We have all experienced food shame.
It’s that flush-faced wave of embarrassment you feel when someone says something along the lines of, “You aren’t going to eat that, are you?” Or “Wow, look at how much cake you have on your plate!” Food shame is also fed by more insidious remarks like “I just think eating this way is the right thing to do,” as if there is clearly a wrong way to eat. I love helping people dispel those unhealthy social pressures, which is one of the reasons I was excited to work with A Fresh Look, an educational non-profit representing over 1,600 independent family farmers, to write this blog post.
Case in point is a recent chat with a dear friend of mine. She was in tears over her escalating food bill, “I know it’s better to eat organic, but I just can’t keep up with the cost! I’m throwing away too much fresh food that goes bad. It feels like I’m literally throwing money in my garbage disposal. But I can’t do frozen and canned produce because it isn’t as good for you.” I’ve listened to concerns like these from friends, family, and clients for many years. It’s not even true! What matters more for health is that you get enough fruits and vegetables overall, not where they come from or how they are packaged. Organic crops aren’t more nutritious or even free of pesticides. My friend’s suffering is born out of a social dilemma – the moralizing of food.
When food takes on moral value, it’s rife with shame.
The food isn’t just bad, the people who eat the food are bad too. There is a lot wrong with this assumption. Firstly, eating to today’s standards of purity can drain anyone’s bank account and it can be downright inaccessible for many Americans living on a budget. A person now must endure the consequences of stigma for their lack of disposable income and their food choices. In addition, food shaming is so pervasive that it causes flexible eaters to second-guess their choices, comparing what’s on their plate to someone else’s and feeling guilty about their choice.
The “compare and despair” phenomenon is part of the human condition. We always want to “fit in” with the crowd. But when comments from colleagues, friends, or relatives become too much, it can hurt feelings and damage relationships. Food shaming can create such a strong fear of what to eat that a person becomes so rigid they risk their physical and emotional health, whether it be from malnourishment, disordered eating patterns, or eating disorders. I could fill a book with the stories of people I’ve seen in my private practice who have said “I’m not living a full life due to my food anxiety.” All these scenarios are, at the very least, stressful situations and chronic stress has been shown to be associated with poor health, probably more so than the very foods people feel shame for eating.
The myths of eating well
Like my friend’s stressful food dilemma, the beliefs that make food shaming a socially acceptable practice are rooted in myths and misinformation. Personal opinions and preferences are regarded as truths and are spread through our social circles, health professionals, and the media that we consume. If there’s one thing that irks me, it’s when people make choices that may not be in line with their life values because they’re too worried about what other people think rather than what works for them. You can probably think of at least one example of how this has played out in your own life.
What if we followed a different approach, one grounded in facts that allowed us to make the choices that fit us best? What if we all worked a little harder to respect that everyone’s choices do not have to align with our own to be respected or “good” choices? It’s entirely possible and throughout this post, I’ll share how through the lens of a “hot button” issue in the food and health world, GMOs. It’s a topic I’ve watched with keen interest since it so often plays into food shaming culture.
Whenever I’m asked about GMOs, the first thing I like to do is make clear what, exactly, GMOs are. I find there’s a lot of honest confusion out there and everyone’s got an opinion, but even in the scientific literature a consistent definition is hard to find. In my own research I’ve come across countless competing descriptions. To keep things simple, here’s my boiled-down definition: GMOs represent a method of seed production that makes it more efficient, accurate and safe to boost beneficial traits in the crops humans have been modifying for centuries.
GMOs and the sustainable farming methods they enable—what I’ll call GMO Farming from here on out—are interesting to me because I have seen so many people unwittingly spread misinformation about them. It’s an easy trap to fall into when false information looks authentic and aligns with your own beliefs, or reinforces other rumors you’ve heard. In many cases, a mom reads an article that appears trustworthy but was based on a source that misinterpreted the science or, even worse, had an agenda to spread fear and sell more non-GMO products. Or, like the telephone game, a mom tells a friend something she heard and so on, and as the information spread it got a little (or a lot) twisted. These things happen in communication, which is why in my own decision-making, I prefer to be open to information and then look for facts myself.
Look for facts to reduce shame.
Many people are unaware that crops produced with GMO Farming are just as nutritious as crops grown conventionally or organically. Not to mention that farmers who choose GMO Farming methods are able to use fewer, safer pesticides. As a matter of fact, GMO Farming has reduced average pesticide use by 37% globally! Yet, many people still believe that they can’t eat healthily and sustainably if they buy food grown with GMO Farming methods. When I talk to clients about this, they are surprised to hear that GMO Farming can be good for the environment too. (I share links to a few of the most robust reports from organizations, like National Academy of Sciences and others, that show just how much research exists on these topics at the bottom of this post.)
