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Are you food shaming your child? It’s time to stop!

Are you food shaming your child

Food shaming is something that happens when a parent or other person makes a judgment or criticism of what a child is eating. Common food-shaming comments include drawing attention to:

  • How much someone is eating (e.g. “too much”)
  • What specifically someone is eating (e.g. “only sugar,” “all carbs,” “junk food”)

These comments typically stem from popular culture, which generally believes that people who eat certain ways are either “good” or “bad.” These beliefs have been intentionally created by the diet industry, which has a basic template for marketing its diet programs.

Marketing Campaigns That Sell Diet Programs & Products All Say:

  1. People who lose weight are good and healthy
  2. Eating “the right way” will result in weight loss
  3. This program makes it easy by eliminating ____________ (calories, fat, carbs, sugar, etc.)

These marketing messages have been promoted by the diet industry to great success. And our culture believes them, even though they simply are not true. Weight loss is not effective or healthy. But the weight loss industry has thrived nonetheless and created a culture of parents that instinctually use food shaming without realizing the harm it causes.

The intention of food shaming is typically to help the child. But the impact of food shaming is to humiliate the child and make them feel ashamed of their appetite and desires. Simply put: there’s nothing healthy about that.

Non-Diet HAES Parenting Tips

Non-Diet/Health At Every Size® Fact Sheets, Guidelines, and Scripts

  • Fact Sheets About Weight Stigma, Diet Culture, Kids and Diets, and More
  • Non-Diet Parent Guidelines
  • Non-Diet Parent Scripts About Responding to Fat Talk, Diet Talk, and More
  • What to Say/Not Say When Talking About Bodies and Food

Eating disorders, restriction and control

Many people who have/had eating disorders recall being food-shamed by their parents. These people had parents who truly wanted to help their kids. But we live in a society that, egged on by the powerful diet and food industries, tells us that food is either “good” or “bad.” This message is everywhere, and it’s incorrect.

There is significant research demonstrating that Intuitive Eating, a method of eating without following “food rules” but rather focusing on hunger and appetite cues, is the healthiest approach for the body and mind. An intuitive approach to eating with zero weight goals or expected weight outcomes is protective against eating disorders, the second most deadly mental disorder.

That is why we implore parents to never food shame their kids. That means:

  • Don’t label food good or bad
  • Don’t make moral judgments about food
  • Pay attention to your child’s hunger, not caloric counts or other external measures 
  • Be aware that food is more than fuel – it is also comfort (and that’s OK)
  • Don’t recommend against eating for fear of weight gain
  • Don’t assume your child needs to eat less or weigh less 

Examples of food shaming

We ran an informal survey on Instagram and asked people for examples of how their parents food-shamed them. The results were sad, but not surprising. Here are some examples of childhood food-shaming experiences:

  • When I was 9, my mom gave me a teacup and a teacup saucer and told me all of my meals should either fit in the teacup or on the plate. I was nine years old.
  • When I was your age I only ate salads.
  • I think you’ve had enough brownies/cake /cookies/peanut butter/crackers.
  • The problem with kids today is that they eat so much more than we did.
  • Anytime I wanted to eat ANYTHING my dad would say “oh you don’t want that!”
  • At your size, you really need to stop eating that kind of food.
  • Really? You’re eating that much?
  • Really? You’re getting more?
  • You know where that goes.
  • You weigh how much? And you’re eating THAT?
  • I was deceitful for saying I planned on splitting my Panda Express and then mom threw the whole meal in the trash.
  • When they shamed their own food choices and body shape. I learned to do the same.
  • You can’t possibly be hungry.
  • My mom used the Bible (Adam and Eve) to shame me when I was sneaking maraschino cherries from the fridge because I loved them so much.
  • A moment on your lips, a lifetime on your hips.
  • That’s a lot of food you have on your plate!
  • Your prom dress would look better if you lost 10 lbs.
  • I know you love to stuff your face.
  • Your brother can order four-cheese pasta, but not you.
  • I suggested we make brownies. They said I think about food “too much” and should see a therapist.

Shame is not healthy

Parents who food shame their kids often think they are trying to improve health, but shame itself is damaging to health. Shame can have a significant negative impact and is associated with eating disorders, substance abuse, and many behavioral addictions.

What is shame? Shame is often used as an umbrella term to indicate a variety of emotions ranging from embarrassment to searing mortification. It happens when an individual feels they are at risk of being excluded from a critical social group. It is especially dangerous in family groups, which are essential to a child’s health, safety, and well-being. Unlike guilt, which is feeling bad about an action, shame is feeling bad about who you are as a person.

Belonging to social groups, particularly a family group, is critical to human health. Therefore, feeling shame within one’s family group can be devastating. shame is associated with low self-esteem, hostility, and psychological distress. This is particularly true of body-based shame. [1]

Also, shaming people for behaviors backfires. For example, being shamed for drinking increases problem behaviors for someone who has alcoholism. [2] Many people who are shamed for eating find themselves binge eating or eating uncontrollably in response.

How food shaming hurts

We can see this reflected in our survey. Respondents reported that parental food shaming encouraged them to develop problems with binge eating.

  • I started to not want to eat in front of them, which led to my binge eating disorder. Internalized fatphobia, food labeling, and guilt around food in general was the norm. I don’t think I’ll ever have a healthy relationship with food thanks to their hypervigilance.
  • I binge eat a lot. Alone, in the dark. Even now that I’m an adult with a supportive partner.
  • I started bingeing in secret so they couldn’t shame me.
  • Binge eater, secret eater, emotional eater.

