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Have you ever said to yourself something along the lines of: “I ate a donut and feel guilty”, “I feel bad for eating cake”, or even “I feel guilty no matter what I eat”? If you have, know that you’re not alone, and that this line of thinking comes from the conditioning we receive through diet culture. Food guilt and food shame are so ingrained into how we’re taught to relate to food it seems almost normal to feel this after eating a certain way. However, this response to eating is far from normal or healthy. Food shame has no place in a positive relationship with food, and can be emotionally destructive. Remember, food plays a very important role in our lives, from the vital nourishment it provides our bodies to the pleasure it can also bring us. In this post, I’ll teach you how to deal with food guilt, plus practical steps you can take to overcoming food shame. In other words, learn to stop serving your meals with a side of guilt, while gaining more trust in your relationship to food and body.
Guilt eating meaning
A friend of mine who is a mental health professional once told me that guilt is a useless emotion. At first I couldn’t wrap my head around that, because aren’t you supposed to feel horrible after doing something wrong? Eventually, though, I “got it”. You see, guilt is useless because even though we can naturally feel bad after doing something wrong, we don’t really need to feel bad about ourselves to take corrective actions. Guilt keeps us stuck in self blame rather than learning to correct our behaviors.
I love how this article from Psychology Today explains how guilt doesn’t serve us:
- “You can’t change the past, no matter how long or how often you practice feeling guilty.
- Rehashing guilt-arousing thoughts in your mind keeps you locked in the past, rather than focused on the present.
- Feeling guilty does not help you correct troubling behavior because you expend your mental energies putting yourself down rather than learning to change your behavior”.
By definition, guilt is an emotion you experience when you feel you have violated a moral standard. Food guilt and guilt eating are for the most part based on beliefs about “good” and “bad” foods (more diet mentality at work). Diet culture moralizes foods into these categories, which then elicits a conditioned response from us based on whether we believe that to be true or not. Food guilt can ensue after eating “forbidden foods” or overeating, and it presents as a feeling of shame that we have done something wrong.
However, food and eating are not inherently wrong. Some may believe that feeling guilt will allow them to stay on the straight and narrow and not “fall off the wagon” (I really detest that phrase!), but this rarely works as a long term strategy. As the above mentioned article explains, it’s not guilt that will keep you from acting out, “but rather your values and core beliefs that you rely on to regulate your behavior.”
How to identify guilt eating behaviors
So how do you start untangling yourself from feelings of guilt around food? As with any shift in beliefs and behaviors we wish to make, awareness is the first step. In general terms, notice if any of these thoughts/behaviors apply to you:
- Do you avoid foods that are high in fat, sugars, carbohydrates or calories?
- Do you deny yourself foods that you crave?
- Do you follow food rigid rules that tell you what, when and/or how to eat?
- Do you have “forbidden foods” that you don’t allow yourself to eat?
- Do you feel angry at yourself for eating something “unhealthy”, “forbidden” or “bad”?
How to identify food rules
Here are some examples of food rules, so you can be more aware of what to look for when working towards:
- Don’t eat at night (or past “x” hour), even though research is not conclusive on this “rule” and it depends on many other factors
- It’s not time eat yet (even if you’re about to pass out from hunger)
- Skipping meals because of “eating too much” in a previous meal
- “Working off” a certain food
- “Earning” a food for “being good” during “x” period of time
If any of these are true for you, please gently remind yourself that it was taught to you, and you can unlearn anything with intention and practice.
Try to write down any food rules or eating behaviors that lead to thinking “I can’t eat without feeling guilty”. Next, when you experience guilt after eating a particular food, try to identify which of your food rules you felt you’ve broken. For example, if you feel guilty after eating ice cream, try to identify the food rule or belief behind it. It could be something like: ice cream is bad for me or ice cream is “unhealthy”. Next, challenge this belief with statements that are true. For example: “one food won’t make or break my health” or “all foods can be a part of a balanced diet”. However, for the shift in food beliefs to happen, you must believe the new statements to be true, otherwise they won’t have enough weight to displace the old beliefs. I find that learning about intuitive eating can really help you listen, communicate and be in tune with your body, and to separate yourself from any outside judgment on what you “should” eat. That way, your beliefs about food and body will become much more balanced and empowering.
