Why diet can be such a delicate topic

Dr. Lizanne Schweren
About the Author

Lizanne JS Schweren, PhD, is a postdoctoral research associate in the Eat2beNICE project at the University Medical Center Groningen, the Netherlands. Her background is in long-term outcomes of stimulant treatment for ADHD, developmental psychiatry and neuroscience.

All day and every day, we are surrounded by food. At the same time, our own food intake can be quite a sensitive topic. Friendly conversations about what’s a healthy diet can easily turn into heated arguments, and many of us feel uncomfortable sharing exactly what we eat and drink. When asked, many people are happy to report their veggies but not that unintended late-night chocolate ice cream. Some prefer to eat when they are alone, or even eat in secret. Unless someone is close to us, we tend not to question or comment on someone’s dietary choices. How come our diet has become such a delicate topic?

More than just nutrition
Food is inextricably intertwined into our life. Food provides us with the energy and nutrients we need to make it through the day, but it can also be a source of comfort, part of a ritual, a gift or a habit. For many, food is linked with family, friends, warmth and good conversations. For others, food may bring back hurtful memories or feelings of loneliness. Disclosure or our food choices may feel like disclosure of all of these things. Similarly, when others criticize our food choices, their criticism may feel very personal as it touches upon much more.

Personal values and investment
Our food choices may be seen to reflect, at least in part, our personal values and beliefs. For instance, choosing not to eat meat-based products may signal that one values animal welfare. As another example, choosing an apple over a chocolate bar may signal that one values a healthy body. Every time we make a food choice that is in line with our values or belief, we become more invested in that value or belief. Through this unconscious process, our values and beliefs are strengthened. Criticism regarding our food choices can feel like criticism of our values and beliefs. No wonder the subject can be touchy!

The illusion of control
While our food choices partially reflect our personal values and beliefs, they are also continuously subjected to forces beyond our control. Whether we like it or not, we are under the constant influence of our environment, like advertising and the (food choices of) people around us. Even those who are highly invested in a healthy lifestyle, and strongly believe in the importance of health, may struggle to resist buying ice cream, candy, fries, or other snacks as they pass by a place that is covered in advertisements for unhealthy products. The idea that all of our food choices are conscious and deliberate is an illusion. Willpower is simply not 100% effective all the time. The illusion that we are always in control of our food choices creates guilt and shame when our willpower is overridden. Guilt and shame, in turn, makes us want to avoid the topic.

Considering all of this, it is no surprise that our food intake is a delicate matter. Food touches upon strong memories and feelings may reflect personal values and beliefs, and can trigger guilt and shame. For those who wish to (or need to) talk about their diet, acknowledgment of these sensitivities is an important first step. You are not the only one feeling guilt, shame, or other strong emotions regarding your diet. Dieticians and other health professionals are trained to deal with such feelings.