Dealing With Shame Around Diabetes and Food
By Mila Clarke
Feeling judged or shamed for what you eat is an experience shared by many people living with diabetes. Support groups and open conversations can help combat the stigma and misinformation around diabetes and food.
Do you ever feel like the food police are judging you? That no matter what you eat, someone is always watching and ready to criticize?
The shame and judgment around food can be overwhelming and impact our relationship with food. It’s difficult to feel like we're always being watched and judged, especially when we're already trying to manage a chronic illness.
How can people with diabetes live with food policing, and not let it affect their attitude toward food? Two nurses living with diabetes spoke up about the topic, and how they manage it. But first…
Who are the food police?
The food police are the people in our lives who judge us for what we eat. They can be friends, family, or strangers, and they make us feel bad about ourselves by telling us what we "should" or "shouldn't" be eating.
Food policing can take many forms. It can be as simple as a friend making a comment about your weight, or as serious as a family member telling you that you're not allowed to have certain foods because of diabetes.
No matter how it manifests, food policing is a form of judgment that can make us feel ashamed and embarrassed about our eating habits. It can also lead to anxiety and stress around meals. And, as we know, stress is one of the 42 factors that can contribute to blood sugar fluctuations.
When eating provokes unwanted advice or scorn
It's a common sentiment among people living with diabetes that being judged for food choices is a negative experience.
Rachel Halverson is a nurse and diabetes specialist who has lived with type 1 diabetes for 25 years. Although she feels she has a generally healthy relationship with food, she said she sometimes feels judged, especially on days when she is working.
"When it’s difficult for me to get a break in, I can't always eat in a way that’s supportive of my blood sugar and health,” Halverson said. “If I walk into the clinic with Starbucks, I’d get questions like, 'Oh, should you be eating that?' or 'Your blood sugar is going to be high,' from nurses. They’re people I thought would be able to therapeutically communicate to someone about what they're eating without shaming."
These interactions are a bit nerve-wracking and can sometimes catch people with diabetes off guard.
Travis Cleaves has been living with type 2 diabetes for two years. He follows a low-carbohydrate way of eating and eats smaller portions than he did before his diagnosis. As a nurse, he says that he finds that he gets negative comments about food from people who misunderstand how diabetes works, and it frustrates him.
"People swear it's sugar and sweets that cause diabetes, and that's the furthest from the truth," he said. "I get upset and try to educate people more. As a nurse, I try not to be self-righteous or sanctimonious. I recognize that I don't have to restrict myself or my foods, and just be aware of what works for me personally."
Is this a moment for diabetes education?
Both Halverson and Cleaves agreed that when someone approaches you about what you're eating, it can be a moment of education for the person asking the questions. Where they differ is in their approaches to education.
For Halverson, it's about understanding that the concern for what she's eating from others comes from a place of caring, and sometimes having to explain is frustrating, but it can be a teachable moment for someone who misunderstands diabetes.
"I think it comes from a place of curiosity and caring, but there’s also an ignorance to it, and I wish this person had educated themselves before making those comments," she said.
For Cleaves, the answer is a little simpler: "I always tell people in the most impolite way to mind their business, or ask them what made them comfortable enough to ask me about what to eat.”
"Then,” he added, “I send them to basic diabetes education websites to learn more."
Navigating mealtimes without judgment
As a nurse and diabetes specialist living with type 1 diabetes, Halverson had some advice for dealing with people who act like the food police.
"Depending on how comfortable you are setting boundaries, expressing how this person made you feel is important. You can also open it up for further conversation," she said. "You’re not being mean or rude. It’s warranted and reasonable to express how you feel."
Additionally, Halverson said that someone stigmatizing you is not a reason to stigmatize others.
"Don’t deflect it, or reflect it on people with other types of diabetes. You don’t have to stigmatize to get your point across," she said.
Conversations to combat shame
The best way to deal with the shame around diabetes and food is to find a support system. Talk to your friends and family about what you're going through.
Seek out online communities or support groups where you can share your experiences and get advice from others who understand what you're going through.
Living with diabetes can be difficult, especially when you encounter judgment from others about the way you're eating. It's important to remember that you are not alone in having to educate about diabetes stigma and misinformation.
Additionally, setting boundaries is an important way to deal with food policing. Remember that you have a right to express how the person made you feel.