Silence the Food Critic

By Jessica Setnick, MS, RD/LD
Reprinted from Eating Disorders Recovery Today
Summer 2006 Volume 4, Number 3
©2006 Gürze Books

Are you seriously going to eat that? Do you really think you need another one? I thought you said you were trying to gain weight!

The things we say to our friends and loved ones in an effort to "help them make good choices" can often be destructive. Have you ever eaten something you didn't enjoy because you didn't want to hurt the cook's feelings or be labeled as "picky"? Have you ever chosen not to order a certain food off the menu because someone else might not approve? If so, the food critic is doing the talking.

Judgments

No one likes to feel judged by others, but modifying our food choices (what, when, how much, how often) based on the imaginary or expected judgments of others only leads to shame, dissatisfaction, and rebound eating when we're finally alone. Even when we comment judgmentally on our own eating ("I really shouldn't…" or "I can't believe I ate so much"), we shame ourselves and spread that message to others.

People who struggle with their eating—whether too much, too little, too guilty, too scared—are shaming themselves a lot of the time. The last thing they need is for someone else to jump on the bandwagon and give more strength to the negative feelings. While it's easy to offer our two cents in a misguided effort to be "supportive," sometimes the best thing to say is nothing at all.

Public scrutiny

Unfortunately, in many settings, unsolicited judgment and critique of everyone's eating and weight—loss or gain, food choices, and how much they ate or didn't eat—is up for public scrutiny and discussion. For someone with an eating disorder who is already shaming his or herself, this commentary can be disastrous. Someone who is concerned that she ate too much and is tempted to purge may be bothered by a comment that she ate "so well." This may be the confirmation that proves to her that she needs to purge. Also, comments about how she "only picked at" her food can reinforce her belief that she must always feel empty.

When to show concern

When a loved one is danger, denial, or refusing treatment, it is essential that friends and family attempt to intervene. But once in treatment, patients report that family and friends are most needed as a support network, and not as the "food police." Some patients ask one particular individual to help them portion food, or distract after meals. In these cases, it is a gift of love to agree to help. But unsolicited advice and comments from distant relatives or acquaintances, no matter how well-meaning, often come across as "You're being watched."

The self-consciousness this creates may result in further self-doubt and increased reliance on eating-disordered rules to lessen the chance of making "mistakes." Commenting on other people's food choices at meal times, especially if they are in recovery and actively trying to make healthy choices, can be invasive and hurtful.

If you are concerned about a loved one, the best bet is to initiate a discussion away from the table, and to approach the issue with curiosity and without judgment. ("I was wondering if dinner was difficult for you, and is there anything I can do to help?")

"The look"

Being judged while eating can cause embarrassment and secrecy, ingredients that don't improve the quality of a meal. Ellyn Satter, the renowned dietitian, recognized that even among children and teens without eating disorders, "the look" can promote shame and secret eating. This is the look that says, "How dare you eat that!" without saying a word.

Think of the discomfort that boiled up inside the last time you got "the look," or a negative comment from someone you love. Your reaction could have been embarrassment, or it could have been to drop the croissant, French fry, or whatever you were holding. You may have even made a mental note to eat differently around that person from now on. It's amazing how the chain of events can last long after the meal is over.

As a dietitian, it's my job to comment on the eating of others, which I do every day for each of my patients. But outside of work I never, ever do so. I may occasionally catch myself mentally noting what someone around me is eating, but I don't give unsolicited advice. Away from my professional work with patients, I have no idea what that person has eaten earlier in the day, or their future plan for the evening. I can't know how hungry someone is, or if their doctor or dietitian recommended they eat more or less of some kind of food.

Defuse unwelcome comments

If those of us who are comfortable with our eating and weight don't like these criticisms, someone who is struggling with eating will have an even stronger reaction. Remember the last time you got "the look." And if you have to comment on someone else's food, try, "That looks great!" Your friend or loved one (and your conscience!) will feel much better.

Over time we grow more confident in our choices and less sensitive to the opinions of others. To build your boundary-setting skills, think of the childhood rhyme, "I'm rubber, you're glue… whatever you say bounces of me and sticks to you!" It's a good reminder that the criticisms of others often are projections about themselves. The best way to handle these judgmental comments is to educate that person in a compassionate (not defensive) way.