Home It's All Mental Food Guilt and Food Shaming Are Not Your Friend

Food Guilt and Food Shaming Are Not Your Friend

by Erika Nicole Kendall

I know I’ve written about this before, but I can recall having the world’s most massive epiphany during a visit to the grocery store with my sorority sister one day. She was helping me do my grocery shopping, since I was a little lost in regards to how to eat healthy. I mean, of course I was buying the “Healthy Decision” meals or whatever… and of course she was smacking stuff out of my hand like I was picking up arsenic or something. And of course, I was threatening to throw bags of rice at her and take her down right in the middle of the beans and canned veggie aisle.

How dare you embarrass me in front of the black beans?

That’s beside the point.

She was coming from a place of love and support… trying to educate me about how to make better choices in what I brought home for my little one and I. I love her for that… though I still feel like I should throw a bag of brown rice at her just for general purposes.

Fast forward. I’m at an event with a few strangers, and word gets around that I’ve lost “a gang of weight” thus far. People are watching me – some are throwing shade (in other words, they’re trying to block my shine, they’re “hating on me”), some are wondering if I’ve had surgery, some are wondering “how I did it,” but all are watching what I eat. Everyone.

I request a drink. What it was doesn’t matter… just know that it wasn’t water. The minute I take it into my hand, the first thing I hear is, “That can’t be good for your diet, can it?”

Did you hear the record skip? I sure did.

Let’s talk about guilt and shame here, for a minute – specifically “food guilt” and “food shame.” I am not a fan of either. Why? Because, quite frankly, they’re ideologies that come from a dieter’s lifestyle. Not the lifestyle of a human being, which makes allowances for error/slip-ups/occasional indulgences. (Note: this is also why I don’t believe in “moderation.” It’s dieter’s mentality. I’m not a dieter. I don’t “moderate” my intake of food. I use common sense.)

Guilt, defined by Merriam-Webster: “a : the state of one who has committed an offense especially consciously b : feelings of culpability especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy”

Shame, defined by Merriam-Webster: “(1) a : a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety b : the susceptibility to such emotion <have you no shame?>; (2) a condition of humiliating disgrace or disrepute <the shame of being arrested>”

I brought up these two different situations for a reason. Did I feel a little shame in the situation with my sorority sister? Of course! No one likes to be wrong. No one likes to feel like they have a “shortcoming,” and no one like to feel like their knowledge of anything is subordinate to someone else… but the fact remains that she is someone who I love like a best friend, whose opinions I respect, and whose guidance I trust. I know she’s coming from a place of love and support, and that shines through in how she talks to me about food. It’s because of her support that I’m where I am today. So even though I did feel a little shame, I let it go because she was educating me. (And even though I get a little teary-eyed in writing that, I still plan to throw the rice at her.)

Someone else who does not know me from a can of paint, however, trying to check me – in, almost, a mocking sense – about “what’s good for my diet?” Monumental fail. Not only because I am not a dieter, but because it’s an attempt to embarrass me by putting me in my place. It’s not even about what’s being said… but what’s being left off.

“That can’t be good for your diet, can it? Y’know, ’cause you’re still kinda fat.

When I dine out with my friends, sure, I think about what I order. Sure, I think about what they order. But my friends know me. I’m not opening my mouth. Why? Because it’s not my place. It is not my place to “remind” someone – uninvited, unrequested, unsolicited – of whatever goal they have in mind, as if they’d forgotten because they’re too busy being hypnotized by food. Like I’ve mentioned the “come to fitness moment” that people have.. I say that it’s inappropriate to try to bring that out of people without their permission because you’re essentially guilting people. You’re trying to make them feel bad for doing what they do.

You know, there’s an element of “Oh, you can’t control yourself and you deserve to be shamed” here that’s especially annoying, too… because, you know, “will power is the only thing that separates the fat from the skinny” (even though we all know that’s not the case.) It relates back to that Puritanical way of thinking that Americans cling to – that “bad things happen to bad people.” And since society has deemed “fat” as a “bad thing,” clearly you must be a bad person in need of saving since, well, you are “fat.” Damn all that.

To me, shame is inevitable. If you’re in a position of learning, you will feel like that same learning – that position of being the student instead of the teacher in regards to something “that should be common sense” – is highlighting a shortcoming.. and you may feel ashamed of that. I know I did. Shame brought on by someone guilting you – and trust me, you know it’s malicious because you can’t identify the person as someone coming from a place of love – is unacceptable.

Guilt, however, is unnecessary… be it imposed on you by others, or by yourself. Do I occasionally screw up? Yes. The day I bought my little one some goldfish crackers and caught myself eating them faster than I could give them to her? I didn’t sit around moping about what I had done. I accepted the fact that I couldn’t control myself around them, took the positive from the situation (which is that I learned a lesson), and moved on. I didn’t dwell, I didn’t guilt myself with phrases like “You’re never going to lose weight, you’re never going to be pretty, you’re never going to matter” or whatever other crap women tell themselves. I pulled the lesson from the situation and moved on. Anything beyond that, to me, is a level of stress that I know I, personally, will not be able to handle… so I don’t.

