Fending Off the Holiday “Food Police”
How to avoid family food fights started by people who mean well (maybe you)
“Should you be eating that?” Those words, even said with the best of intentions, can strike fear and panic in plenty of hearts. And somehow, the question seems even more judgmental during the holidays, when we’re around large meals, extra treats, and family.
Concerned friends and family, often acting out of a real desire to help, can fall into the trap of food shaming, or food policing: the act of commenting on someone else’s plate. Caregivers want to help their loved ones with diabetes live their healthiest, best lives, and sometimes can’t stop themselves from asking if certain foods or portion sizes are OK. There have been times that Diabetes Forecast reader panelist Claudia Pollet, who lives with type 1 diabetes, has found herself asking similar questions. “I say it from a caring, loving stance without being preachy, nagging, and so on,” she says. “I aspire to [live by] the motto that saying something like this once is caring and twice is controlling.”
Ragen Chastain, a speaker and writer about body acceptance at danceswithfat.org, agrees that most people who act as food police are doing so from a place of love. But she says that even asking can actually do more harm than good. Food policing assumes that you know someone’s health and body better than he or she does. “I think in most cases, people who are ‘food shaming’ … are trying to help out or think that they’re doing something for a person’s own good,” Chastain says. “[But] you’re not helping. It’s a sign of overexaggerated self-importance. It’s sort of willful ignorance of being a jerk.”
So what can you do to have a healthy, sane holiday season when it comes to food? Take a two-pronged approach:
How to Not Police (Yourself or Others)
Redefine good and bad. Food might have nutritional value, but there isn’t a moral difference between eating quinoa and cake, says dietitian Julie Rochefort, MHSc, RD. So before launching into comments about how “sinful” a dessert might seem, stop yourself. “We need to reform this whole notion around ‘good’ or ‘bad’ food,” she says. “Cake’s not generally nutritious, but it might be something we celebrate with and enjoy.” And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Read the relationship. Family dynamics can influence how you talk to your loved ones about their food choices, Rochefort says. Some people are open to talking about their eating plans and how they approach their health. Others are not. Do you know where your loved one stands? Proceed with caution, and remember: “Support what they’re telling you and not what you think you know,” Chastain suggests.
Remember that silence is golden. The best support can be silent support. So if, for example, your loved one says he or she is not eating gluten, don’t offer food with gluten in it. But if the same person knowingly takes a slice of regular bread or cake, don’t try to step in, Chastain says. “They’ve made that choice, and they don’t need anybody’s assistance, or to ration it,” she says.
Offer healthy foods. Providing dishes that fit with your loved one’s meal plan is a nice way to be inclusive and feed everyone a healthy option. You can quietly share that information with your loved one, so he or she doesn’t feel singled out but does know that you pay attention. Not sure what your loved one’s dietary restrictions are? Just ask, says Rochefort.
Resist the urge to comment—it could lead to unintended consequences. “Food shame can actually make things worse,” Rochefort says. “There’s a lingering shame … and it can definitely have a backlash effect. [It can cause a person] to eat more in the first place.”
Reader panelist Janice Ford, who has type 2 diabetes, knows that cycle all too well. Even though she realizes her loved ones mean well when they ask her about her food choices, “when I hear those words, I internally begin a silent scream,” she says. “Typically, it makes me pause for a moment. Sometimes, I give up and stop eating the food. But, more often, I overindulge and then beat myself up after the incident.”
How to Respond to Policing
Discuss food ahead of time. Does the same aunt question your dessert choice at every holiday dinner? Before the feast day, “you can have a conversation,” Rochefort says. That might include talking about what you can bring and what your aunt might provide, and figuring out carbohydrate calculations before the meal is served. That can also relieve family members of the pressure of trying to offer a meal that works for everyone’s food plan, says Rochefort. Then you can enjoy the meal together.
Embrace the teaching moment. You certainly don’t have to justify what you eat to anyone, but if you are feeling charitable, you can take the time to educate your loved ones about their diabetes misconceptions. Reader panelist Kimberly Tiedman did this when a stranger tried to police her eating at a fast-food restaurant. When the stranger piped up after Tiedman, who lives with latent autoimmune diabetes in adults (LADA), checked her blood glucose, the surprised but calm Tiedman was able to reply. “I said, ‘I am eating a hamburger and a side salad and Diet Coke. I do watch what I eat, but I do try to keep a normal lifestyle. I am eating my vegetables in my salad, and I only eat half of the bun. Tonight I will go home and walk my dogs for 45 minutes to help keep my blood sugars in check. This regimen is one that works for me.’ ”
Build on basic knowledge. Reader panelist Eric Holzman has to remind his family about his own dietary needs. He has type 1 diabetes; his father and brother have type 2. The differences in their diabetes care plans are sometimes lost on family members. “My mother … has never really fully understood the relationship of the carbohydrate in the food I eat, the insulin I inject, and my need to maintain my weight,” he says. “She’ll make extra effort to keep carbohydrates out of my dinner, even though I will tell her that, to keep my weight up, I need to eat 40 to 50 grams of carbohydrate at dinner.” So he reminds her, gently. Such education is a bit of advocacy, and that helps everyone, says Rochefort.
Take it easy on yourself. If you do choose to indulge a bit, that’s not a crime. Getting perspective on food this holiday season—whether it’s enjoying a slice of Grandma’s famous cheesecake or opting out of a stressful dinner altogether—is a way to take charge of your health and well-being. Chastain suggests a useful motto: “I’m going to have a good relationship with food this holiday season. If I eat it, I’m going to eat it and enjoy it. And if I don’t, then I’m going to make that choice and not pine over it. Both of those choices are OK.”