As someone in recovery from an eating disorder, I spend a lot of my cognitive resources thinking about food. I am constantly at war with the health-centric world around me, which conflates food with morality in ways that closely resemble my disordered patterns of thought. While it is perfectly reasonable to condemn corporations that profit from animal cruelty and encourage unsustainable business practices, it is not okay to demonize the people who consume certain foods you view as harmful.
While it can be empowering to choose foods which align with your personal health needs and goals, it is classist and ableist to assume that everyone has the access and ability to do the same. Policing of food trivializes the experiences of those who require an unrestricted diet as part of their recovery and those unable to obtain or prepare certain foods. Food policing perpetuates diet culture and toxic ideals of which foods we are “allowed” to eat, contributing to a culture of shame as opposed to one of food freedom.
People love to talk about food. We brag about our breakfast (“This protein bar has only 150 calories!”), commiserate over food guilt (“I ate wayyy too much spaghetti last night.”), and remember special occasions in the context of the food we ate (birthdays and weddings = cake!). But when we shame people for eating certain foods, we contest their right to bodily autonomy in a patronizing, misguided and often damaging way. At the lowest point of my eating disorder, I turned each meal into an ultimatum: if I eat this donut, I am a disgusting person undeserving of love and happiness, but this kale salad is an express ticket to the golden gates.
The reality is, salad is not righteous, and donuts are not sinful. You are not a bad person for nourishing your body in whatever way you desire. You are not a bad person for not eating in a way that others view as superior, and you should feel no obligation to change your habits to meet anyone’s expectations.
If you have been guilty of food policing, you are not alone. At some point in our lives, we have all shamed the food choices of others, perhaps in a bid to feel better about our own decisions. Food policing does not promote healthfulness as much as it villainizes food and makes us feel guilty for fueling our bodies. Despite our best intentions, shame does not instigate change. Constant scrutiny creates an atmosphere around food that can be anxiety-provoking for those trying to heal their relationship with food. It may seem daunting to change the conversation around mealtimes to one of acceptance and compassion, but there are some important ways you can break out of the food-policing culture.
If a coworker mentions a food being “bad” or “junk,” you can correct them by saying something like, “I don’t believe in labeling foods that way. Food is intended to nourish your body and soul, and we shouldn’t punish ourselves for enjoying it.”
If a friend complains about being unable to eat a certain food due to a diet or meal plan, question their reliance on external cues like points or portion sizes to regulate their natural hunger and fullness. Remind them that food is not the enemy; our true adversary is the society that keeps us perpetually hungry.
Consider having conversations with your loved ones about the ways their judgment hinders your ability to appreciate food. This can be connected with health and body shaming, which is tricky to talk about in its own right. Explain to them that if they care about your health, they will support you in every aspect of healing, which includes your relationship with food.
Take incidents of food policing as opportunities for conversations about holistic wellness and socioeconomic inequalities that lead to health-wealth gradients. Share research and recipes. Condemn fear-mongering “health” documentaries.
Above all, appreciate all that food can do for you: fuel your body, inspire creativity and allow you to spend your precious brainpower on something besides counting the calories in an order of cheese curds.