Food Choices Are Not a Moral Issue

judging other people's food choices

Written by Mandi Ehman, Guest Writer

Even the staunchest real-food advocates among us have probably experienced it at one time or another…the glare – virtual or in person – of someone who disagrees with an “inferior” choice we’re making.

The current food culture in our country – as so many of us push back against the standard American diet (SAD) and discover how processed foods and inferior ingredients affect our bodies – is a really good thing, but it can also manifest itself in a rigid and judgmental attitude toward other people who aren’t making the same decisions as us.

As someone who is taking baby steps toward a whole foods diet (through reading labels, cooking more from scratch and avoiding processed sugar), I’ve often felt this judgment from other people. (Some of that has certainly been based only on my perception and not reality, but we all know that the judgment really does exist.) As our family is taking bigger steps now, I am determined that no one will feel that same judgment from me.

Food Choices Are Not a Moral Issue

I recently read this quote, which has quickly become one of my favorites:

“A culture that redefines food choices as moral issues will demonize the people who don’t share the tastes of the priest class. A culture that elevates eating to some holistic act of ethical self-definition – localvore, low-carbon-impact food, fair trade, artisanal cheese – will find the casual carefree choices of the less-enlightened as an affront to their belief system. Leave it to Americans to invent a Puritan strain of Epicurianism.”

There are certainly moral issues around food – including the lack of food for many people around the world, living out our convictions through the food we buy and serve other people, sharing the things we know with other people in an informative, non-judgemental way, and so on.

The issue, though, comes when we start to judge other people based on the food choices they’re making for themselves and their families.

We assume that because we’ve been convicted of something, they should have been too, and therefore they’re making “inferior” choices out of laziness or, if they say they can’t afford to eat better, because of poor financial management.

Understanding the Other Person’s Perspective

The thing that I think is easy to forget is how overwhelming it is to go against the stream when you’ve grown up eating processed food. Our whole lives, we’ve been taught that it’s convenient! And manufactured to have all the nutrients you need! And affordable!

There are many reasons people may not be willing or able to push back against that agenda and evaluate their food choices in their current circumstances:

  • A lack of kitchen skills or confidence.
  • A focus on making ends meet and being able to put any food on the table.
  • Being stretched by work and home responsibilities.
  • A bad experience with past attempts to improve their diet.
  • Confusion caused by conflicting information

I love this quote from the June 17th entry in My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers, which I think fits this conversation perfectly: “Stop having a measuring rod for other people. There is always one more fact in every man’s case about which we know nothing.”

Like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, many families may be focused simply on surviving; making the best food choices for long-term health isn’t even on their radar. And remember, even if you can see how they could cut their budget or better spend their time to make healthy food choices, that doesn’t mean that they’re in a place where they feel like they want to or can do those things.

Respecting Their Right to Disagree

In some cases, someone may have read all the same literature as you and simply disagree. (Hey, it’s possible.) Thankfully, the Bible addresses this one fairly plainly:

In 1 Corinthians, Paul addresses a controversy among the Corinthian believers about whether it is permissible to eat meat that has been offered to idols. He says in 8:1: “We know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies.” Later, in verse 8, he goes on to say, “But food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse.”

We will likely never all agree about food choices, and while it is great to build a network of people who do view food and other lifestyle choices the same way you do, we also need to get along with those who are eating foods we disagree with…without being arrogant or judgmental in our interactions.
judging other people's food choices

image by Annie Mole

Be an Encouragement to Those Around You

I can tell you that the biggest single factor affecting our food choices now is a relationship with an older mom in our homeschool group, the internet research I’ve done over the past four or five years notwithstanding. She follows many Nourishing Traditions principles, sticking primarily to locally grown whole foods, and I have been inspired just by being around her and talking food with her without feeling judged. She gladly shares the things she does – as well as things she’s still learning – but freely admits that their family occasionally runs through the McDonald’s drive-thru.

