Food guilt can arrive in unexpected ways. For example, take new diets, which are often exciting; we’re filled with hope and expectation. We decide we’re going to eat well, lose weight, get fit, and feel better about our bodies… and for a week or so, it works. Maybe even longer.
We eat well, we exercise, we avoid sugar, fat, grease, and all the other things we’re told are terrible for us. And then it happens; one day, burned out and frustrated, we eat something we shouldn’t. Usually a lot of it, and when we do, food guilt raises its head.
If this story sounds like it could be yours, you’re definitely not alone. Yo-yo dieting, food guilt, and restrictive eating are common signs of a damaged or unhealthy relationship with food. But what is food guilt? What causes it, and how can it impact our lives and health?
What is Food Guilt?
Guilt is something we are all familiar with. That sickly, nauseous, heavy feeling that comes around when you have done something wrong. While unpleasant, guilt is a natural and normal human emotion that can arise for a variety of reasons. If we lie, cheat on a test, or hurt someone, it is natural and rational to feel guilt and remorse.
Food guilt is guilt that pertains specifically to the kinds (and the amount) of food we eat, whether we eat, and when we eat. Of course, it can also be natural to feel a little guilty if we overindulge, eat in a way that is unhealthy for a long time, or waste food.
However, there are times when we feel guilt that is not deserved. The link between mental illness and irrational or unfounded guilt, for example, is very strong. There are many studies which show that irrational guilt – or guilt that is not necessarily deserved – is a sign of internalizing disorders or trauma.
To put it simply, we sometimes feel guilty because of things happening inside us, or as a way to cope with bad situations that were out of our control. A good example of this is survivor’s guilt, which is well-documented. Food guilt is also an example of this, but one that is less well documented and discussed.
How Guilt is Learned
It is important to remember that guilt is something we are socialized to feel. As children, we have no concept of guilt. Just as our parents, teachers, and peers must teach us right from wrong, we learn when it is appropriate to feel guilt and why. We are taught not to hit others, not to steal, to be kind, and we learn, over time, that if we do bad things regardless, we hurt others. We learn to feel remorse and, as a result, guilt.
Of course, this means that it can be learned and taught in unhealthy or non-productive ways too. For example, if a child is raised by someone who continually corrects them without praise, they may begin to feel that they are somehow unintelligent, incapable, or unworthy. As a result, they may apologize all the time and feel overwhelming guilt for even small errors.
Likewise, if we are told again and again that certain foods are ‘bad’, that our bodies are not right, that we are lazy or careless for looking a certain way, we can develop intense and unearned feelings of guilt about what and how we eat. When we feel guilt (or specifically food guilt) that is consistent, overly severe, or entirely unearned, it is unhealthy. Over time, this will have an impact on our health and wellbeing.
What Causes Food Guilt?
Once the mechanisms that create guilt are instilled in us, they simply have to be triggered. This is what causes food guilt, whether we learn to avoid or seek out certain foods, to value thinness or muscularity, or even if we are taught we must ‘earn’ food.
Common triggers of food guilt include:
- Eating sugary food
- Eating fatty foods
- Eating ‘bad’ or ‘junk’ foods
- Comments from other people about when, how, or how much we eat
- Weight gain or loss
- ‘Cheating’ on a diet
- Comfort- or stress-eating
- Not eating
- Not finishing a meal in full
The things that cause us to feel guilty about food are unique; many people are triggered by different things. Someone continually told that not clearing their plate is something to feel bad about might over-eat, then feel guilty about gaining weight and overindulging.
The reverse can be true, however; another person taught the same thing may simply make very small meals to ensure they can clear a plate and then feel guilty about not eating enough. However, the effect that food guilt has on the mind is the same for most people.
The most common symptoms of consistent or unhealthy food guilt are:
- Low self-esteem
- Anxiety about food
- Constantly thinking about food
- Not wanting to eat in public
- Restrictive dieting followed by indulgence
For some people, however, food guilt becomes overwhelming and destructive. When food guilt is a daily occurrence, it is a more severe issue. Research into disordered eating classes severe food guilt as one of the symptoms of eating disorders, such as bulimia and anorexia.
Food Guilt Drains Joy
Even if the guilt you feel about food is not severe on a daily basis, it can still have a destructive impact on your life. Food is one thing we cannot do without; having a toxic relationship with food is stressful and will drain joy from one of life’s most fundamental experiences. As humans, we are social creatures and in cultures around the world, communal meals are a fundamental part of how we connect to friends and family.
This is why it is so important to address food guilt and toxic food relationships when they raise their heads. Diet culture is just one example of how food guilt has been normalized and embedded into the modern world. Unlearning this mindset is one of the best ways to prevent food guilt from disrupting your life and welcome the joy of a good meal back in.
Recognizing the Joy of Food
At HyTable, we believe that food is so much more than fuel for the body; food is living history, culture, and an embodiment of the best that life has to offer. It’s a way to connect with yourself, your friends, and your family, all while giving your body everything that it needs to thrive. Even the simplest ingredients hold wonders. Take the simple pickle for example; while a pickle may be a simple ingredient, it brings new facets to every dish that it’s included in.
As well as being packed with nutrition, it offers a journey for the senses. Salty yet sweet, tangy but mild, if you take a moment to truly appreciate every scent, every flavor, every texture that a pickle can offer, it’s hard to focus on whether or not it is the most ‘clean’ or healthy food.
We believe in moderation; sugar, salt, and fats enhance foods, and in moderation, they are not inherently bad. In fact, the joy that a flavor-packed, comforting meal brings has health benefits that go beyond the nutritional makeup.
Unlearning the beliefs and avoiding the triggers associated with food guilt to heal your relationship with food is a long process, but it can be done. Be mindful of your eating experience and when you feel guilt. Understanding where these feelings come from, what triggers them, and how they impact your state of mind is the first step in balancing your relationship with food.