Food guilt is unpleasant, destructive, and can wreak havoc with your self-esteem. There are some who think that a little food guilt and shame are productive, spurring us to make “better” choices, but the opposite is true.
According to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2001, research participants who associated chocolate cake with guilt rather than celebration were no healthier than their counterparts. In fact, those who felt shame or guilt surrounding their eating habits were more likely to binge eat and gain weight.
So, food guilt isn’t actually productive in any way, and why should it be? Food is not a moral issue; it is a necessity for life, a form of cultural expression, and a direct display of the unique history that made us who we are.
5 Ways to Fight food Guilt
If diet culture has left you in a toxic relationship with food, combatting the guilt that comes with most meals is not easy. However, these five simple actions can help you to start unpicking the thorny issue of food guilt.
1. Identify your triggers
Food guilt can stem from many experiences. Whether you were shamed for your weight as a child, you have low self-esteem, or you were one of many children told to clear your plate because hungry children in other places would love to have it, there’s always a reason for food guilt. In fact, many people who struggle with food guilt do not always know where it comes from or what triggers it.
The next time you feel guilty about your food, take some time to stop and think about the situation. What are you eating, what thoughts come to mind, and how did you feel before the guilt kicked in? Did you feel guilty while eating, or only after?
The kinds of foods that cause guilt – and the thoughts you have when experiencing this – can tell you a lot about what’s happening. For example, if you felt fine while you were eating but guilty afterwards, you may be eating emotionally or in a non-attentive state. If you felt guilty for overindulging because you ate ‘too much’ or you weren’t hungry, ask yourself why.
If you feel guilty before you even take a bite, however, or you are fixated on your weight when you eat, it’s probable that your guilt stems from low self-esteem, compounded by diet culture.
2. Curate a positive online space
Social media is a part of everyday life right now, but many of us don’t think about how the online spaces we inhabit impact our mindset. If you have issues with food and often feel guilty or ashamed, consider how the spaces you inhabit affect you.
Filling your Instagram with creators and accounts that promote healthy relationships with food, body neutrality, and wellbeing before appearance could help you to decode your own relationship with food.
Humans are social animals; we take our lead from those around us. Historically, this would have been our family and close friends, but social media has changed that for many of us. Ask yourself what content you would like to see your loved ones or even children consuming, and try to surround yourself with as much of that as possible.
3. Spot your ‘shoulds’ and ‘shouldn’ts’
The biggest issue with food guilt is that it puts a moral focus on what we eat. We’ve all done it: thought “I should eat salad” or “I really shouldn’t eat this cake”, and when we give into what we want rather than what we think we should have (as we all do now and then), we feel guilty or ashamed. The problem is that this doesn’t help us to become healthier.
The study mentioned above shows that. What it doesn’t mention is the cycle of restriction, binging, and shame that this mentality can lead to. Many eating disorders begin with feelings of shame and guilt; the problem is that when we focus on what we should not be eating, we’re thinking about food all the time.
It’s far healthier to eat what you want when you have a craving and do your best to eat nutritious food the majority of the time. This will leave you feeling satisfied, and as long as you get the vitamins, minerals, and exercise that you need to stay healthy, it shouldn’t be a problem.
The next time you think “I shouldn’t have cake/ice cream, etc.” ask yourself – am I hungry? Will this food satisfy a craving? If so, try reframing your thought “I like x, I want x, and so I am going to eat it.” As long as you don’t live on ice cream and cookies, one bowl of ice cream and sprinkles in an otherwise balanced diet will not harm you.
4. Eat mindfully
Mindfulness is big right now, and for good reason. This practice of orienting yourself in the now, showing gratitude for the positives in your life, and accepting negative feelings as a part of the human experience is good for managing anxiety, depression, and generally improving our wellbeing. Mindful eating is an offshoot of this practice that applies the same principles to food.
Learning how to eat mindfully can take time, but the process could be highly beneficial. The next time you feel guilty about what you’re eating, stop and ask yourself how you feel and why. Once you understand what’s going on in your mind and body – for example ,“I feel guilty because I need to lose weight and this cake is fattening” – you can balance your mindset.
This starts by being grateful for the food in front of you – the textures, sight, and smell, as well as the taste. Think about the work that went into making it and the work you do in order to be able to eat well.
You can be mindful of your health and still not feel guilty about what you eat. For example, you could reframe that thought as “this cake is wonderful, I’m so lucky to be able to eat it. I will continue eating healthily and losing weight, and I will enjoy this indulgence today. I can do both.”
Mindful eating is about honesty, not shame or punishment. Everyone needs a break, and everyone needs to treat themselves a little. Mindful eating is about making sure you have the right balance, that you enjoy pleasure and indulgence without letting it impact your wellbeing, and showing appreciation for what you have.
5. Be kind to, and about, yourself
One issue that many of us have is a lack of kindness. We are quick to support our friends and family, and we would never shame or berate a child for what they eat… but we do not extend ourselves this same kindness. One way to start unpicking feelings of shame and guilt around food is to be kind to yourself, even if you are acknowledging a bad choice.
If you see a child doing something, or eating something, that is likely to be bad for them, you wouldn’t call them stupid, lazy, or selfish (at least, you certainly shouldn’t). Instead, you would kindly affirm their feelings and guide them to a better path. We can do the same for ourselves.
So the next time you overindulge and feel guilty, don’t think: “I’m so stupid, I ate too much and now my stomach hurts. I deserve to feel sick, I’m going to get fat, this was wrong of me.”
Instead, tell yourself: “I ate a little too much because I was hungry and I ate too fast. That’s okay, it happens, but the next time I’m hungry, I’m going to eat slowly, so I notice when I feel full.” This can be a part of mindful eating and is far more helpful in the long-term.
Food Guilt vs. Shame – What’s the Difference?
At many points in this article, you will notice that we mention food guilt and shame in the same sentence; that’s because these two feelings are connected, but not the same. Feeling guilt about food is the feeling that we made a bad choice, but shame is more internalized.
- Guilt is: “I chose the wrong type of food”
- Shame is: “I am the wrong type of person”
Neither of these feelings are productive for better health and wellbeing, but intense shame around our eating habits is arguably more severe. Shame is one of the key facets of an eating disorder, and can be harder to deal with than incidental food guilt. If you feel shame about your body on a daily basis and this impacts your relationship with food, seeking professional help can be the best way to care for your body and mind.
At HyTable, we believe that food should not come with shame or guilt. We do everything we can to help our customers find the joy in a good, balanced diet with little indulgences along the way. There’s no such thing as ‘bad’ foods; it’s all about caring for yourself.