For others, parental food shaming led to severe restriction and a full-blown eating disorder.

  • I saw them food shaming my sisters so I decided to survive on rice and Diet Coke.
  • Developed bulimia and binge eating disorder and struggled with it for 15 years.
  • Being food-shamed led me to a long road of restriction instead of trusting my body.
  • I struggled with an eating disorder for 8 years.
  • I developed an eating disorder which eventually led to psychiatric hospitalization.
  • Food shaming was a big reason for my eating disorders.

Most of all, respondents say that parental food shaming led to an unhealthy relationship with food.

  • I’m now 31 and still associate food with shame, love, anxiety, and worthlessness.
  • I still feel the need to tell people why I”m eating certain food when I’m eating.

What to do if you have food shamed your kids

If you recognize that you have been food-shaming your kids, then take a deep breath. It can be surprising to hear that something you did with the best intentions was harmful. And the good news is that you can make amends to your child. While you can’t erase what is already done, you can attempt to repair the damage.

The best way to get started and help your child be truly healthy is to own up to your mistakes.

Once you can see that you have been food-shaming your child and understand that it is hurtful, you can begin repairing your relationship. The key is to open a conversation without getting defensive or critical of your child. It’s hard to get vulnerable, but it can have a huge impact on your child.

Before you begin, here are a few ground rules for a conversation about food shaming:

  • Understand that food shaming is not helpful and is in fact harmful
  • Recognize that your child’s body is their own, and they get to decide what food they eat (not you)
  • Learn about the harmful diet culture messages we’ve learned that say food is good or bad and that we must be thin to be healthy

An apology script

Once you are ready, you can open a conversation with your child. Here’s an outline for how to approach this:

  • Acknowledge that food shaming was a mistake on your part.
  • Say that you are going to work on not food shaming in the future.
  • Ask your child to tell you in the future if they believe you are food shaming.
  • Do not get defensive when your child responds. You made a mistake, and you must own that mistake. Don’t defend yourself. Just say you will try to do better.
  • Don’t get into a debate about nutritional content, caloric values, weight, diet, etc.
  • Conduct more research and, if necessary, consult with a non-diet dietician so that you can learn about how to prevent eating disorders by learning about weight and diets.

Feeding a child with an eating disorder is tough. Learning to stop vilifying food and shaming people for eating what they enjoy takes time. Just keep trying! Showing up is half the battle.

Non-Diet HAES Parenting Tips

Non-Diet/Health At Every Size® Fact Sheets, Guidelines, and Scripts

  • Fact Sheets About Weight Stigma, Diet Culture, Kids and Diets, and More
  • Non-Diet Parent Guidelines
  • Non-Diet Parent Scripts About Responding to Fat Talk, Diet Talk, and More
  • What to Say/Not Say When Talking About Bodies and Food

Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders. She’s the founder of and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate their kid’s eating disorder recovery.

Ginny has been researching, writing about, and supporting parents who have kids with eating disorders since 2016. She incorporates the principles of neurobiology and attachment parenting with a non-diet, Health At Every Size® approach to health and recovery.

Ginny’s most recent project is Recovery, a newsletter for deeply-feeling people in recovery from diet culture, negative body image, and eating disorders.

See Our Parent’s Guide To Eating & Feeding A Child With An Eating Disorder

[1] Garofalo, C., Bottazzi, F. & Caretti, V. (2016). Faces of shame: Implications for self-esteem, emotion regulation, aggression, and well-beingJournal of Psychology

[2] Randles, D. & Tracy, J. L. (2013). Nonverbal displays of shame predict relapse and declining health in recovering alcoholicsClinical Psychological Science

9 thoughts on “Are you food shaming your child? It’s time to stop!

  1. Ginny,
    Your posts and articles are so helpful to a mom like me. For the past two years I’ve been trying to support my daughter in her recovery. It’s the biggest challenge our family has ever faced. I wouldn’t wish this illness on anyone, even this ignorant “butt”person that thinks he knows it all. I pray for him or anyone he cares about that they will not have to fight this evil demon ED. He should not comment on what he knows nothing about.
    Thank you for being a link in my support chain. You are invaluable!

    1. Thank you so much! I really appreciate hearing that the information I share is helpful to parents. It’s a true honor! xoxo

  2. […] child’s eating disorder behaviors. Also look for family members who encourage weight loss or food-shame. And know that therapists and doctors can miss eating disorders. All of these people mean well, but […]

  3. my mom does this to me and im absolutely tired of it..thanks for making this. <3

    1. You’re welcome, and I’m so sorry to hear that you’re experiencing this. xoxo

  4. […] A wide variety of food should be available to everyone in the home without restriction or monitoring. Read why […]

  5. Ginny, thank you for taking the time to write this. I’ve had a serious eating disorder since I was a child and I’m a 27 year old woman who still struggles with food. Just yesterday I was making lunch while talking to my mother on the phone and I described to her what I was making. Her response was, “ew”. That little remark is all it takes to stir up uncomfortable shameful feelings and I was searching for some answers/comfort and stumbled upon your blog. Again, thank you. <3

    1. Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that, but I’m glad you reached out for online support and that it was helpful! Sending you so much love xoxo

  6. […] your eyes on your own plate when eating, and don’t comment on her choices when she’s […]

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