Her life has been such an example of grace – making good choices without allowing them to get in the way of relationships or become rigid rules that take the joy out of food and eating – that I’ve learned that I can approach this journey in my own time and my own way without trying to live up to someone else’s standards or avoid their critical eye. And rather than leading to a standstill, that’s motivated me to move forward even more quickly.

When we judge another person’s food choice – even if we do it silently – it begins to build a wall between us, and we miss out not only on the opportunity to share what we know but also the opportunity to learn from their strengths and experiences.

Practical Ways to Encourage Others

Practically speaking, how do you handle social events and get-togethers with grace and not judgment, but without sacrificing our own convictions? Here are some strategies to get you started, but mostly, just love people for who they are and don’t worry about trying to change them!

  • If appropriate, bring your own food. (Oftentimes, the stranger, the better, since it invites people to ask questions and opens up conversation.)
  • Invite people to your home. In this case, it might be best to avoid the strangest offerings (kombucha?!) in favor of healthier variations of popular foods that are sure to entice their taste buds.
  • Be willing to eat the food that other people serve unless you truly have a good allergy. Even if it’s not the “best”, accepting some of it – even a smaller portion – is much better than turning up your nose at it.
  • Be open about your family’s food choices without judging theirs. If people know you are making healthier choices – and that you’re a safe person to talk to – they’re much more likely to ask you questions so that you can encourage them on their own journey.

At the end of the day, the best thing you can do is to continue to make what you feel are the best choices for your family without worrying about the choices other people are making. Most importantly, consider relationships with people more important than their food choices!

Have you felt judged for your food choices? Or struggled with judging others? How do you practically put relationships above food choices?

top image by cell105

About Mandi Ehman

Mandi Ehman lives in wild, wonderful West Virginia with her husband of ten years and four beautiful, spunky little girls. As a full-time work-at-home, homeschooling mom, she runs Life Your Way, a site that blends intentional and creative living, and Jungle Deals & Steals, where it's all Amazon, all the time.

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  1. Oh, the joy I felt reading this! I am so tired of being mired down with all this parental guilt about every. little. thing. I do for or with my family. The quote in the article was perfect. Between MommyGuilt and all these new eating plans: Fermented. Local. Paleo. etc., I am about to lose my Mommy Mind. There is a crazy competition between families and frankly I find it weird. Now, let me be clear, I am not talking about the moms and dads who choose and blog about one eating style and stick with it, thus freeing up lots of quality time together. No, I am talking about the people who read all of the blogs and try to impress upon me how important their choices are for me. It’s a craziness that goes bouncing around from the food plan of the week, to the new craft of the week, to the new home school curriculum of the week, to the new disciplinary platform of the week, to the new parenting style of the week. I feel like I have to be a rocket scientist, a scholar, a seamstress, an executive chef, an author, and child psychologist, all while holding a jar of fermented foods, drinking a Kombucha, and breastfeeding. I’ve had about all I can stand. I am going to go play with my kids and feed them a pan of brownies. WITH SUGAR.

  2. Susan Alexander says:

    It’s a hard line to tow I think. I have a child who cannot eat preservatives, food dyes, even certain healthy foods like apples without losing her control over herself. That makes it really tricky when someone else wants to “treat” her. I want her to enjoy things, but I can’t allow her to have foods that will affect our entire family negatively like that. And people often feel judged when I try to explain what she can and cannot have.

    Or then there’s the case of when you’re trying out a new diet (say gluten free or dairy free) in the hopes it will help you or one of your family members with a particular medical issue. Other people often feel judged just by the fact that YOU are choosing to exclude that item.

    Along those lines, people ask me why and how I plan to feed my baby the way I do (whole foods, finger foods, starting with fruits/veggies, then meats/dairy, and trying to avoid grains as long as possible). It’s hard to explain why I feel so strongly about doing things this way without making it sound like I’m judging the other person for NOT doing it my way.

