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Can You Eat That? How One Simple Question Stigmatizes People with Diabetes

By Mila Buckley

Mila writes about the shame that people with diabetes can experience when people question or misunderstand their food choices

Most of us with diabetes have heard four words that automatically make us cringe: Can you eat that?

I've heard it more times than I can count, both from people close to me, and people I've never met on the internet. As someone with type 2 diabetes, the question is almost always a loaded one, and it took me a while to figure out how to handle it.

When people think about type 2 diabetes, the first thing they believe is that someone usually caused it themselves (because they didn’t eat the right food or get enough exercise). But, though type 2 diabetes is preventable, it still has its roots in genetics.

Why I felt shame when someone questioned my food choices

Fielding questions about my food or what I chose to eat always made me feel shame. I wanted to hide what I ate from people, or I was apprehensive about large group meals because I didn't want anyone to judge my personal choices without knowing the background. Though I'm continually making my next move based on data I see in my glucose meter, I didn't want to explain myself constantly.

The first time someone ever asked about what I was eating, a few things crossed my mind:

  • Am I being judged?

  • Is everyone always watching my eating habits this closely?

  • Do I have to change my diet depending on who I'm around?

  • Am I doing something wrong?

"Can you eat that" often feels like finger-pointing or blaming.

It also furthers the stigma that managing diabetes is all about what we put in our mouths, rather than the many external factors that affect blood sugar levels in our daily lives.

What can you do when someone seems judgmental about your plate?

Although you might feel hurt or criticized by the question, what can you do when someone asks if you can have what you're eating?

  • Give them the benefit of the doubt. The question might come from a place of curiosity, caring, or genuine interest.

  • Be honest. Talk about why you chose your meal and use the moment to educate the person on your goals. Is it based on how your blood sugar has reacted to the same foods before? Do you just want to enjoy your meal? Sharing that information can satisfy their curiosity, and you're able to steer the conversation.

  • Don't explain if you don't feel like it. It's OK to say, "I'm uncomfortable with your comment," and move on to something else. You're not required to explain if you'd rather be private.

So, the big question: what can someone with diabetes eat?

I'm not here to judge that. Although a low-carb diet works well for me, I'm a firm believer that your diabetes may vary. What works for me doesn't always work for everyone else, and vice versa. Your diet should align with your health goals; your care team is integral in setting those goals with you and adjusting them along the way.

Just remember, it's okay to say "Yes, I can eat that" without feeling guilt or shame about your choices – especially when you have information (like blood glucose patterns) to back up your decisions.

About Mila

Mila Clarke Buckley is a type 2 diabetes patient advocate and the founder of The Hangry Woman blog, that shares approachable food and lifestyle tips to help others living with type 2 diabetes. HangryWoman.com covers topics like diabetes management, shame and stigma, cooking, and self-care from the perspective of someone living with the chronic condition. Mila’s work has been featured by The New York Times, Healthline, WebMD, GE, Health and Diabetic Living Magazine.

[Photo Credit: Mila Buckley]