This is just one example of how having access to information can be helpful in making choices that fit your family’s needs and preferences without the side of “food shame.” As a mom of two young girls, I care deeply about good nutrition and the well-being of my family. So, beyond my professional interest, I wanted to verify the facts for myself. Once I reviewed the rigorous science from sources like the European Union, the National Academies of Science and the American Medical Association, I came to the same conclusion that virtually every scientific and medical institution agrees on—that crops grown with GMO Farming are just as safe and nutritious as any alternative.
I also strive to teach my girls how to do their part to protect the planet, teaching them why we always try to reduce food waste at home, recycle, and compost, while respecting that others may not be able to do everything we do. When I learned about the ways GMO Farming is not only safe but also sustainable, I was so excited to share this information with others because I believe it can help even more people feel freedom around food and let go of their unhealthy fixations.
Additionally, I hold the value of non-judgment, especially around food affordability, very dearly. Some of the people I love the most live paycheck to paycheck and I’ve seen them open up their wallet for higher priced items, falling prey to misleading marketing. I stand firmly against our cultural messages that say someone with a lower food budget than mine is somehow “lesser than.” There is no shame in making your food budget work for you (and don’t forget, the science says where health and food safety is concerned, there is no difference) between crops grown with GMO Farming and crops grown with organic, conventional or any other farming method.
How to navigate your way through food shame
If you’re reading this and saying “enough”. How do I stop the shaming cycle? I think you’ll appreciate these three tips – and if you want to chat further, leave your question in the comments below and I’ll help.
What you choose is up to you. Hold on tightly to your power of choice and resist that urge to fall for fear-based marketing posing as information or health inspiration. Make decisions that work for your family and let go of worries about judgment from others. Who are these people anyway? Do they really matter or is it just the modern day version of “mean girls” and you’re trying to “fit in”? When I ask people about this, sometimes it’s not even a real person, but more of the fears around what “people” would say. Or another popular response is “I don’t know. I read it in an article.” Listen, writers don’t get an automatic “pass” on authority, especially in the health arena. They’re living in this diet culture too. They may be well-intentioned, but keep in mind that not every writer is an investigative reporter out for the facts. They have deadlines and they’re writing based on assignments, which is partly driven by popularity, not necessarily what is helpful to you. Simply by asking yourself “is this helpful?” reduces shame because you’re essentially saying, “I have needs and choice options.”
Set healthy boundaries. Conversations are important for healthy relationships and you will undoubtedly be with someone who is important to you and find yourself in a food conversation that sends you reeling with shame. If a person cares about you too, they will learn to respect your boundaries. Here’s how I suggest you frame up the boundary:
Take a deep breath and just share your preferences “I like _______.” or “This works for me because ________.” You can go a little farther and say “When you _______ (moralize/police food) it makes me feel ________ (shame or other words), I wish you would _______ (what you want them to do, like respect my choices.)
I also tell clients “You have the right to remain silent.” If you want to stop the food conversation, just say “Let’s talk about something else.”
Keep in mind that not every conversation is worth having. If the person is not that important to you or you are not in a good time or place to engage, the above “right to remain silent” applies. However, if you want to share more information with someone who is spreading misinformation or judgment, do so with compassion, like “I have some information about ________ (topic) that may be of interest, can I share that with you?” Asking for permission helps to hold space for an open-minded dialogue. Simply share what you know and why it works for you, without expectation that you WILL change their mind or behavior. Perhaps the best outcome is that you advocated for your needs and reinforced the value of your choices. Even if you and the other person remain on a different page, you’re still in a place of shame reduction because you’ve essentially said “I feel good about my choices.”
Remember your values for a meaningful life. Above all, remind yourself of your personal values. You can care deeply about health without devoting all your time, energy, and money into pursuing “optimal health,” and there’s more and more evidence that doing so can be quite bad for you! Worrying about what’s “good enough” is another form of perfectionism and it’s not going to make you happier or healthier. Don’t forget the non-food ways you take care of yourself too. How is your sleep? Do you move your body regularly? What about making time for fun and socializing? I happen to believe loneliness is worse for you than cupcakes! As a nutrition and fitness expert, I really do care about enhancing well-being, but nutrition and exercise should NOT be the most important thing in your life. There’s just too much good stuff that makes our lives meaningful.
Tell me something new
Leave a comment below and tell me one helpful insight from reading and if you plan to share it. Or if you have a question, I’d love to try and help through the comments.