    Or when you see a person who may benefit from your lifestyle – it’s tricky to want to make a gentle suggestion without making someone feel judged. Such a hard thing to do I think! I definitely don’t judge anyone for not wanting or being able to do what I do. But I think if they could benefit, it’s only right for me to at least suggest it as gently as possible?? Thoughts?

  3. This is a good post. I have to say that I am tired of reading (not here, but on a lot of websites) that if you wanted to eat well, you would find the money. My husband has been unemployed for 2-1/2 years, we are out of savings, living with my parents, and on food stamps. My choices are limited, so I do the best I can with what I have. Grass-fed or organic is just not in my budget. I’m just happy if I can fill my kids tummies with reasonably healthy foods.

  4. You wrote that eating is about “making good choices without allowing them to get in the way of relationships or become rigid rules that take the joy out of food and eating”. Amen! There is no joy in someone pointing out that my bratwurst is “the entrails of a pig” or chastizing me for “supporting the corporate machine” because I bought this week’s spinach from the grocery store instead of a farmer. Similarly, there is no joy in eating alone because people are wary of a lecture they may get from ME.

    We don’t always know the full story about a person’s income, or health issues, or lifestyle. We need to ask what is more important – good hospitality, good manners, the family meal, and companionship…..or getting everyone to conform to our own way of eating?

    Great post!

  5. Great post and a great reminder. What works for one family at a certain time in life may not work for another. Thanks for the reminder to keep it all in perspective.

  6. I love this post! We’re vegetarians which means we tend to have judging moments. We’ve tried hard to stop the judging. Plus, we’re also in a place where we can’t afford local fresh produce. In order to keep our family fed we have to resort to frozen veggies and using top Ramon noodles for pasta. It’s tough to feel judging eyes but we do what’s best for our family in this season of life.

  7. What a wonderful post! Thank you! I so struggle with this. I want to eat well but so desperately want to love others well too. I’m not sure I always do this well, but I sure hope I can learn to!

  8. Thanks for the reminder! I especially appreciate your suggestion to accept food offered by your hosts, even if they’re not the healthiest. It’s a small way to bridge the gap between you and say, “I value our relationship more than my food rules.”

  9. I’m so glad you touched on the fact that some people just don’t agree…or care, if we are honest. It’s important to respect them as well, even if there is no apparent reason why they choose that way of eating. I myself have experienced feeling judged, or even fear of other people finding out that we don’t always eat well, or that our garden is a huge, and I mean HUGE mess, when our friends seem to be doing so well with their locally grown, back yard garden diets. The simple fact is that we have the right to make our own choices, that is what makes this country so great! Wonderful article!

  10. I deeply appreciate this perspective, Mandi. While there are certainly cases where food choices are moral (parents who are ignoring their child’s obesity-related disease because of apathy or abuse), those cases are very rare. Most of us interact with families who are truly doing their best to nourish their children, in the context of busy family life.

    It pains me every time I read posts or comments from people who are sacrificing relationships with parents or in-laws or others because of food choices. There are ways to gently indicate food choices or preferences, as you indicated (and as I know full well from dealing with allergies, sensitivities, and health choices for my children), but destroying the relationship over food? As I understand it, as soon as my food choices become more important to me than other biblically-mandated actions (being at peace, preferring others above myself, loving others, honoring my parents), I am in danger of making food my idol.

    Thank you for your thoughtful and gentle post! Very encouraging and challenging.

  11. Thank you so much for such a great post! I think one of the biggest problems to people being more healthy in their choices is misunderstanding. Then we also factor in lack of time, lack of knowledge, and cultural upbringing…all of those contribute also. I have been trying to make better choices. It is certainly a challenge for me in more ways than one. But I am trying. I would really be hurt if someone judged me on one quick fast-food meal that I rarely eat anymore.

