How an Intuitive Eating Dietitian Navigates Food Shaming During the Holidays

Photo: Stocksy/Maryanne Gobble
The holidays are an (ahem) interesting time for many reasons.

Sure, it's a glorious time of year to get in the holiday spirit, but it’s also when many of us are around that one person that can make even the best gatherings feel uncomfortable by food shaming. Despite being well-intentioned in some cases, food shaming—which includes negative commentary on food choices that can spark shame and guilt—cause significantly more harm than good.

"Food shaming during holidays [from loved ones] can cause someone to enter the restrict-binge cycle as they avoid giving their body what it wants and needs," says Colleen Christensen, RD, an intuitive eating registered dietitian and founder of No Food Rules. "It also invites shame and negativity, and can cause a person to rightfully feel defensive."

But this doesn’t only apply to adults; Christensen also points out how food shaming can negatively impact children, even if it’s not directed to them. “From a young age, kids can begin to see food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ based on how adults around them talked about them,” she says.

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For that reason, Christensen emphasizes the importance of not shaming foods around kids, especially since this can increase their likelihood of developing disordered eating tendencies themselves. One study found that parents that talked to their teens about their weight and size were more likely to diet, use unhealthy weight-controlled behaviors, and engage in binge eating.

In an ideal world, food shaming wouldn’t find a place in holiday gatherings (or anywhere else), but it can be unfortunately inevitable. Keep reading to learn how an intuitive eating registered dietitian navigates common examples of food shaming during the holidays.

An intuitive eating RD's tips for responding to toxic food shaming during the holidays

Food shaming remarks can vary, but they’re all generally similar in that they never land well or make you feel good. To help you craft a plan before an upcoming gathering, Christensen shares her suggestions on responding to four common examples of food shaming during holidays.

When someone tells you not to eat a certain amount of food

The last thing anyone wants is to hear how much you should (or shouldn't) be eating of your favorite foods. In scenarios like this, Christensen suggests reminding people that you can determine how much food you need to feel satisfied. "You can say, 'I trust my body to tell me what it needs, and today it needs this much food,'" she says.

If you’re already expecting remarks like this from a specific person, another option is getting ahead of it. “I always recommend my clients have a conversation with friends, family members, and so on when able ahead of time,” Christensen shares. “So rather than waiting for the subject to be brought up, be proactive and let them know, ‘I’m working on intuitive eating or not dieting [to] improve my relationship with food, so I'd love it if we can keep food talk neutral.’” You can also mention this if you find that people make certain remarks to children during holiday gatherings.

When someone tells you to make a “healthier choice”

One of the most common byproducts of toxic diet culture is the belief that there are "good" and "bad" foods. Certain foods carry a health halo on them while others are viewed as 'harmful,' despite experts affirming all food has value. If someone suggests making a "healthier choice" when preparing a plate, Christensen suggests reminding them that all foods are good.

“I always say to remind the shamer that no food is healthy or unhealthy, some foods are more body-nourishing and some are more soul-nourishing, and we need—and deserve—both,” says Christensen.

Food is also much more than just fuel. It allows people to create memories during the holidays. Reminding both the person who made this remark and kids can be a great way to reframe the conversation regarding the moral value of food during the holidays.

When someone implies you’re going against your “diet”

While intuitive eating has grown in popularity since being coined in 1995, friends or family members may still assume it’s another form of rigid dieting. As a result, they may imply you’re going against your “diet” when eating certain foods, especially if they don’t fully understand intuitive eating.

One way to navigate conversations like this is to remind them of what intuitive eating is and that you allow yourself the flexibility to eat what you want. “Saying ‘I don’t follow a rigid diet plan [since] that actually leads to more out of control eating!’ can help,” Christensen says.

When someone compares their choices to yours

If you’ve escaped the hands of diet culture, that may not mean the people around you also have. The people around you may make remarks implying their choices are better than yours or, worse—judge you based on your food choices.

While this is frustrating and uncomfortable to deal with, sometimes people need to be reminded that we’re all different in preferences and choices. “Every person is different and that is okay, [you can say] 'I’m doing what feels best to me and you can do the same,'” says Christensen.

Christensen also advises against trying to change someone else's views to get them to agree with you, no matter how tempting it can be. “Just like shaming someone’s food choices isn’t a good idea, shaming someone for dieting isn’t usually a good idea either,” she adds. After all, most of us have been there and we can all agree it can be difficult to escape diet culture. “Instead, if they’re set in their diet culture ways and not open to learning about intuitive eating, ask for their respect and set boundaries. If you do feel they could benefit from learning about intuitive eating, leading by example can be super powerful.”

If you find that even engaging in conversations like this isn't your jam this holiday season, Christensen recommends redirecting the conversation to something else. Examples of this include talking about an upcoming show, a family pet, or your favorite holiday traditions. Regardless of your route, it's important to plan before upcoming gatherings, especially if you expect someone to make triggering remarks.

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