I think too many people go through the “weight game” thinking that guilting themselves will cause them to make the appropriate decisions instead of taking their strengths and weaknesses into account, using the situation as a way to learn about new strengths and weaknesses, learning a lesson from the situation, and moving on. If you’re an emotional eater, wouldn’t guilting yourself about what you’ve eaten only continue the cycle of… emotional eating? Somewhere along the line, you have to take a stand. You have to just… make a conscious decision to stop accepting the guilt. You have to decide to stop letting the shame be something that affects your self-esteem.

How did I handle the person asking me whether or not something was “good for my diet?” I simply told her, “Diet? I’m not on a diet,” as I took a sip. When that was met with “You didn’t lose all that weight on a diet? Stop lying,” I responded with “Nope. I eat what I want,” took another sip and walked off. I figure since people are gonna talk regardless, might as well give ’em something to talk about.

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BlackBerry Molasses October 1, 2010 - 11:13 AM

Love this.
That is all.

Erika October 1, 2010 - 2:18 PM


ChellBellz October 1, 2010 - 11:36 AM

i know that’s right. I can’t stand when people mind other’s business. I mean there is a good way to ask what you did. No sense in being shy if they are constantly staring in your face. One drink isn’t going to balloon your weight back on, and you are right, you do eat what you want.

Erika October 1, 2010 - 2:18 PM

They’ll never know the secret so long as they don’t visit this site, huh? 🙂

Streetz October 1, 2010 - 1:06 PM

As I finish this chicken Pizza, I commend this blog post!

Erika October 1, 2010 - 2:17 PM

As long as it’s baked chicken pizza and not that certain chicken joint, we good. LOL!

Nicole October 1, 2010 - 1:31 PM

Whew! I have encountered this all too many times.

Erika October 1, 2010 - 2:17 PM

Don’t we all… *sigh*

Kim October 1, 2010 - 2:10 PM

Erika, you are officially a friend in my head.

(And Streetz, I had chicken pizza for lunch, too . . . but given that I would ordinarily eat the pork-laden version, I’m kinda proud of myself. *shrug*)

Erika October 1, 2010 - 2:17 PM

No shade over here… I certainly baked a pizza for dinner last night. *cough*

Yay for new friends. 🙂

Cjbrownsc October 1, 2010 - 3:32 PM

I have coworkers that like to play that game – always analyzing what I’m eating when they really need to be looking in their own plates.

I don’t understand it. I would never do that to anyone. If I know you’re trying lose weight I’d never ask you about what you’re eating. It’s not my business and I’m just not a hurtful person.

I do love your “I’m not on a diet. I eat what I want” response, Erika! I’m stealing it and will be using it the next time somebody has their nose in my plate!! LOL

Cyndi October 2, 2010 - 10:31 AM

Well, Its been quite over here, but Ericka lets begin with thanking God for your struggle cause in the end you have a story, for all who want to listen, why is good health a debate, to those who dont give a damn ( sorry) but really the guilt thing is currently happening to me and thanks for your opinion on handling it, Rewind…Ericka me and you began chatting in nov/dec 2009 maybe, I spoke to you( crying) about going to walk and couldnt complete 2 miles, we chated about my lupus and even my sudden news of cervical cancer and a hysto at 39..And the over night ( weight gain ) lol, but not once did you give up on me as I tried to do myself, well your e-mails keep coming and I keep reading.My rude pcp would say you know “your overweight”, “ummm with you being so over weight”, not ,Im glad your still alive lets work on getting you back to a healthy weight . Nope but you did(Ericka)…So heres a report I am cancer free 11-months from surgery and treatment, my lupus is active but not serverly out of control ,I am off the steroids, CLEAN EATING : July 2010 198lbs, Oct 1 2010 178lbs, ( thank God , Ericka and me for not being a quiter)To get back to 145-148 when this all began is still my goal, with the silly ppl “are you on a diet” in my rear view mirrior. Thanks Again and yes I have been using some of the recipes keep them coming as well. ( crying) God has done a wonderful job with you.With a lov hug and a bag of brown rice flying across the room ~Cyndi

akilah October 3, 2010 - 1:40 PM

I am struggling with this now with my Mother. I eat what I want without guilt or a care because I monitor my calories and portion size so much so that it’s second nature.

My mother has a problem with seeing me enjoy servings of chocolate\ice cream\pizza whatever, since she knows I am working to get back to 140(that’s pre-baby, he’s 13 now lol.) I am down to 175 and looking forward to that 140 again but my audience can’t understand why I don’t cut out everything.

Thanks for further inspiration

Nik May 19, 2011 - 12:03 PM

I deal with this a lot. A co-worker (who also happens to be the bosses son) consistently feels inclined to examine my food choices.

