The siren call of the cupcakes was strong. Cruising the supermarket aisles, I'd come upon Entenmann's Halloween cupcakes, the ones my mom had bought as a kid. They're a real comfort food for me—vanilla cake, chocolate, and not-found-in-nature orange icing, plus a sprinkling of candy corn (yes, I'm on Team Candy Corn). I picked up the box. I gazed longingly at it. Then I willed myself to put it down and headed to the checkout. The cashier asked how I was doing. "I resisted the Halloween cupcakes!" I blurted. She gave me a look. "Ugh, I'd never eat that," she said. POP! went the burst of pride I'd had over successful cupcake resistance. It was the first time I got food shamed for making a good eating decision.
As people get increasingly conscientious about what we put into our mouths—is it low fat? Low sugar? Gluten free?—we're also getting more judgmental other people's food choices. Perhaps you've experienced this, as I have, during meals with friends. At one recent girls' night out, I listened as two friends debated what to eat. "The veggie lasagna looks great—I love a good lasagna!" said one. "I am soooo not going to carb-land!" the other announced. "I'm getting the salad with grilled chicken." And then: They both ordered the salad with grilled chicken. My husband's gotten all holier-than-thou over chia seeds, which he puts on everything except his toothbrush. "I sprinkled chia seeds into my yogurt—you should too!" has become a common morning refrain at our house.
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OK, he's my husband, he may be gloating but he's just trying to get me to eat better. Lots of times, other people can have a good influence on your eating habits. At a recent work lunch, a colleague of mine who's lost a lot of weight was raving about sardines, high in protein, Omega-3s, and vitamins. I told her I have never eaten them because I find the smell overwhelming. But she pressed on: "You have to try them! I flake them over salad, like tuna, and it's delicious! Sometimes, I eat them out of a can!" I was convinced, although I'm easing myself in (first step: I've purchased a can, and it is sitting in my pantry.)
In general, though, calling out people for their food choices isn't healthy behavior. Food shaming doesn't just induce guilt; it feeds into our already heightened concerns about following the "perfect" diet, making us hyper-aware and even obsessive. And it drains the joy out of eating. Food humiliation recently reached a new low when pranksters from LifeHunters—a Dutch video company—hit a high-end food expo and passed off pieces of McDonald's Chicken McNuggets and Big Macs as new, organic alternatives to fast food. Expo attendees raved. So now people are fools for thinking fast food tastes good but, it must be said, DUH! It does. I'm not championing McD's here, but liking the taste of a Big Mac does not make you an idiot who deserves public shaming.
The phenomenon affects even those of us who are totally on the ball, like Health fitness editor Rozalynn S. Frazier. She was grabbing lunch recently and ran into a college sorority sister. Roz had a heaping bowl of angel hair pasta with veggies and marinara sauce in her hands and, she recounts, "I said something to her like, 'Look at you being all healthy with your salad! I don't usually eat like this, I have to run 20 miles tomorrow.' She was not at all focused on my food, and I'm not sure why I felt the need to defend my pasta. I love food and love to eat—probably why I work out so much!"
It's sad that we reflexively feel the need to stand up for our food choices, lest we be the victims of food shaming. Defense should be reserved for hockey, basketball, and football, not the sport of eating.