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Diet

How to End Diet Shaming

What it is, and how to get people to stop.

Key points

  • It's hard for people to stick to a diet when others shame them for their dietary restrictions.
  • Don't blame a lack of self-control when people try to undermine your commitment.
  • Find ways to politely assert your dietary restrictions when people encourage you to eat otherwise.

People often say they don’t have the self-discipline to stick to a diet. This makes it sound like the difficulty sticking with a diet is all their fault. Their lack of self-control seems like a deficiency on their part, so it seems like they only have themselves to blame if they don't reach their goals. What is overlooked in this way of thinking is the role that other people play in fostering and perpetuating our overeating and making it difficult to stick with a diet.

Here’s an everyday example from my own life: After becoming prediabetic, I needed to lose 30 pounds, which I set about doing by trying to fill up on Weight Watchers zero-point foods, pretty much just eating lots of fruits, vegetables, and low-fat sources of protein. Of course, I missed all of the higher-carbohydrate/higher-fat foods I was no longer eating on a daily basis. The diet was helping me lose weight, so I was trying to stick to it despite still craving all of those fattening foods.

As a college professor, I have to go to all kinds of faculty meetings on a regular basis. At these meetings, there are often fresh-baked goods, candy, pizza, and sandwiches. The basic idea is that eating comfort food together as a faculty facilitates a collegial and family-like atmosphere. If you didn’t partake, however, you were seen as being antisocial — plus, you might make other people self-conscious about their own eating habits if they had a middle-age paunch. Sometimes a colleague would push a tray of brownies in front of me and encourage me to just take one. Knowing that I was on a diet, my colleague said teasingly “You don’t need to lose any more weight, you could eat just one.” The implication was that I shouldn’t be so fanatical about my diet and could make an occasional exception without gaining weight. So, I’m being teased for my seeming rigidity. In fact, I’m being diet-shamed.

Of course, I do want that brownie rather than the apple I brought along for a snack. But it’s not simply about my self-discipline. It’s also about how I deal with people who are weakening, intentionally or unintentionally, my resolve to stick with the diet. So, I say teasingly, "Why are you mocking me for sticking to my diet?” My colleague replies apologetically, “I was just kidding.” I say, “I know. I was just kidding too.” I triumphantly shove the tray of brownies across the table to tempt somebody else. I don’t mind being "out" as someone on a restricted diet struggling with weight control because I want people to respect my decisions. That’s not so easy when I’m being subjected to “diet shaming.”

The Evolution of Social Eating

Humans have evolved to take pleasure in feeding each other. We bond with others by eating meals together and sharing food. We even like to feed animals — from our pets, to pigeons, to zoo animals. We feel good feeding others and being fed by them. And we like to feed and be fed the tastiest and most filling foods, which just happen to be the most fattening. You probably wouldn’t invite company over for dinner and just feed them a garden salad with low-calorie dressing, steamed broccoli, flounder simply prepared, and some fresh fruit for dessert. That would be pretty healthy, but you’d probably feel you should offer something more filling, like wine and cheese, a spinach salad with some dried cranberries, walnuts, bacon bits, and crumbled blue cheese, a high-carbohydrate side dish like pasta, some battered fried cod, and for dessert a strawberry-rhubarb tart with whipped cream. You’d probably encourage seconds on everything. No one would go home hungry. Since this is a way we bond with each other, it would seem rude to not partake of that feast.

Now, if you knew that one of your guests was diabetic, had food allergies, or was vegan, you would make adjustments accordingly; you might even ask about that stuff in advance. But it’s not standard to find out if your guests are on a diet for weight loss and seek to be on a low-calorie food-restricted diet. You might assume that people trying to lose weight could just control their portion size; after all, they’re adults. You don’t want to pry into their problems with weight control because that’s a shame-sensitive topic.

This state of affairs creates a problem for people on a diet: If you’re by yourself, you’re in control of your own diet without having to accommodate anyone else’s food preferences. But if you’re depressed and lonely and eating by yourself you might also engage in emotional eating of fattening comfort foods to make yourself feel better. Yet, if you’re out with other people, you might feel pressured into having the same fattening food everyone else is eating. You don’t want to miss out on the fun or spoil the party. And you certainly don’t want to be diet shamed for your dietary restrictions by people who think you’re being antisocial by refusing to join the feast.

Dealing with the People Who Undermine Your Diet

Lots of people are not shy about asserting their dietary restrictions if they are Kosher, vegetarian, have food allergies, or are diabetic. It’s socially acceptable to assert those restrictions and people are expected to respect those dietary requirements. Because being overweight is a shame-sensitive issue and many people think you should simply control your portion size, it’s not as acceptable to assert your dietary restrictions, such as why you are not eating bread, pasta, or chocolate-chip cookies. Asserting those kinds of restrictions can make people self-conscious about eating those foods in front of you.

The trick, then, is not to be ashamed of your new way of eating, which is helping to keep you slim, improving your gastrointestinal functioning, giving you more energy, and successfully keeping your blood sugar and cholesterol levels, as well as your blood pressure, in check. If witnessing the way you eat makes other people self-conscious about their own eating habits, that’s their issue. Just politely assert your dietary requirements and stand your ground when people try to shame you.

Hopefully, someday the world will be a more supportive place for people on food-restrictive diets. Supermarkets won’t make you stand in a long line eyeing all the candy before checking out. And friends will sit around engorging themselves on heaping portions of steamed broccoli with a fat-free soy-ginger dipping sauce laughing in merriment.

References

Josephs, L. (2021) Food Fantasies: Overcoming the Diet Lies We Tell Ourselves. Kindle Direct Publishing.

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