“Why do I feel bad when I eat?” is something you’ve probably asked yourself before. But you don’t have to experience that if you choose not to. Dieting takes power away from us. That’s what drives binge eating, loss of control, guilt and anxiety around food. No thanks to diet culture, we don’t have eating trust anymore. By learning to eat in a more attuned way, you learn to trust your body signals, and take back your power.
Buy it Here: Intuitive Eating
How to get over food guilt
Shame and guilt around eating is something that’s taught, but it’s not based on anything but diet culture that’s after the bottom line and the constructed body ideals that feed it.
However, it’s going to take some time to change years of thinking, believing and behaving a certain way around food. And that includes learning how to drop guilt and shame, especially when it comes to something as vital as eating. Below, I’ll share some tips on how to stop food guilt and what to do when you regret eating something.
One of the tools intuitive eating equips us with is body autonomy. Meaning you get to choose, its your body, nobody is the expert on it but you. Yes, really! It’s time to take back your power!
So how exactly do you do that? Well, like I mentioned above, you can start out by making a list of the most common and frequent food rules you follow. Chose 1 of these rules at a time, and make a plan to get rid of it. Ask yourself: what’s the first small step you can take to stop living by that rule? For example, maybe it’s allowing yourself a snack when you’re hungry before bedtime, if you typically follow the no food after 6 pm rule. Try it for one day, and notice without judgement how you feel. It’s normal to feel somewhat scared or strange about breaking a long held food rule. Try to understand where those uncomfortable feelings come from. Can you challenge those beliefs with facts? Be patient and gentle with yourself while you work your way down that list. Here are some steps to help you out:
10 Tips to get rid of food guilt
You may remember some of the tactics when challenging the food police, and they work just as well when working with guilt and shame around food. Plus, the food police is what lead us to the guilty feelings in the first place sooo….
- Practice self awareness: Self-Awareness is key in order to tune into your feelings, beliefs, thoughts and behaviors around food. Look for patterns in the way you tend to think about and perceive what happens to, how you explain things to yourself and how you make sense of the world around you. Pay attention to how you tend to act and behave in certain eating situations. What are your default responses to certain foods? What are your habits and tendencies related to eating, and emotional responses to eating in a certain way?
- Identify your thoughts without judgement: As Evelyn Tribole states: “You are NOT your thoughts or your beliefs! Rules and thoughts are a byproduct of your mind—not a direct experience from your body”. And they can be changed with time and effort to ones that serve you.
- Replace unhelpful, restrictive thoughts with more realistic, flexible ones: Instead of thinking: “Oh, I’m so bad for eating that brownie!”, change it to, “How great that I’m finally letting myself enjoy the foods I want to! It’s so awesome that I’m not letting external eating rules dominate me, and I’m finally putting my own cues first (and how delicious was that brownie, btw!)”. Focus on the reality here: nobody is “bad”, and much less needs to feel guilty, for eating any food.
- Work towards banishing dichotomous, absolutist and linear thinking: In my professional opinion, these are the main cognitive distortions that drive food rules and unhelpful food beliefs. Let me break it down:
- Dichotomous thinking: This is also known as “black or white” thinking. Either you’re “good” for eating a salad or “bad” for drinking a chocolate chip milkshake (yum!). The problem with dichotomous thinking is that it only gives you two choices, and neither are very realistic, achievable and worse, don’t take your needs into account. Allowing more flexibility in your eating behaviors will slowly erode this perfectionist (and unhelpful) tendency, and leave room to honor yourself.
