Navigating Food Shame—and the Antidote to Diet Culture
Navigating Food Shame—and the
Antidote to Diet Culture
Shame around food is pervasive. We see it manifest in the movies we watch, the conversations we have with friends, and even, insidiously, in our own self-talk. It’s what therapist Judith Matz describes as diet culture. “Diet culture creates a moral issue out of eating the ‘right’ foods,” she says. “It leads to culturally induced body hatred, which results in fat-shaming and weight stigma. It affects all of us—our friends, colleagues, and children.”
Unburdening ourselves from the weight of diet culture can be a daily challenge. It requires us to identify the omnipresent unhealthy messages we receive about food and our bodies—so that we can protect ourselves from their influence—while remaining steadfastly committed, above all else, to the voice inside our head that can tell us how the food we eat actually makes us feel.
In her practice and her work, Matz helps people do just that: elevate our consciousness around what food shame looks like and sounds like, so that we can begin to protect ourselves, set boundaries, and help cultivate a shift in the culture.
A Q&A with Judith Matz, LCSW
Diet culture refers to the messages, attitudes, and values related to body size and eating. Diet culture awards status to thinner people and assumes that eating in a certain way will result in the “correct” body size and good health for everyone who has the dedication to stick with it. Diet culture creates a moral issue out of eating the “right” foods. It leads to culturally induced body hatred, which results in fat-shaming and weight stigma. It affects all of us—our friends, colleagues, and children.
The problem with diet culture is that it is misleading at best and harmful at worst. Even if everybody ate the exact same foods and engaged in the same amount of daily activity, there would still be a wide variety of body sizes. While people frequently equate health with thinness, there are many myths about health and weight. And many of the behaviors people practice in the name of health are physically or emotionally harmful or both. For example, people often try to follow a wellness protocol during the day, only to find themselves bingeing on “forbidden” foods later in the evening. This loss of control is a natural reaction to food restriction, not a matter of personal willpower.
Diet culture has become so normalized in our society that people often don’t realize that they’re causing harm. Diet culture surrounds us and sounds like this:
• “I was bad today: I ate carbs.”
• “I’m being good today, so I can’t eat dessert.”
• “You look great—have you lost weight?”
• “It’s a cheat day.”
• “I’m too fat.”
• “When I lose weight, I’ll feel more confident.”
The most insidious aspect of diet culture is the shame people feel when their body size doesn’t conform to the cultural ideal. This leads to them adopting restrictive food plans to lose weight. But we know from research that the pursuit of weight loss almost always fails and that the vast majority of people will gain back the weight—one third to two thirds of people end up weighing more than they did prediet, leading to an endless cycle of shame.
While not everyone who diets will develop an eating disorder, restricting food for weight loss typically precedes the development of eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder. Although not an official eating disorder in the DSM-5, orthorexia refers to people who are overly concerned with eating foods that are deemed healthy, which results in extreme anxiety and obsessiveness about food. Unfortunately, diet culture normalizes this way of eating, and orthorexia is on the rise.
Food shaming occurs when people judge what’s on other people’s plates. This judgment typically stems from moral belief systems about food and nutrition. Diet culture can be disguised as wellness, when there is that same sense of virtue or morality associated with a specific or strict way of eating. These days, people often feel that they’re under intense scrutiny for what—and how much—they’re eating.
Food shaming can relate to weight, by implying that what you’re eating is fattening or unhealthy or that you’re eating too much. “I could never eat that much pizza” and “Are you sure you want that second cookie?” are comments that send the message that either you’re too fat or you should be afraid of gaining weight.
Food shaming also occurs because of the current idealization of a super healthy lifestyle. While it’s no doubt important to eat healthful foods for nutritional purposes, there’s room for all types of foods when you develop a healthy relationship with food. Comments about clean eating or avoiding sugar can make you feel shame or anxiety when your own food choices are different because of your own nutritional needs, preferences, and accessibility. Notions of clean eating or avoiding sugar skew toward those who can afford and have access to fresh foods and ignore the social determinants of health.
No matter how well-intentioned these comments may be, intention is not the same as the impact it may have on the receiving end. Food-shaming comments in the name of health often have negative consequences. Each person has their own history and needs when it comes to food, and these uninvited comments can be upsetting or even triggering. The only type of comment you should make about another person’s food choices is “That looks delicious!”
Setting boundaries is key when it comes to food shaming and judgment. You have the right to decide what will satisfy you and the right to savor your food. You also have the right to say, “No, thank you” when you don’t want to eat something. Nobody else can know what and how much food you need.
If you’re experiencing repeated conversations with family members or in the workplace, there are several ways to set boundaries to protect yourself. You can try redirecting a conversation with friends or colleagues by changing the subject away from dieting and food. For example, you could say, “Instead of talking about what we’re eating, tell me how your weekend was.” In your own mind, remind yourself that you don’t have to subscribe to their point of view. After all, they can’t know what types of foods serve you best, and they may be dealing with their own eating issues.
Here are some other things you could say:
• “I know you think you’re being helpful, but I’ve found for myself that diet talk is counterproductive.”
• “I’ve come to learn that I need to be in charge of my own eating, so I’m not going to discuss my choices with you.”
• “I know what’s best for my body. Let’s talk about something else.”
Each of has our own needs when it comes to eating choices. Give up gluten because of a medical reason is different from giving it up because of a general belief that bread and carbs are bad and restricting them helps with weight loss (diet culture).
