Your food is poisoning the earth! You feed your kids that !? Do not eat anything you cannot pronounce! Your way of eating is wrong!
These are usually what you would hear from a food bully, someone who actively tries to alter the recipe for your cooking or tries to force you into eating something you have no interest in eating.
Food has become a battleground where marketing labels and misinformation are used to bully and demoralize people about their eating choices. What if you could stop stressing about what other people think and make eating decisions based on your own needs and preferences? Would that not be lovely?! This startling look at the misrepresentation of food sheds light on fictitious nutrition and environmental claims to help you recognize bullies and defend your food choices.
Food bullying is removing choice from the people who are shopping for food and the people who produce food, the only questions we need to ask ourselves about food is, “Is it safe?” and “Is it nutritious?” When you seek affirmation or status from what you put in your shopping basket, you may be responding to food bullying. When your food choices and beliefs become a form of activism and you shame people who don’t eat the way you do, you may be the bully.
Many bullies operate from a position of implied power, which may or may not be accompanied by any actual expertise in nutrition science, or in how our food is grown and produced. This includes everyone from dietitians, doctors, teachers, chefs, and fitness instructors to celebrities, friends, activists, social media influencers, and relatives. Health claims and other marketing messages on products can also bully us into making different choices.
The Impacts of Food Bullying
Given that food is a basic necessity, there are dangers in believing that one single story about food is superior, particularly when that story tilts toward elitism "In some respect, I think we’re all responsible for bullying,” Michelle Payn said. For example, eggs traditionally have been an inexpensive source of high-quality protein, but organic, free-range omega-3 eggs aren’t affordable for all.
The issue of food bullying may be more relevant than ever, given the current coronavirus crisis. If you demonize canned foods, what does that mean if you have to self-quarantine? What if the grocery store that’s spacious enough to allow for social distancing only stocks “conventional” vegetables? Will that stop you from buying the vegetable?
Some environmental working groups usually release yearly magazines that rank fruits and vegetables based on detectable levels of pesticide residues. A good number of people don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables, and bullying with a scientifically irrelevant ranking doesn’t exactly encourage eating more, and releasing the 2020 version in the middle of a pandemic only breeds more fear.
It’s important to remember that organic doesn’t mean pesticide-free, as more than 45 man-made pesticides plus many “natural" pesticides are allowed in organic farming. Organic farmers need to protect their crops from weeds, insects, and diseases too. Besides, the mere presence of pesticide residue on food does not mean that food is unsafe, no matter how you rank them. Pesticide use in agriculture is usually regulated. If you prefer to buy organic food and can afford it, fine. But demonizing nonorganic fruits and vegetables, and judging the people who buy them and the farmers who grow them, is bullying. Conversely, choosing not to buy or grow organic food and judging those who do is also bullying. It’s a two-way street.
Moving beyond bullying
The top tier of Maslow’s hierarchy is self-actualization. With food, this means understanding the systems that produce our food and the science behind food claims and being able to sort through which information is credible, then ultimately deciding what’s best for you. When we are disconnected from the facts about where our food comes from, this breeds distrust, which can turn to fear and that’s what bullies prey on.
This happens all the time. You may start your day determined to eat a certain way, but before long you’re derailed, not by temptation, but by food-related peer pressure. You know the type: “Oh, c’mon-a little bit of sugar, meat, and oil won’t kill you!” Or, equally exhausting: “Oh, c’mon-that sugar, meat, fat, and oil will kill you!”
It makes no difference what your reasons are for eating or not eating a certain way. Perhaps dairy gives you cramps. Perhaps you simply don’t like the taste of cake, or maybe you once encountered the slimy act of catfish and, at that moment, swore off Fish barbeque or pepper soup forever. Unsolicited remarks about food choices come regardless of diet rationale. And sometimes it feels easier to give in than hold your ground.
What other people eat is, of course, of great significance. Uncertainty around the sustainability of global food production means food choices increasingly feel like a political act, and the political is increasingly personal. There are valid ethical, environmental, and health reasons for the way we navigate a supermarket or menu. When you’re ordering differently than those around you, you’re often singled out, or made to feel like you’re being too picky. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this type of goading is self-serving a result of people taking the choices of others as an indictment of their own.
“Food bullies feel insecure and threatened,” says Traci Mann, Ph.D., director of the Health and Eating Laboratory at the University of Minnesota and she emphasized that “If they see you doing something they perceive as healthy, they might think: Oh God, now I have to do something healthy, too, or I’m going to look bad or gluttonous. I can’t have this milkshake if she’s having an iced tea.” As a result, a food bully niggles a friend into ordering his/her way to justify their own decisions.
Fortunately, there are strategies for changing these people-pleasing ways. Claire Madigan, P.hD., recommends the broken-record technique, in which you get comfortable saying “No, thank you” no more, no less repeatedly. “If you cough your rejection with something like ‘It looks delicious, but...’ the food pusher might be tempted to carry on.”
Another strategy is to run a cost-benefit analysis. Weigh how likely a person is to be disappointed by what you choose to eat or reject, versus how disappointed you will be with yourself if you don’t stick to your plan. (Note: Friends and family get over what’s on your plate as soon as a meal is through; you’re the one who has to live with it).
Rehearsing a script or running socio-gastronomic equations at the dinner table feels like a lot of work for what should, in theory, be a really easy formula: Eat what you want and let other people eat what they want too. Imagine how great the world (or at least the restaurants of the world) would be if we could all agree to vilify food bullying with the same passionate gusto with which we’ve demonized, at various points, carbs, fat, and gluten.
According to Michele Payn “Food should be about celebration, not condemnation. What works for you might not work for someone else, and that’s okay.”