Writer Ragen Chastain can think of several things that would be more fun than being under holiday surveillance by what she calls “the Friends and Family Food Police”: a root canal, a fishhook in the eye… you get the picture.
Chastain, who blogs at “Dances With Fat,” tackled the subject last year of holiday eating and the well-meaning individuals who comment, nag or react in other ways to someone else’s food choices, particularly if that someone is overweight.
She clearly hit a nerve, because the comment section quickly filled with stories about people’s experiences at the holiday dinner table.
One woman was scolded by a cousin for eating high-carb carrots. Someone else was told “You don’t need that!” when she reached for the bread.
For others, the guilt tactics were more subtle – for instance, people asking them if they’d lost weight, or commenting, “I’m really being bad, I shouldn’t be eating this” while downing a sliver of pie.
Maybe it’s the food, maybe it’s the family dynamics, maybe it’s the emotional expectations we have for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Whatever the reason, there’s something about the holidays that can bring out the worst in people’s guilt and disordered attitudes about eating. When I Googled the words “holiday food and guilt,” there were 7.9 million results.
If you’re on the receiving end of the guilt tactics, how do you cope?
Chastain, who teaches workshops on self-esteem and the Health at Every Size approach and has written a book, “Fat! The Owner’s Manual,” advises deciding where the boundaries lie and what the consequences are for those who overstep them.
She writes, “I give people clear information, and several chances, but I don’t keep anybody in my life who consistently fails to treat me with the level of respect that I require.”
This might mean, for instance, simply saying “yes” or “no” if someone asks whether you really need that second helping of mashed potatoes – and then proceeding to eat it. Or it might mean giving a pointed response when someone gets too persistent: “I have absolutely no interest in discussing my food intake with you.”
Although much of the food guilt is aimed at obesity, it’s a minefield for other people as well. Thin people can be equally likely to have their weight commented on at the dinner table, or urged to eat more. And for those dealing with or recovering from eating disorders, holiday meals can be doubly difficult. Not only must they cope with food, and lots of it, but they may also be subjected to intense scrutiny over how much, or how little, they’re eating and whether they’re sticking to their prescribed meal plan.
This isn’t to say people shouldn’t try to eat sensibly for the holidays. The amped-up food choices can be difficult for those who have diabetes, need to limit their sodium or cholesterol intake, or simply want to watch calories.
Some tips from the Duke University Health System: Sample a little of everything but balance it with more fruits and vegetables. Stock up on healthy snacks for when temptation hits. Eat before a party to avoid overdoing it. Drink moderately. Don’t be afraid to say no if someone applies pressure to eat more.
The real question about food guilt is whether it actually works. According to a new study by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, the answer is no.
Researchers asked 1,000 study participants to evaluate several public health obesity campaigns by rating how positive or negative the campaign messages were and whether they were motivating or stigmatizing.
The best ratings went to campaigns that promoted specific health behaviors, such as eating more fruits and vegetables, and campaigns that encouraged people to become confident and empowered. Those that ranked the highest didn’t even mention the word “obesity.”
The least motivating? Messages that promoted shame, blame and stigmatizing.
Someone who truly cares about a friend’s or relative’s health should discuss it alone, at an appropriate time and in a way that invites dialogue, rather than shaming him or her at the dinner table, says Chastain. “Guilt is not good for your health. So I hope that if you choose to eat it, you also choose to enjoy it.”