Food shaming your child is a common practice, but it can harm their health. I say this because I know that most parents who food-shame are actually trying to improve their kids’ health.
Due to frustrating cultural conditioning, many of our instinctual approaches to raising healthy kids actually backfire. Parents who want to raise healthy kids are told to restrict and manage kids’ food, but unfortunately, food restriction is associated with binge eating, sneak eating, emotional eating, and full-blown eating disorders.
Also, food restriction contributes to weight gain. That’s right. Intentional weight loss (e.g. dieting) is not only ineffective, but it does the opposite of what’s intended. I’m not anti-fat or against bodies gaining weight, but I say this because the thing everyone believes will help them lose weight and/or stay small (dieting and restricting) actually has the opposite effect!
What is food shaming?
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:
- People who lose weight are good and healthy
- Eating “the right way” will result in weight loss
- 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.
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. 
Also, shaming people for behaviors backfires. For example, being shamed for drinking increases problem behaviors for someone who has alcoholism.  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.
Learning to stop vilifying food and shaming people for eating what they enjoy takes time. Just keep trying! Showing up is half the battle.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders. She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate eating disorder recovery.
 Garofalo, C., Bottazzi, F. & Caretti, V. (2016). Faces of shame: Implications for self-esteem, emotion regulation, aggression, and well-being. Journal of Psychology
 Randles, D. & Tracy, J. L. (2013). Nonverbal displays of shame predict relapse and declining health in recovering alcoholics. Clinical Psychological Science