating, which can lead to disordered eating and/or eating disorders
  • Difficulty eating in social situations, which can lead to isolation
  • Embarrassment or taking offense
  • Anger towards others, which may harm relationships
  • Increased mental and emotional stress
  • Anxiety and/or depression
  • & more

Tips for eliminating food shaming

Now that you know how harmful food shaming can be, it’s important to take action to help eliminate it both from your life as well as the lives of those you interact with.

Here are some ideas:

1. Politely challenge the statement of a person who is food shaming you. It is important to stand up for yourself and to not continually allow negative statements to happen to you. You may choose to say something in response like “this is what I choose to eat right now because it sounds good to me. It may not be what you would choose, but your opinion of my food choice will not change my behavior.” Calling the person out may make them more conscious of their behavior and help put an end to their food-shaming tendencies.

2. Work on improving your relationship with food and your body. Food judgments often stem from unhealthy beliefs about foods and yours or someone you know body size or shape. This may involve extreme cases like an active eating disorder, or it may be more subtle like occasional disordered eating. The more you can learn to accept ALL types of food, remove the idea that it has a moral value to it, and embrace eating as both a pleasurable activity as well as something to nourish your body, the less likely you will be to engage in food shaming. You can read more about tips for rejecting diet culture and developing a healthier relationship with food through the concept of Intuitive Eating here and here.

3. Acknowledge that another person’s food choices are none of your business. It is not your job to judge another person’s food choices. Just like how we have no right to judge others’ career choice or religion, we don’t have the right to judge food choices either. No matter what you may be feeling or thinking, try to let it go.

4. Think before you speak, and be careful with your choice of words. As mentioned, food shaming is often unintentional. Acknowledge that there is a difference between encouraging different food choices in yourself or others out of concern for health versus making negative statements that are likely to make you or the person they are spoken to feel worse about themselves. Instead of being accusatory, such as saying something like “you really shouldn’t eat fast food that often”, try being inquisitive with statements like “have you ever noticed how your body feels after eating more fruits and vegetables throughout the day compared to mostly sugar?”. This subtle shift in words and tone of voice can help positively influence another person without making them feel guilty or embarrassed.

5. Try to identify where the food shaming statement may be stemming from. Oftentimes, negative judgments stem from things like insecurity in our own food choices, body size, or even another unrelated aspect of our own lives. Think about why you may be thinking or saying the things that you do, and try to redirect the thought or statement before it has a chance to negatively influence you or another person.

Bottom Line

Food is meant to be nourishment for our bodies and to be enjoyed. If you find yourself wanting to criticize yours or someone else’s food choices or appearance, recognize this as an unhealthy behavior that is not helpful and can have significant negative impacts.

Work on taking steps to finding a balance between caring about health while also being kind to yourself and to others. Remove the judgment and instead embrace individuality and variety with eating. The more you engage in this sort of mindset, the more you can be a positive influence on those around you, which will help gradually lessen the negative impact food shaming has in this world.