  12. Yes! Yes! This has been one of my biggest struggles in our food journey. I have felt judged and purposefully make a great effort to keep from judging. I love to share information- its part of my personality- but I try to share in a way that lets the other person know that they are free to do whatever they want with the info without my opinion of them being changed. I find,too, that it helps to remember that this is a journey and we are all at different places in it. There will always be further steps to take. We must remember that food is a part of our lives but food is not our life. When food becomes our life we have replaced God with our food choices. I may be wrong but I think God would prefer us to eat McDonalds everyday and love Him with our whole heart rather than eat a perfect traditional/whole foods diet and have no time for Him. Just my thoughts.

    Thank you so much for this post!

  13. It’s standard for us to offer kombucha to visitors. :) We’re just so into it! And we say “This is what we drink instead of soda.” They’re usually pretty intrigued by that. We haven’t had one say they truly disliked it yet.

    • Hehe! Maybe that was a bad example. I was thinking more along the lines of serving something “strange” with no other options available. I’m guessing you also offer your visitors water to drink if they don’t like the kombucha?

  14. I do get frustrated when others judge me by the food I eat. I cook a lot from scratch and we do eat a lot of whole and organic foods, yet we are one of those families that also goes out to eat fast food once a week, yet I still get labeled by friends as a hippie chick, due to how we eat. I try explaining to them how much better it makes me feel, but they just think I have bought in to a trend.

  15. Carrie Elsass says:

    I’m not sure I completely agree. When there is abundant information available about at least the most basic issues, I find it neglectful(at best) when a parent buys their already overweight child a Big Gulp sized cola, for example. It’s one thing to destroy yourself(knowingly or not), but I do get judgey when it comes to blatant choices like these when it comes to kids. I am much like the Kristin Wiig character in this SNL clip- LOL-

    • Christina Criss says:

      I do agree with you. I am also very much like Wiig’s character, except that I could really go on for hours over the reasons why I speak up. My husband is my biggest challenge, he always says, “I should be able to enjoy things once in a while if I want to!” things like coke, fast food, sports drinks…but my response is usually along the lines of, “but how can you put that in your body knowing what’s in it and what it’s going to do to you?!”
      I’m quite judgmental when it comes to food, yes, because I truly do care what goes into my body, but more so because I care about the environment and the future of my family (which is now only my husband and I with our 3 small dogs…but children one day!). The foods being grown that support the “SAD” is destroying us and the land.
      How is it not a question of morality when the treatment of animals whether it be for meat, eggs, milk, etc are terrible and inhumane (and completely unsanitary); the quality of our crops, soil, and air are being destroyed; and it’s our families that are being affected and paying the price in ways that we don’t even understand yet. It’s not possible to live in a clean world anymore…and THAT is sad, and our food industries have a lot to do with that!

    • Yes…but what if that was the first Big Gulp cola that parent purchased in a year!?! We honestly do not know every bit of information that affects our decisions.
      Not to mention that large corporations own many health companies — and what they feed us (in words) is not necessarily for us to profit by — but them.
      Yes, I try to eat healthy, and feed my family the same. It’s why I grow a garden, and keep chickens. (How many of you go to the trouble of raising your own eggs, those of you who are extra-worried?) I use olive oil and butter, reasoning that if I use the food at its most basic, without preservatives, I’m doing better than stuffing all sorts of chemicals in.
      We also eat out on occasion.
      I do not, however, concentrate on buying ‘organic’ foods — partly because they’re so darn expensive, and partly because some things are sneaking into those products! (Check the labels.) Will I buy organic, if it’s close in price to regular produce? You bet. (One great place to go is SPROUTS — if you have this store near you, you can consistently get wonderful fruit and produce for low prices.)
      I am especially troubled by some of the young women in our church who equate ‘healthy eating’ (by their standards only) with faith. Some throw in allergy issues, as well — especially gluten — and pretty much expect everyone to accommodate to their demands. (Sometimes they’re keeping their children on no-gluten diets, even though the kids aren’t allergic!) This is a huge stumbling block to helping others to become Christians…Paul would not have had his vision (of all sorts of foods being ok with God) if it weren’t true.
      There are huge issues to deal with in today’s world…food should not be at the top of the list.

