For some people, the holidays can bring joy: their grandma’s pie, gifts, macaroni and cheese (need I say more?), and relaxing with family members you’ve missed.
But the season isn’t that simple for everyone. When Casey Clark, a freelance writer and mental health advocate from New York City, joins her family at the table, she hears common food-shaming phrases and feels ostracized.
“Instead of celebrating the joy food can bring, it creates anxiety and fear,” Clark said. “Fear that people, my relatives, are watching my every move and analyzing every forkful that goes into my mouth.”
The hurtful remarks aren’t all. “It’s difficult when you get up to get more or ask someone to pass you seconds and they look at you as if you have no right to do so,” she added. “I spend most of the holidays worried about what my relatives will think if I happen to go into that second slice of pie.”
Many food-shaming phrases come from diet culture, which, as a $72-billion industry, is incredibly pervasive. So, if you’ve said any of the following before, don’t beat yourself up — just use this as a learning experience. Here’s what to avoid:
“I shouldn’t go back for more food.”
You’re sitting at the table with a finished plate in front of you, but you’re not feeling satisfied. Maybe you’re still hungry or want more of the delicious holiday food. “But I should only have one plate,” you think. Deep down, you may worry about weight gain or being judged.
Remember this: You’re allowed to get more food. And so are the people around you.
“Be aware of ‘shoulds’ and ‘shouldn’ts’ that may come up for you,” said Allie Weiser, a licensed psychologist and the education and resource manager for The Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness. “As soon as we do the opposite of what we think we ‘should’ do, we can again feel that guilt and shame like we have failed.”
Weiser explained that we may create food “rules” to give us a sense of structure and safety. We need something to control, and food is an easy target.
Instead, she encouraged listening to your body and trusting it. “Something to say is, ‘I am still hungry, and I really enjoyed XYZ. I am going to have some more and will try to focus on enjoying it,’” Weiser said. This can encourage others around you, too.
Then, practice a coping skill if you need to, such as texting a friend or taking deep breaths.
“The diet starts Monday!”
The dieting mindset is unhelpful for everyone. “Saying this each time you enjoy food sets you up for a never-ending cycle of feeling bad about what you eat, then try[ing] to fix it with a diet, only to start all over again,” said Marisa Moore, a culinary and integrative dietitian in Atlanta.
Moore recommends being mindful. “Tune in to what your body wants and enjoy the meal in the present. You’ll free up so much more mental space without having to feel like you need to go on a diet,” she said.
“Are you going to eat all of that?”
Food-shaming isn’t only something we do internally. It’s something we can inflict directly on others, too.
Asking someone if they’re going to eat everything on their plate — or if they’re sure they want another serving — is an example of that with long-lasting effects. Not only does it hurt the person who receives the comment, but it hurts people nearby, too.
“The message to the person on the receiving end of this comment is that they should question or doubt that they can determine what amount of food will satisfy their own body’s hunger,” said Desreen Dudley, a licensed clinical psychologist from Teladoc. “This can create self-doubt and [a] lack of confidence in any decisions one needs to make for themselves.”
What you need will differ from what someone else needs. “Everybody’s nutritional needs, food preferences and hunger/fullness levels are different, and these are based on a variety of factors,” Weiser said. “Remember, no one is better or worse for eating or not eating certain foods, or for consuming a certain amount of foods.”
Let people assess their own hunger and satiety levels. Connect on other topics and try to figure out what made you want to ask that question so you can address your personal needs.
“I was so bad for eating XYZ.”
Holiday meals are often full of yummy options. It’s hard to pick one dessert or side — and you don’t need to, anyway. So, after enjoying all those foods, when you’re thinking or saying, “I was so bad for eating XYZ,” remember that’s not true.
“This statement not only assigns moral value to food, it conflates what you eat with your character as a person,” Moore explained. And, in turn, it makes those around you have those same unnecessary concerns. Food doesn’t have moral value; all foods fit.
To meet your actual need behind this statement — such as feeling out of control or judged — focus on the taste and your loved ones. “Instead of using judgmental words, you might think or say how you chose to enjoy your favorite food this weekend,” Moore said.
Remind yourself of food’s many roles. “Food is neutral and meant for nourishment, as well as for pleasure, satisfaction, enjoyment and connection,” Weiser said. You “deserve to enjoy this holiday meal with family.”
If you struggle, that’s OK! Try to not get too discouraged. “Eventually, you won’t have to think about it and you’ll just remember how much you enjoyed it and move on,” Moore said.
“Ew, how can you eat that?”
You may not be a fan of everything on the table, but other people have different tastes.
“We all have different preferences in food diets, which sometimes reflect cultural or medical needs,” Dudley said. “To criticize someone’s food selection is not only insensitive, but it can lead to a person feeling dismissed or abnormal for their personal values, which may be reflected in their food choices.”
Rather than expressing your distaste, Dudley recommends saying, “I’m curious. What are you eating? I may like to try it.”
Remember, food-shaming comments aren’t about you, and they don’t have to define your life.
If you receive a food-shaming comment, remember it doesn’t actually have to do with who you are.
“In most cases, people usually comment on things they either don’t like about themselves or are jealous of others for having,” Clark said. “In this case, those people commenting on your food choices wish they felt the same sense of freedom around food. They wish it didn’t hold such a grasp on them.”
She encouraged talking to potentially triggering family members before the holidays about your boundaries and needs. And if you feel out of control, judgmental or have food “rules,” consider seeking professional support, such as a therapist or a free, virtual, therapist-led support group hosted by The Alliance for Eating Disorder Awareness.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.