- Absolutist thinking: If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from all my years in healthcare, it’s that there are no absolutes or guarantees when it comes to the human body. Absolutist thinking believes that one behavior will irrevocably result in another behavior. For example, if I cut out cabs, I’ll be healthier. (Carbs are absolutely necessary, btw, but that’s a subject for another day). Once again, allowing yourself wiggle room and replacing the “shoulds” that come with absolutist thinking with more permissible language will help break out of absolutist thinking. For example, instead of saying, “I shouldn’t eat lunch because I had such a huge breakfast”, change it to “I can eat whenever I’m hungry because that’s what hunger signals are for”.
- Linear thinking: Just like absolutist thinking, linear thinking rests upon unrealistic “guarantees”. A lot of food myths are also based on linear thinking (such as, “the cleaner I eat, the healthier I’ll be”. Here’s a really great post about the “clean eating” myth, in case you’re interested). This type of thinking focuses on end results, and gets frustrated and invites feelings of failure when the unreasonable goals are not reached. What can you do? Switch to process thinking…
- Adopt process thinking instead: This type of thinking acknowledges that change takes time and that it’s not a linear process. And it’s cool with that! Focus on what you’re learning, what you’ve achieved, how much you’ve improved, instead of why you’re not there yet. Like Aerosmith sings: “Life’s a journey, not a destination” (I’m a 90s kid, I can’t help it!)
- Play detective with food beliefs and myths: ” ‘X’ food can give you cancer (or some other terrible disease)”. Can it really? Remember that the media loves to get us into a state of panic over any little thing, and food is unfortunately not excluded. Dig deeper into these “facts”. Look for credible, professional sources. Sometimes, what we thought about a certain food turns out to be the complete opposite. Remember when we all thought that ”fats are bad”?
- Foster flexibility in your eating: There is a great deal of evidence in favor of allowing flexibility at mealtimes, which can have both short-term and long-term benefits in achieving sustainable healthy eating. Flexibility helps us eliminate the dichotomy of “good” and “bad” foods, avoid extremist attitudes toward food, and frees ourselves from guilt at mealtimes.
- Honor your intuition: Learn to listen to yourself. We’re taught that we must constantly seek external guidance and disregard our own internal signals, but it’s time to break away from that. Honor “your gut reactions, whether they are biological, pleasure-based or self protective” (Intuitive Eating, pg. 105).
- Set boundaries: Don’t let anyone pressure you or try to influence your eating behaviors. If someone passes judgement for eating a food that’s not “healthy”, calmly remind them that food is just food. And also keep in mind that sometimes the judgment others put on you and your diet is not really about you, it’s about them and their own relationship to food.
- Have patience: Working to stop feeling guilty about food is not a simple task. And it may sound unreachable or very difficult (because it is very difficult indeed to unpack x years of dieting), but each small step towards this is a success worth celebrating. Remember that patience and self compassion can go a long way.
It can be challenging to let go of conditioned guilt around food, but that’s what professional help is here for. Here are some of my favorite intuitive eating resources (oh, and here’s the Intuitive Eating Counselors Directory) :
Intuitive eating books
- Intuitive Eating and
- The Intuitive Eating Workbook by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch
- Anti Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating by Christy Harrison
- The F*ck It Diet by Caroline Dooner
- Healthy Eating for Life: An Intuitive Eating Workbook to Stop Dieting Forever by Cara Harbstreet
Intuitive eating podcasts
As a parting sentiment, remember that food is just food. You need to allow it to just be food. It’s a way to fuel our bodies and keep them alive, but this nourishment doesn’t have to be perfect either. We can honor the emotional and pleasurable aspects as well, without having to attach judgment or guilt to it. .
Hi! I’m Melissa, Registered Dietitian and mother of two dragons. When I’m not talking nutrition you can find me rolling around the floor with my kids, sewing, crafting, cooking or missing the 90s (seriously, music just isn’t the same). Read More…