      • I agree with almost everything you’ve said…but I would caution that a gluten intolerance is not something mothers can take lightly. I SO wish my little girl could indulge occasionally on a bday cake at a party, etc. It surely would be less hassle for me to have to bake her a mini GF (not to mention one that is also free of eggs and dairy) every time she’s invited to a party. Sure, I don’t like the sugar and dyes, etc., but I would let her once in a while at a party. But I–and moms of kids like mine–simply cannot. If I let my little girl eat gluten, I’d be in for cleaning up her diarrhea for a solid week, listening to her say her tummy aches and navigating the delicate balance of disciplining a child who had food-induced meltdowns that they can–yet somehow cannot totally–control.

        I would just be cautious in your view of allergy moms. How I wish I could just let my kids eat “whatever” every once in a while!

        • I think what Cindy is saying is that some moms ‘create’ an ‘allergy’ of gluten for their kids bc they don’t want to eat it themselves, so it’s just easier for them, not necessarily beneficial to their children. I know someone who actually does this. She basically created a gluten allergy in her son by taking him off of it for a long time, based on her personal preferences – no real allergy in him. However, go off of something for long enough, and it will make you sick when you try to eat it again – which is what this woman has done to her son. It’s ‘easy’ for her to control now, but what about as he gets older? I feel for him as a college student, that’s for sure.

    • “Judgey” does not change anything about the situation or behavior. Someone has to value you and respect your perspective in order to value and respect your choices. If you judge someone you do not know for a choice they make, you have not valued that person or tried to understand and respect their perspective – change will not occur this way.

    • As Cindy pointed out, I think the problem with saying that it’s appropriate to judge in certain situations is that everybody may view what those situations are differently. For you an obese kid drinking a Big Gulp is a clear reason to judge. But what if I believe soda is toxic, so letting any child have some is HORRIBLE and therefore judge a family for letting their children have soda? Or, what if you’re judging a parent for letting their child have a Big Gulp, when in reality it’s one soda that’s going to be split among their family as a special treat, or they’re just holding it for their parent, or the family has been struggling with some other issue and — whether it’s a good move or not — the Big Gulp is a reward for something else?

      Or, to turn the table around, what if someone read the recent article about the dangers of kombucha and judges you for letting your kids drink it because it’s clearly dangerous?

      I truly do get what you’re saying, but I think it’s dangerous to judge other people/parents for food choices; it’s simply not our place.

      • Oh yes, Mandy! I tend towards being a judgemental person and a big lesson I am learning (sometimes painfully) is that I just. don’t. know. all. the. story.

        There are times when things are just plain wrong. However, anti-soda as I am, I do not want to bring myself to judge a person’s parenting (the way that they are stewarding their children for the Lord!) over a Big Gulp soda – not without knowing the whole story. And even in an extreme case where culpability is clear, I’m guessing there are bigger problems that need to be addressed before the soda is addressed.

        Lord help me to recognize that I can never know how He is working in another’s heart and at what pace. I tend to judge obese preachers (gluttony, which the Lord spoke so often against!), but my mother told be that she always reminds herself, “he may be changing and have just lost 20 pounds.” Only the Lord knows and I am challenging myself to be much more careful about pretending to be omniscient.

  16. Amy Jay says:

    Thank you so much for writing this — it’s SO true, and I myself have certainly been guilty of food judgment in the past.

    The biggest thing I struggle with now is being judgmental against overweight people, since I have lost almost 100 pounds. It’s ironic, considering I myself was severely obese at one point, and yet now (less than a year later) I find myself thinking negative thoughts about others who are in a similar pre-weight-loss-Amy condition. I feel so guilty, and am really working to conquer these sinful thoughts through lots of prayer.

    It’s so important, on non-essential spiritual matters, to offer lots and lots of leeway and grace to others who may not feel the same way we do about a matter, especially something like food.

