She first became interested in the field of nutrition when she was struggling with food intolerances and her relationship with food in high school. These struggles led her into the office of a registered dietitian. That office is where she first started to connect the dots between how we eat and how we feel. So much of the information we receive around health, nutrition and wellness focuses on dietary specifics – macros, calories, and labeling foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ She cares more about the context and the why. What is your relationship with food? What is your relationship with your body? Do those relationships control your mood and daily activities? Check out her work and learn more here.
Do you often feel guilty after a meal? If your answer is yes, then you’re not alone – yes, you heard it right, you’re not alone.
Food guilt is an emotion that haunts many of us. Enjoying and savoring a juicy burger and fries, only to feel guilty about it later. That never-ending cycle of enjoying your favorite food and then regretting it can be quite frustrating.
But what if we told you that this feeling is entirely unnecessary and is actually hurting your relationship with food? In this post, we’ll discuss everything you need to know about food guilt, including what it is and some tips to help you keep it at bay and build a healthy relationship with food. Let’s dive in.
Understanding Food Guilt
While it is normal to feel guilty after eating every once in a while, this feeling can sometimes be overwhelming and develop into consistent and habitual food guilt. The phenomenon may happen because of different reasons, but often stems from unrealistic expectations and societal norms about what a ‘good’ diet or eating pattern should look like.
According to Dr. Alexis Conason, a clinical psychologist specializing in treating binge eating and body image concerns, food guilt often results in negative self-talk and a cycle of restrictive eating followed by binge eating, leading to more guilt/shame.
Also, restriction results in deprivation. Deprivation disconnects us from our body’s signals, so it almost invariably translates into a binge eating episode – a flood of natural body signals that have been pent up, leading to uncontrollable indulgence, far above and beyond the level our body needs in that moment of binge, or any moment leading up to it. But the deprivation can be weeks or months in the making, and the body has been crying out for attention and its needs to be met. The binge eating episodes almost invariably lead to feeling shame and/or guilt. This shame/guilt then almost always comes back to more restriction, and the vicious cycle continues.
The Key Difference Between Food Guilt and Food Shame
It’s super important, right now, to distinguish between “shame” and “guilt”. People tend to use those words like they mean the same thing, but they really don’t.
Guilt is feeling like you did something that doesn’t live up to your values. It’s deeply personal and in the words of Brene Brown, guilt is actually “adaptive and useful” – because when you know the difference and feel guilty, you realize it’s your body, unconscious, and/or conscious self guiding you to what your values truly are.
Shame is the feeling of unworthiness of belonging, love, or connection, almost always from an external source. You may end up shaming yourself after eating something indulgent, but it’s like a bad song that just replays over and over in your mind, and it never really came from you in the first place.
Shame, the way that it’s truly felt, is similar to the feeling of isolation – someone feels like you don’t belong. You’re not worthy of connection or their love. And this feeling of isolation can create loneliness, which new science from the Harvard Study on Adult Development – the longest study on humans ever recorded – has shown can create chronic stress, which creates chronic inflammation, and many studies have shown for decades how chronic inflammation is an underlying cause in over 50% of the known diseases, including the biggest one (Cardiovascular/Heart Disease).
When you go through the self-exploration of how you feel after eating something “bad” (see our post on “Healthy” Foods, for more on this topic), it can be very helpful to get curious about whether what you’re feeling is really food guilt – not living up to your values – or, if it’s food shame, feeling uncomfortable or unworthy because of someone else’s standard or opinion.
Society’s Influence on Food Guilt – The History of Food Shaming
While food guilt has existed for centuries, its modern version came around only about 60 years ago, thanks to the unfortunate popularity of restrictive diet trends. And what has made it even worse is our obsession with perfectionism and the rise of social media.
How many times have we been bombarded with images of picture-perfect bodies, diets, and supposedly healthy, clean, and pure lifestyles in the media? This puts immense pressure on us to live up to these unrealistic standards, leading to feelings of guilt, anxiety, and shame when we inevitably fall short.
Here are some of the ways society contributes to food guilt:
Food Shaming on Social Media:
Yes, some of us have been victims of food shaming online. Even if not, social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok are filled with images of toned bodies, healthy meals, and motivational fitness quotes that tell you how you “should” look, what you “should” eat, or how your life “should” be. People feel the pressure to document their lives in a way that is visually pleasing to others, leading to a constant comparison culture. “Comparison is a thief of joy,” is a famous quote by Teddy Roosevelt (and countless others).
Advertising shapes our food choices by promoting unrealistic body images and portraying certain foods as “bad” or “unhealthy.” However, it’s important to remember that you don’t have to even think about your food choices. All you need is to listen to your body and eat what it says is best for you. The journey in healing and finding peace in your relationship with food and your body centers around this principle, of simply learning how to listen to your body, not putting much attention to external standards or values, but rather looking internally to your own values.
The diet industry thrives on perpetuating the idea that people must constantly be on a quest for perfection. Diets that restrict certain foods or food groups can make people feel guilty when they inevitably “slip up” or indulge in “forbidden” food.
Breaking Free from Food Guilt
It’s important to understand that no food should be off-limits when trying to overcome food guilt. Allowing yourself to eat intuitively rather than focusing on restriction can help break the cycle of guilt and binge eating. It’s also helpful to recognize that one meal or snack doesn’t have to define your worth or values. That said, here are some tips to help overcome food guilt:
Listen to your body:
Instead of restricting yourself and feeling guilty, enjoy the foods you love based on how your body feels.
Reframe your negative thoughts that cause food guilt:
If you feel guilty after a meal, reframe those thoughts by asking yourself whether the thoughts are valid, helpful, or necessary. Do they come from you or someone else? Even if it’s a family member who you believe cares for you in many ways, they can still say things that hurt you and stay in your mind for weeks, months, years, or even decades. Get curious about the root of your thoughts. Instead of judging yourself harshly, practice self-compassion, and remind yourself that listening to your body and eating what it tells you to eat is superior to ”standard eating habits.”
Practice Eating Mindfully: Instead of mindlessly consuming food or being distracted on your phone without paying attention to how what you’re eating makes you feel, try practicing mindfulness while eating. This can help tune in to your hunger and fullness cues and prevent unnecessary guilt.
We all may have experienced food guilt and food shame at some point in our lives, but let’s remember that food isn’t about calorie counting and guilt. It is about nourishment, comfort, enjoyment, and pleasure.
By embracing intuitive eating, you can enjoy your favorite treats without feeling guilty or ashamed. Be sure to listen to your body’s hunger cues and fullness cues and try incorporating your preferred foods into your diet.
Remember, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition, so don’t compare yourself to others. Instead, focus on what makes you feel your best and happiest.