It is certainly understandable that someone with celiac disease may look longingly at your pizza and declare, “That looks so delicious. I miss being able to eat that.” You might empathically respond, “I’ll bet that’s challenging, even though I know you’re taking such good care of yourself.” That type of conversation validates that we all have needs, that there are feelings that go along with meeting those needs, and that the people around us can offer support.
Compare that to someone who is expressing deprivation around pizza because they are giving up carbs in the name of weight loss. Even if unintentional, their statement that they can’t have pizza is potentially shaming to those who do partake in eating it. Reinforcing this person’s sense of deprivation would reinforce diet culture—the idea that certain foods are bad or dangerous and need to be strictly given up in the name of “eating better,” even if giving them up creates physical or emotional distress.
When someone starts a diet, they usually feel great, as if they’re on a high. There’s a sense of being in control that can make a person feel virtuous. But as a person continues to diet, they typically experience both the physical and the psychological deprivation that go along with giving up certain foods. Breaking out of these restrictions and eating these “forbidden” foods is a natural reaction to the deprivation. A person doesn’t fail on their diet—the diet fails them.
People who are considered successful at dieting because they keep the weight off are often practicing disordered behaviors to keep the weight off. Some examples include needing to constantly weigh and measure food, exercising excessively, undereating, and feeling guilt when eating something that’s not according to plan. There is usually a preoccupation with food that creates stress and takes up a lot of mental energy. Often these people talk about food frequently.
Some people who claim to feel good may have orthorexia. Some features of people with orthorexia are that they care more about the virtue of eating specific foods than the pleasure they receive from it, they feel increased self-esteem and moral superiority from eating healthy, they obsessively follow food and healthy lifestyle blogs, and they show unusual interest in the healthiness of what others are eating. Negative consequences can include social isolation, the development of anorexia, and malnutrition.
Weight loss compliments are part of diet culture. While it may feel good for someone to get compliments when they lose weight, if they regain the weight, which is statistically quite likely, this will reinforce feelings of shame and lack of acceptance when they stop receiving compliments and are instead met with silence. Other times, people are doing unhealthy things to lose weight and may also have eating disorders. Complimenting their weight can reinforce these disordered behaviors. It’s also possible that someone is ill—I had a client with cancer who was repeatedly complimented about her weight loss.
Doctors and other health professionals often contribute to diet culture with weight loss messages. Everyone deserves access to treatment and management strategies for their health conditions. Making dietary changes, such as adding fiber or reducing saturated fat, can be important recommendations. Moderate physical activity is another sustainable behavior that can positively impact a person’s physical and mental health. However, unlike the messages of diet culture, the purpose of these behavioral changes is to improve health regardless of whether weight is lost.
“Keep in mind that while diets may seem to be scientific or may be called something else, if the eventual goal is weight loss, it’s a diet.”
The diet industry is a $70 billion industry despite the fact that there is not a single program or plan that shows long-term results over five years. Dieting in the pursuit of weight loss fails for upwards of 95 percent of people. If a doctor prescribes dieting for weight loss, ask to see research that shows sustainable results for the majority of people who try it. While just about all diets work in the short run, we have zero evidence that any weight loss plan can be sustained. (We all know someone who kept the weight off, but they are the exception.) Keep in mind that while diets may seem to be scientific or may be called something else, if the eventual goal is weight loss, it’s a diet.
Yo-yo dieting, a pattern of losing weight and regaining it, leads to an increase in health problems such as cardiovascular disease. The more people diet, the heavier they tend to get over time—and while it’s important to end weight stigma and fat shaming, it’s also important to understand the physiology of weight and set point (your natural weight range). The body’s number one job is to keep you alive, and it can’t tell the difference between a diet for weight loss and famine. The more people diet, the more likely it is that their metabolism slows down and fat storage increases to protect against future periods of extreme hunger.
The antidote to diet culture is intuitive eating and body acceptance. I teach clients to reconnect with their signals for hunger and fullness as they choose from a wide variety of foods. New clients usually tell me that they don’t ask themselves what foods will satisfy them. As we work together, they discover that when they are physically hungry—and eat something that they’re truly hungry for—they feel satisfied and content. Conversely, when they eat something because they should, they end up feeling deprived and disappointed. They may feel full but not fulfilled. As they stop categorizing foods as good and bad, while honoring their body’s cues, they’re able discover a positive relationship with food that feels nourishing, pleasurable, and peaceful.
When it comes to body image, it’s important to recognize that people naturally come in all shapes and sizes. There is so much weight stigma in our culture, which we internalize. Body acceptance means rejecting cultural standards about weight and instead focusing on taking care of your body. Body positivity doesn’t mean loving your body every minute of the day, but rather it means developing skills like self-compassion and mindfulness so that you can respond to your inner voice with kindness instead of shame.
Judith Matz, LCSW, is a therapist, an author, and a nationally recognized speaker on the topics of diet culture, binge eating, emotional eating, body image, and weight stigma. She is a coauthor of The Diet Survivor’s Handbook and The Body Positivity Card Deck. Matz has a private practice in Skokie, Illinois, where she works with clients with binge eating disorder and those who want to break the dieting cycle. Find her on Instagram: @judmatz
This article is for informational purposes only, even if and regardless of whether it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.
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