  17. What a fantastic post! I was so blessed to have a friend who encouraged me in my journey without ever once being judgmental. Now that I’ve made a lot of changes in our diet and lifestyle, when I find myself going down that road, I think of her encouragement for me and do my best to encourage others in the same vein. Everyone is on different roads and at different points on those roads.

  18. Thank you for your post. OH, yes. I get frustrated when people get high and mighty about food, on either side of the issue. I know first hand how personal food is, although I got it from the opposite side. I was vegan for several years and full vegetarian for several years more. I made a huge effort to not get on my soapbox, to never discuss my eating choices while any of us were eating, and really, felt fine if others had no interest in being vegetarian. But, oh, man. I would be asked why I’m not eating something and the moment I said, “Oh, I’m vegetarian” or even just “I don’t eat meat,” I got near violent reactions. That’s not an exaggeration. The worst was actually at church, this guy crawled across the table and got in my face yelling at me, when the only words that had come out of my mouth were, “I’m vegetarian.” I think it’s important on all sides to be loving towards those around us. I do think there is a bit of a double standard in which it is socially accepted to make comments about someone who is eating healthier, “too skinny,” exercising, etc. in order for the other person to feel better about themselves, but we are not socially allowed to have a lovingly concerned conversation with someone if they smoke, or are so morbidly obese they are literally killing themselves with food and lack of exercise. I think it’s a delicate balance. In my experience, I’ve found that the following work great in keeping the peace: 1. Refrain from getting on your soapbox about food, especially over food. 2. Avoid labeling yourself or your eating – it shuts people out (and helps them justify not listening to you). 3. Just make your food choices without making a fuss, and people will notice and will start asking questions if they are actually curious, in which case you can then have a conversation based on love and acceptance of each other regardless of personal beliefs or food preference, based on sharing rather than trying to convince. My 2 cents. (or maybe 10 cents.)

  19. This is so true, and so necessary to remember. I never want to make anyone feel like they are inferior because of their food choices, though I have definitely failed in that before. In view of eternity, food choices aren’t the main idea.

  20. Margaret Hunter says:

    Oh yes…..most of my family does not want to eat healthy or their idea of healthy meals is very different from mine. We are mostly retired but often share meals. I have learned to cook a healthy meal in a way that looks like the old favorite…..sneaky huh? I even put it in Moms old pan. I have them thinking of ‘home’ before the first bite.

    Its taken me 70 years to get to this way of eating. I think exposure to good healthy food can change minds.

  21. Amen and amen. This reminds me of the Stacy Makes Cents post, “Food is Not Your God.”

    Thank you, Mandi, for this list of practical ways to love our neighbor. It brought to mind a couple things that I have done that may have made others feel judged – even though I had no intention of doing so.

  22. Lynn Therrien says:

    Our food choices are a moral issue! It is Godly to put Godly foods into our bodies and it is not Godly to put foods in our body that are not worthy of Him. We are his temples and ought to put His food into our bodies. But, there’s never a question when it comes to charity. This is the key!!! Charity must reign, reign, reign, and sometimes we become over zealous. We need to accept people where they are, and share this dimension of our faith as well. :)

  23. Mandi, I love this post. You’ve put it so perfectly – I love your Bible references. :-)

    “So do not be attracted by strange, new ideas. Your strength comes from God’s grace, not from rules about food, which don’t help those who follow them.” Hebrews 13:9

    Everything must be done in love – otherwise it falls on a deaf ear.

  24. Thanks for this fresh word. A great reminder of the humility with which to approach this, and other “close to home” issues. We’ve experienced the “being looked down on”, and I’m sure we’ve probably made someone feel silly for their food choices as well. I hope to read AJ Jacobs new book “Drop Dead Healthy” soon….I’m sure he covers this topic in a comedic and fresh way also. :)

  25. Rebecca says:

    Great Post! :D xx


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