One time, I had some nachos and he said, “well, you certainly didn’t loose all that weight from eating stuff like that” and “aren’t you on a special diet”. I was totally floored. I couldn’t believe he had the audacity to mind my business in such a manner and to be so utterly disrespectful too. I told him “No” I am not on a “special diet” and I left it at that. I was so angry that I needed to limit my words. Especially because, like I said, he is the bosses son…

But even outside of work I experience this a lot too. It’s like people are invested in being all up in my business about food. If I eat something someone considers less than 200% healthy then it’s like they take pleasure in pointing it out, as loudly as possible as if I’d been “caught” doing something I shouldn’t have been doing. Can they please find some other means of esteeming themselves? Thanks.

Some people feel inclined to ask “Do you really need that?” Or they say “You don’t need that” if I decide to indulge in a sweet treat. Meanwhile, I’m thinking, “like OMG, can I please mind my own business while you mind yours? Kthnxbai!”

Or when I eat something someone considers “too healthy” I get accused of favoring tasteless “tree bark”, “rabbit food” or “food that food eats” (that last remark is a stab because I’m a vegetarian).

Oh yeah, then there’s the group of people who feel so inclined to “justify” or “explain” their bad food choices to me as if I inquired or have enough interest or time to care. The justification and explanations are generally followed up by tentative goals and empty promises to do a better job next time. Um, so what, thanks!

I’d love to go about my business without consistently getting dumped on about food choices … rant done.

Alicia June 7, 2011 - 11:53 AM

Have you ever had the opposite effect? Like, my mom will ask me what I’m eating for dinner, I’ll say “a salad,” and she’ll respond, “Aren’t you ever gonna eat some real food?” Or comments like, “You need to eat more,” etc, even though I eat a good amount of food. Those comments bother me too, because my meals can be just as filling as the next person’s, except that that person considers a “real” meal to be a burger and fries from McDonalds. Then on top of that, I give myself the WORST guilt trips over indulgences. Days later I will still harp over times when I ate out at restaurants or ate big desserts. I’m going to try to work on that aspect of things, but I still get annoyed when people try to tell me that I NEED to eat unhealthy food. =/

Bannef January 24, 2012 - 4:31 PM

Thanks for explaining what you thought in the goldfish example. Those are the kind of brain-patterns I’m trying to get myself into in many areas of life (food definitely included) and hearing how you do it really helps.

Melissa Teague April 1, 2013 - 9:44 AM

I absolutely love your response to the guilt layers. There are many people watching me, watching me, watching me. In my more mature years, I’m learning how to say what I mean, but I don’t always want to be as rude as the folks who are rude to me. I would prefer to, you know, kill ’em with kindness. Anywhooo, your response is absolutely perfect!

Kami April 9, 2013 - 8:38 AM

I love your response. I will be using this now. Now for the past three months since I started this journey as a lifestye change. I no longer eat on a diet and epend on frozen vegetarian meals for my nutrition. People often make comments on my food saying why do you eat so much carbohydrates. My friend had a nerve to say get a grilled chicken salad from Mc Donalds talking about it is healthier than the food I make at home.
I am also vegetarian therefore no animal for me . I enjoy making my own foods such as lentil patties, doubles, chickpea salad , kale, collard greens , pumpkin, hemp seeds, carrots, millet and grits from organic bulk section. Thanks again Erika.

Piper Maria Davenport April 19, 2013 - 3:46 PM

Did you hear the record skip? I sure did.

You should seriously copyright that. Love it! P

angela July 8, 2013 - 11:56 AM

Thank you so much Erika. You are so right!

Annie July 18, 2013 - 9:57 PM

I can definitely relate to that. I think the point of the article is that whenever you’re doing something (losing weight or choosing what to eat in this case), people are hovering over you, judging what you’re eating or how you’re eating. As my weightloss journey begins, I will refer to this as much as I can to motivate me.

Amanda Lash August 27, 2013 - 7:19 PM

Hello Erika,

I have been lurking on your blog for several months now, but this article deserves a comment. I am currently working towards a Master’s in Communication with a focus in Health Communication. A lot of my research focuses on obesity and stigma, and this is an area that I have always struggled with in my own life. As you might know, research is me search.

I come from a family that struggles with obesity and I have been indoctrinated since puberty in the dieting lifestyle. I have always struggled with shaming myself on my own food decisions. I find myself being extremely open about what I eat in order to reinforce the fact that I am making good decisions, or defensive in order to preempt an attack.

This article has opened my eyes as to why I might do this. I realized that I am shaming myself. I pass judgment upon myself in front of my friends in order to prevent receiving judgment. The fact that this is a behavior I have developed due to society’s perceptions on overweight and diet culture is telling. It’s like shaming a tiger for having stripes and not spots, and then teaching the tiger to shame itself.

Anyways, I commend the work that you have done on this blog and am thankful for your insight. And don’t be surprised if I cite you in some of my research as a cultural reference!


Erika Nicole Kendall August 27, 2013 - 11:33 PM


Kym October 3, 2013 - 6:51 AM

This was a brilliant post. I totally understand the shame and guilt pieces too. Everything you said is so spot on. I’m also following the “eat what I want” lifestyle and so far so good. It’s funny how I’ve had similar conversations about what I eat. Is there some factory that grows these people? 😉

Best to you!

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