Whether it’s a mom who cares or a co-worker obsessed with his newfound perfect diet, people frequently comment on others’ eating choices. Good intentions or otherwise, this can backfire.

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On Nutrition

Have you had it with the “food police”? When I say “food police,” I’m not talking about national food policy or public health messages — that would be a topic for another column. No, I’m talking about the food police among us. Your friends, family, co-workers — even strangers — who scrutinize your food choices.

We’ve all experienced it. The co-worker who constantly makes comments like, “Wow … you still eat bread?” The mother who says, “Are you sure you really need a second cookie?” just as your fingers reach toward that snickerdoodle. The (possibly) well-intentioned partner who hides the chocolate from you with the explanation, “You’re not supposed to have that,” simply because you mentioned you’re trying to eat less sugar.

Trouble is, no matter what the intention, these kinds of comments can backfire, big time. Feeling controlled, judged or shamed — or called out when you’re just trying to eat your lunch — can bring out your inner rebel, or simply make you feel bad. For many people, that can lead to making less-than-healthful food choices out of spite or for comfort.

Some people are relatively immune to comments that run counter to how they choose to eat. These are usually people who have managed to escape being sucked into the chronic dieting madhouse. Dieters, on the other hand, often have an interesting reaction to negative food messages: eating more of the supposedly “bad” food. A study from the University of Arizona last year found that negative messages about dessert — rather than encouraging dieters to make more healthful choices — actually made less-nutritious foods more enticing.

If you feel like you are being patrolled by the food police, take comfort that you aren’t alone. Everybody eats, so everybody has an opinion about food, and a lot of people like to share their opinions. That said, you are an adult and you have the right to make choices for yourself. Don’t be afraid to set boundaries around food talk, by kindly but firmly making it clear that your food choices are your business. To quote author Brené Brown, “Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.” If you need a quick comeback to counter a workplace food busybody, try a pointed-yet-casual, “Why are you monitoring what other adults eat?”

What if you yourself are the food police? My advice is to admit it, then stop it. Just stop. When you think you’ve found the best way to eat, it’s easy to start proselytizing. However, there’s no one right way to eat, and everyone is at a different place regarding how they eat and their overall relationship with food. Celebrate that you’ve figured things out for yourself, but keep quiet unless someone asks.

Stopping unsolicited food commentary can be difficult if nutrition is important to you and it’s not to your nearest and dearest — especially if you are afraid their food choices are affecting their health. But even if someone could benefit from making more nutritious food choices, if they aren’t ready to change then your comments won’t make them any readier. When we change something about ourselves just to please someone else (or to get them off our back), the changes are short-lived. Instead of becoming too emotionally invested in someone’s food choices, set a quiet example. Prepare what you want to eat and serve, then just enjoy the meal — no need to talk about how nutritious or healthful it is.