Why You (and Only You) Should Have the Final Word on What Goes on Your Plate

Photo: Getty Images/Alexey Dulin and EyeEm
I can't remember the very first time someone's comments on my food sparked a mental shame spiral, but one instance has stuck in my memory. I was 16 and home alone on a Friday night. I ordered a large pepperoni pizza and ate slice after slice until half of the pie was gone. When my parents got home, the sight of the missing carbs prompted a statement like, "You ate that all yourself? That's like a thousand calories." It sounds silly and small, but that comment made a lasting impression on me—to the point where those words echo in my head whenever I go all in on an "unhealthy" craving.

I know that my parents' words weren't intended to make me feel bad about my eating habits. But it's not harmless—and I'm not the only one who melts into a shame spiral any time someone turns their attention to what's on the end of my fork. There's a whole Reddit thread, "Please stop commenting on my food!" dedicated to the topic. And when I started asking around, friends, family, and coworkers chimed in that they, too, feel deeply insecure under nutritional scrutiny.

As Judith Matz, LCSW, co-author of The Diet Survivor’s Handbook: 60 Lessons in Eating, Acceptance and Self-Care, explains, "intention isn’t the same as impact." When we comment on the contents of somebody else's plate (no matter how well-intended), we're potentially feeding their harshest inner critics. And for women in particular, those critics are already on overdrive thanks to, well, society. Research has found that two-thirds of adolescent girls admit to trying to lose weight. A combination of friends, family, and the media have been shown to prompt young girls (and eventually, grown women) into unhealthy weight-management techniques like dieting, fasting, and bingeing.

"From my perspective, the only comment you should ever make from someone about their food is, 'Oh, that looks delicious!' because only you know what supports your body." —Judith Matz, LCSW, co-author of The Diet Survivor’s Handbook: 60 Lessons in Eating, Acceptance and Self-Care

Of course, not everyone will have the reaction I did to a remark about how much pizza they've eaten. But for anyone who's been on the receiving end of unwanted food commentary—"You sure you want to eat all of those fries?" "Wow I wish I could eat as much sugar as you do,"—it's unpleasant to say the least. "From my perspective, the only comment you should ever make from someone about their food is, 'Oh, that looks delicious!' because only you know what supports your body," Matz says. Anything beyond that, she says, could be potentially triggering or upsetting—and can play into harmful diet culture.

Believe me, I completely understand the need to weigh in. I'll be the first to spot tofu on a friend's salad and go on a lengthy tangent about the nutritional merits and pitfalls of each and every alt-meat out there. But as we become more careful about how our use of language affects people in general, our interpersonal food skills need to be part of that shift, too.

The surprising forces driving food comments

Take a minute to think about the last time someone said something to your about your breakfast/ lunch/ snack/ dinner/ dessert beyond sharing a few drooling emojis in the comments on Instagram. You may not have known in the moment, but Matz says it likely stemmed from one of two moralistic frameworks that form our belief system about food and nutrition.

First, there's a general attitude about weight and how to "manage" it at play. A comment skewing on the negative side about someone's nutrition choices (i.e. "Are you sure you want that second cookie?") might be a subconscious jab at the fact that their body doesn't mold to society's accepted beauty and health standards—and that could make the person feel guilty, anxious (me!), or even consider doing unhealthy things to fit those standards. "People start restricting and then those restrictions lead to binges or overeating,"  Matz says.

The second reason behind most food commentary has to do with the current, very-much-in-vogue glorification of living a "healthy" lifestyle. (See: My weird obsession with laundry-listing the nutrition facts of tempeh, tofu, and seitan.) But being healthy isn't a one-size-fits-all thing, and acting like one interpretation of nutrition (whether it's low-carb, Paleo, or Mediterranean) is best is unfair and inaccurate, especially since they likely don't know they other person's own health history or issues.

For certain people, this kind of commentary can be very damaging

Managing one's inner critic is part of the job description of being a human. As someone supporting a friend, partner, family member, or even acquaintance from the outside, it's important that what we say isn't seconding the falsities spewed by said inner critic. "When someone reprimands you, judges you, or comments instead of saying, 'You have no right to say that,' you internally say, 'You’re right it’s my fault,'" Matz says. This can create a harmful feedback loop for the person on the receiving end—especially if they already have a difficult relationship with food.

"Early in my recovery, [comments on my food were] absolutely very triggering—no matter what I was eating." —Kristina Saffran, co-founder of Project Heal

"Think about it from the perspective of someone who’s already recovering from an eating disorder," says Lauren Smolar, director of programs at the National Eating Disorder Association. They're likely very sensitive about what their foods look like and what foods they’re eating, she says. This was certainly the case for Kristina Saffran, co-founder of Project Heal—which provide funds to those with eating disorders who can't afford treatment. "Early in my recovery, [comments about my food] were absolutely very triggering—no matter what I was eating," she recalls. "Early in my eating disorder, something like that would make me go, 'Oh, alright, I shouldn’t eat that,' even if that was precisely what my treatment team had told me to eat."

That's why Smolar says health care providers with access to an individual's medical history are the only people with the authority to hand out nutritional advice. "It’s never going to be productive unless it’s a conversation between somebody and their personal doctor or dietician who specializes in the situation that they may be dealing with," says Smolar. "It's such a personal case-by-case, person-by-person situation."

If you're on the receiving end of unwanted food comments, it's OK to shut them down

Smolar recommends being direct as you possibly can. "Simply let people know that that’s not up for discussion," she says. "Stopping the conversation as much as possible is sometimes the best way to handle a conversation." The person may go on the defensive at first, but if they belong in your life, they will respect your wishes.

"In the most general sense, what we’re talking about here is setting boundaries," explains Matz. "Of course, some people will value those more than others, but each person has the right to set boundaries about what’s OK and what’s not OK." In case you're not quite sure where to start, here are some scripts from Smolar and Saffran that you can tweak for yourself:

  • "I really don’t discuss the details of what I eat with other people."
  • “I’d appreciate if you wouldn’t comment on my food. I have a really good sense of when I need to eat, or when I’m hungry, or when I’m full.”
  • “I understand that you're coming from a good place, but your comments make me feel bad. I'd appreciate it if you didn't talk about my food choices anymore."

As part of her work with Project Heal, Saffran tells me she often sees families renegotiate how they talk to each other at dinnertime. And in her experience, the most healing exchanges from parent to child stem from a raw, real place. "Those kinds of conversations where you’re being very vulnerable about the impact of comments really go a long way," she concludes.

Not sure when "clean eating" becomes disordered? Here's the deal with orthorexia. Plus, a personal take on how one writer healed her relationship with wellness after a battle with anorexia. 

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