Dietary Labels: How Food-Shaming Pushed Me To Ditch My Vegan Diet

by Mikaila Read

I must say, of all the personal characteristics, habits or conduct I’ve been explicitly shamed for in the past, diet has been one of the most frustrating.

Hidden behind professions of care (“I just want you to be healthy!”), I have always detected a sense of judgment and shame being cast upon me for the choices I have made with regard to my diet.

Interestingly enough, the most flak I ever received for my manner of eating came along during a period of rigid veganism. I took to veganism in part for dietary reasons and in part as an expression of my personal values.

And while I have since reincorporated meat, eggs and dairy back into my diet over the last several years, I have also significantly limited my intake from what it used to be.

What I find the most interesting about the censure I’ve suffered both as a vegan and non-vegan is it usually comes about unaccompanied by curiosity or questioning about the reasons behind my dietary choices.

The emphasis has always been on "what" I am eating, not on "why" I am eating it.

Yet, deciding what to eat is not the cut-and-dry task many make it out to be. In part, our dietary choices are constrained by our financial positions. They are also dictated by the different ways we have been raised and taught to think about food.

And, of course, our dietary choices are also influenced by our personal values.

Eating can often be a social affair and, in certain times and contexts (the holidays, for instance), a custom. Eating can be a matter of comfort, though there will be disagreement on the propriety of taking comfort in food.

Nevertheless, in times of distress, I find myself drawn to potatoes and peanut butter (though not necessarily in the same dish).

Obviously, the functions food may serve are substantially more than basic nutritional benefit. Our diets, then, are not merely a reflection of our health status, but of our socioeconomic status, our emotional well-being, our spiritual and ethical perspectives and much more.

Which is precisely why it so sad that, in our ever-increasingly competitive culture, diet has become yet another position from which to judge and put down others.

If I had a nickel for every time someone pointed to a food on my plate and shouted, "That’s not vegan!" -- their faces betraying a smug satisfaction at "catching me in the act" --- I’d be a rich lady. This is a rather obvious form of food-shaming.

But a less obvious version is one I’m ashamed to have to admit I've participated in.

In my years as a rigid vegan, I wore the title proudly. I considered myself to be making a positive impact on the environment, taking steps in support of animal rights and cultivating my good health. (I still think these are advances that can be made through the adoption of a vegan diet.)

I wanted to inspire others to adopt the same diet for the many reasons I was motivated to adopt it myself, so I spoke about my veganism with relative frequency. And to a small extent, I have to admit I did look down on some people for not eating in a way that resembled how I chose to eat.

It was in these moments I became privy to the fine line that exists between taking pride in one’s own diet and shaming others for theirs.

It is perfectly appropriate to be pleased with oneself for committing to a particular lifestyle or manner of eating and following through on that commitment.

Dietary labels might be a matter of convenience to express certain restrictions or special needs within our diets, but when they arise in everyday conversation as an expression of our values and status, they run the risk of dissolving into a form of snobbery.

When we praise something, there is an implicit judgment or censure cast on things that deviate from it.

But, if we don't have an understanding of what constraints or values are guiding the dietary choices of others, we should be very careful not to participate in any behavior that directly or indirectly shames them for what they have chosen to eat.

In the adoption of dietary labels, we should ask ourselves very seriously what it is we are trying to convey about ourselves or what conversations we are trying to start.

If the answer includes a sort of self-praise or censure against the dietary choices of others, we should abandon the label that guides it.

When professing to be vegan skirts the line of food shaming, the helpful function the label may serve is undermined. And as the label is not what is integral to the diet itself, perhaps we can afford to stop attaching it to ourselves.

We should strive to be healthy. But we should be equally wary of becoming health-righteous.