Let me describe a situation we’ve all experienced.
You’re with a friend, feeling confident enough to expose the ugliest, most-likely-to-go-viral-and-humiliate-you aspects of your life, and you find yourself wading into a story that includes a depraved episode of gluttony. Maybe you bought a tub of sour cream and ate it alone by the spoonful while watching American Horror Story season one or ordered the fries that serve a family of six just for yourself. Prior to this moment, your companion has been quiet, either listening or wondering what Ja Rule has been up to lately as so many of us do during quiet moments, but now something has caught their attention: You admitted that you ate something bad.
Your friend nonchalantly interrupts to inform you, “Wow, I haven’t eaten French fries in 4 months, 17 days, 5 hours, 47 minutes, and 23 seconds.” Suddenly, everything stops. A tense moment passes between the two of you like a waiter reaching to clear away a plate of neglected nachos. The quiet gives way to sounds of faraway cheering and the trumpets of an elephant. It sounds like a distant party. A man on stilts wobbles into view, waving in your direction. He leads you down the street through a woodwind orchestra to the source of the celebration: It’s an I Haven’t Eaten That Since parade for your ascetic friend. A woman in a green taffeta gown with a grass-fed cow on a leash presents your friend with a sash made out of kale, bedazzled with pomegranate seeds that spell out “Better Than You.”
When food comes up in the course of a normal conversation, what was once a pleasant exchange often devolves into a verbal cage match to crown a new Health Champion. The number of steps you walked yesterday gets thrown down like a healthy living blackjack. Protein-packed bars are unearthed from the bottom of purses, ready to joust. Elliptical alibis fall into place.
Not all, “I haven’t eaten that since,” comments are bad. It’s one thing to bond over the shared memory of eating Jawbreakers back in the day and quite another to banish someone to the sewers because they admitted to eating more than the recommended serving of powdered doughnuts. Being proud of your diet isn’t categorically a bad thing – especially when you’ve quit certain foods as a preventative health measure – but people usually bring up their food moderation as a subtle, self-congratulatory dig, a little Pillsbury Dough Boy boop of a reminder that you’ve eaten something fattening more recently than they have.
I’m guilty of oversharing my food restraining orders, too. I’ve taken pride in reminding people that I can’t remember the last time I deigned to be seen at the Burger King drive-thru or recall the calendar date when last the fizz of a freshly-opened Coca-Cola passed from aluminum can to my lips. In those moments I was trash, because instead of bonding over the universal struggle of bad eating, I became the person on Facebook who shares articles like, “New Study Finds Chocolate is Actually Delicious Poison.”
As health-obsessed, weight-conscious beings, we like putting distance between ourselves and junk food, because mindful eating is a struggle that never gets any easier. If for a brief moment we can feel superior – even to someone close to us, someone we actually like – maybe it’ll erase some of the cookie guilt. There’s a smug satisfaction in being performative about your health, in announcing that you’re going to a yoga class or that you’ve woken up early to emulsify fruits and veggies into some unrecognizable green goo in the blender three times this week, but the temporary rush of superiority you get for lightly shaming someone for not being as disciplined as you doesn’t prove anything to anyone. It doesn’t appease the health gods, and it doesn’t get you closer to any goal.
We’re allowed to celebrate our nutritional choices – whether they’re the result of ethics, allergies, cavemen, or Kim Kardashian – but not at the expense of anyone else. The fact that you’ve given up dairy has no correlation to your friend eating a pint of ice cream. You aren’t closer to reaching any health nirvana because out of everyone you know, it’s been the longest since you’ve eaten fried chicken. What you do and do not put into your body has nothing to do with anyone but you.
So the next time someone confides in you that they recently ordered a large pizza with extra everything, instead of mentioning that you haven’t allowed cheese into your field of vision for four years, be humble and remember that no one really cares about that but you, and that’s enough.