The Problem With Judging Other People’s Food Choices

Food is complex. Here’s what to think about before you butt in.

When I was 13, there was an extremely thin girl in my class who started eating less and less at lunch. Her friends became worried about her and went to the teacher, who called the girl’s mother to suggest that her daughter might be anorexic. A couple of kids called a local teen helpline to get tips on how to support their friend through her eating disorder and, gradually, she started having lunch with them again.

From an outside perspective, that might sound like a heartwarming story about a girl saved from the brink of disaster by her concerned and supportive classmates. As the girl in question, though, I can tell you that it was all an unfortunate — and mortifying — misunderstanding.

I wasn’t trying to skip meals. In the safety of my own home, I had an appetite and a relationship with food about as healthy as a 13-year-old girl’s could get in the ’90s (I was heartily enjoying a tub of powdered donuts in front of my mom when she received the call from my teacher). But a few years of relentless bullying at my previous school had left me terrified of the whole institution of education, and this fear usually manifested itself as queasiness and stomach pain. On good mornings, I could temper my dread enough to choke down a meal replacement shake while I got ready for school. On the bad ones, I had dry heaves for breakfast. I’d been doing my best to pick at my lunches until I noticed that my friends were watching me eat. Knowing I had an audience made me feel more violently ill than ever, and everything they did to try to help me only made it worse. What they saw as recovery was me force-feeding myself through my nausea in a desperate attempt to get them to leave me alone.

I won some fancy math competition a few months later, but the only equation I remember from that year is (My Weird Food Issues + Other People’s Weird Food Issues) — Actual Knowledge of the Situation = Tears.

What they saw as recovery was me force-feeding myself through my nausea in a desperate attempt to get them to leave me alone.

I don’t really blame my classmates for what they did. They were just sheltered kids, whose entire working knowledge of food issues came from Very Special Episodes and our less than rigorous health classes. They thought they saw someone in need and they were trying to help. That clumsy intervention had lasting effects — 22 years later, I still feel the occasional pang of nerves when I eat in front of new people. But it’s definitely the kindest example I’ve seen of a person taking a look at someone else’s eating habits and making wildly inaccurate, often hurtful assumptions.

When I was younger, people would take one look at the limited range of foods that I ate, deem me a picky eater, and ascribe it to my mom’s unfitness as a parent. When I got older, my limited palate was often treated as a character flaw — a sign of my closed-mindedness, lack of adventure, and restricted imagination. In reality, though, my ostensible pickiness has always been the result of a bouquet of autism-related sensory issues. Some spices can overwhelm me as much as loud sounds and bright lights, and certain textures can trigger an almost painful tension in my entire body. Someone who didn’t know me might think I was a mistreated child or an anorexic adult, but that would be because they didn’t know me. In truth, my mother worked tirelessly to find and provide me with food that I could actually eat so I wouldn’t wind up malnourished. And my mildly varied adult diet is an act of extreme commitment to food, and a testament to just how open I have been to trying new things — even at the risk of intense personal discomfort.

Someone who didn’t know me might think I was a mistreated child or an anorexic adult, but that would be because they didn’t know me.

Picky people aren’t the only ones subject to scrutiny and judgment for what they eat. When my mother was fat, everything she put in her mouth was treated like a sin. When she wasn’t, that same food somehow became virtuous or, at the very least, completely OK. No matter what her weight, her inability to handle any spice whatsoever (she’s likely a supertaster) was treated as a weakness or even a complete lie. Friends and family she trusted have snuck pepper into her food to see what happens — and then been shocked at her obviously pained physical reaction. My father has been labeled as both unsophisticated and a control freak because he will only eat a few things and frequents the same couple of restaurants, but he’s really just an autistic man with dangerous food allergies. I’ve witnessed him almost die at enough eating establishments to know that he’s come by his fear of trying new things honestly.

While I worked in the fitness industry, I consistently saw trainers, experts, and supplement peddlers turn both food and the people who consumed it into moral issues. If cake is “bad” and you are what you eat, then anyone who eats the cake is also bad. People with imperfect diets were considered lazy, undisciplined, or untrustworthy, and most of the strategies for saving them was based on the idea that they simply weren’t being good or trying hard enough. None of these caricatured issues ever remotely resembled what my clients and I were really facing when we talked about food, though, and none of those simplistic strategies did anything to help them.

Even when we don’t criticize people’s food choices face to face, this judgmental culture often poisons the way we discuss food and eating as a society. We take the little we know about the diet of people we don’t know and attempt to construct a portrait of who they are based on what they eat. Celebrities eating burgers can, depending on your viewpoint, become a hallmark of their relatability or a pathetic attempt to connect with the average person. Discussion about the highly specific diets of wellness gurus like Moon Juice founder Amanda Chantal Bacon and Gwyneth “GOOP” Paltrow often turns into more of a referendum on women’s likability and the height of their maintenance requirements than an actual critique of their advice. Donald Trump’s steak preference has been interpreted as everything from a lack of sophistication to an unwillingness to trust other people.

But the things that another person puts on their plate are not an edible Rorschach test that can tell you anything that you need to know about them. The contents of their stomach and the contents of their character have no easily discernible relationship to each other. You can’t make sound conclusions about what a person eats when you don’t have any clue as to why they might be eating it. There is no clear-cut food issue or preference that says anything definitive about another human being. There are just too many variables on too many levels to make any sound conclusions on the matter.

People’s physiological and psychological issues with food as are individual as they are: a mix of allergies, sensitivities, needs, upbringing, history, trauma, cultural differences, emotions, and much more, an amalgam so complex that even the person herself — let alone a stranger — may not understand all the factors at play. Even if we could judge each person’s individual network of food associations with an unbiased eye — and we can’t, because we see all of this through our own weird food issues, often exacerbated by our society’s collective weird food issues — we wouldn’t even know where to begin that assessment.

And even if we could, even if we did, who do these culinary personality tests really serve? Food moralism in the fitness world doesn’t help the people being sneered at, and indeed the condescension may hurt them; it just allows people with fewer food struggles to feel increasingly smug. Speculation about other people’s allegedly bad diets is often a way to make us feel a little better about our own. Other than my old classmates — who, at worst, had a bit of a savior complex — I can’t think of anyone else in my life who has derided my eating for anything other than their own benefit: to make themselves look more cultured, more progressive, or simply better in comparison to what they thought about me. I’ve also never made a snap judgement about someone else’s consumption that hasn’t been rooted in my own less-than-perfect relationship with food and/or myself.

The things we put on our plates are not an edible Rorshach test.

When I look back at the humiliating lunch debacle of ’95, I can come up with a couple of things that I wish people had done differently: I wish that the people who knew me well enough had asked me what was going on, and I wish that everyone who wasn’t in a position to ask or offer professional advice had left me alone. So when I started working in fitness, I tried to apply the same standards to my clients. If they wanted food advice, I would recommend them to a nutritionist. If they didn’t, then it wasn’t my business. Most of what they wanted to talk about, in most cases, wasn’t the food itself, but the social and emotional issues they had because other people had issues with their food.

I’ve tried to apply those tenets to the rest of my life as well, and I think they’re helpful for anyone who’s trying to gauge whether they’re concerned about someone else’s intake for the right reasons. If you’re close enough to get involved, then reach out in empathy (though take care that your approach to a potential eating disorder isn’t itself a potential trigger for disordered eating). If not, then your interest probably says more about you than it does about them. In other words, if you’re not intimately involved in what’s coming out, you probably shouldn’t be involved in what’s going in.

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