Stop Food Guilt: How To Be at Peace With What You Eat

Letting go and enjoying what you want is the healthiest food move you can make.

In the United States, people have become more conscious of the need to eat healthy to stave off conditions that can impact our health, like obesity, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes. But a possible negative side effect of those healthy behaviors? Food guilt.

Food guilt is unnecessary stress over what we eat, leading to unhealthy eating patterns and unhelpful anxiety.

Here are some tips for ditching food guilt for good and restoring a more balanced relationship with food.

What Food Guilt Looks Like

Location: My house. Girls' night. The scene: A cheese plate and many bottles of wine. And a running commentary from all my friends: "I can't stop eating this cheese," "I'm so gross," and to me: "I'm so sorry I'm eating all your cheese."

And then: "Do you have any more of this cheese?"

Of course, it's not always cheese. Feel free to insert bread, pasta, cookies, chips, or any carbohydrate-rich food into that scenario. Some evidence suggests that chocolate often triggers food guilt.

In the age of clean eating, detox diets, and food phobias, there is an increasingly long list of foods that health-conscious people feel terrible about eating.

If we eat them in private, we carry that shame or text a friend pictures of the crumb-covered aftermath. And if we eat them in public, an apology accompanies every bite, as if we can indulge only through preemptive atonement. 

But why do we feel so guilty—or at least think we should feel guilty—about the simple act of eating food and daring to enjoy it?

The Roots of Food Shame

Whether we food shame ourselves or others do it for us, the result is the opposite of what's intended. Some evidence suggests shame leads to emotional eating and eating disorders, like binge eating, rather than a healthy eating pattern.

"As a culture, we've fully bought into this myth that if we eat the 'right' foods in the 'right' amounts, we will achieve the ideal body shape," said Glenys Oyston, RDN, a Texas-based dietitian. "We're sure it's just a matter of trying hard enough."

The flip side is that eating any "wrong" food isn't merely unhealthy. People tend to consider eating "wrong" food to be a massive failure of willpower. 

When we categorize foods as good or bad, we classify ourselves as virtuous or not virtuous, strong or weak, worthy or unworthy. But our inability to resist forbidden foods isn't a moral failing. It's how we're wired.

"Our brains react really strongly to restriction," noted Marci Evans, RDN, a dietitian in Cambridge, Mass., specializing in helping patients heal from eating disorders. "The more we say 'No, bad' about a food, the more we can't stop thinking about it."

And society's catalog of "bad" foods seemingly grows—gluten, red meat, anything in a package—until we're apologizing for eating, period. That thinking happens even if your reasons for avoiding certain foods seem more concerned with health than weight.

For example, Stella tried not to eat cheese or ice cream because they created so much digestive trouble that the then 37-year-old elementary school teacher didn't want to name their condition. But Stella also felt the rules were different after a workout.

"If I've gone for a run, I give myself permission to indulge in any and all foods," said Stella. "Especially cheese." 

Oyston called that behavior "healthism," stating that it's just another manifestation of our diet mentality. In other words, feeling healthy depends on the activities or habits we associate with being thin.

In some instances, obsessing about whether you should restrict your intake of certain foods can be an early sign of a more severe disordered eating pattern. Also, compulsively exercising because you feel you've eaten too much or too much of the wrong food is another sign.

"Even if it never gets bad enough to be clinically diagnosable, it's still a problem when your thoughts about food take up so much mental space that other parts of your life begin to suffer," explained Christy Harrison, RD, a dietitian and intuitive-eating counselor in New York. 

For example, that problem may occur when you think about an "off-limits" food so much that you miss the fun other people are having at a party.

Breaking the Food Guilt Habit

Most of us will not stop eating cheese or brownies, nor should we. Feeding your body what it wants and needs instead of restricting yourself lowers your risk of disordered eating and depression, according to Harrison.

The trick is to figure out how to end the apology cycle.

I became much more mindful of how I talked about food after my 3-year-old daughter told me, "Cookies are yucky, but carrots are good." 

I want her to find pleasure in eating both. But she'll never get there if she's coming home to see me self-flagellating around the baked goods. So, I stopped apologizing, criticizing, or justifying what I was eating. Completely.

One cool thing about apologizing less out loud is that, over time, I've found that my internal monologue has also quieted down. The brownies are just brownies now. I can eat them, love them, and simultaneously have fun at a party.

The less cool thing is that I'm much more aware when I hear other people food-shaming themselves. Jenny McGlothlin, a pediatric feeding therapist in Dallas, discussed how to handle those fraught moments when friends bash themselves over their food choices or weight.

"I usually go for a blend of humor and good-natured support," said McGlothlin. "Like if a friend says she's 'being bad,' I'll say, 'Well, you're pretty awesome, so anything you choose to eat can't be bad!'"

Simply put: Eating without guilt is just a lot more fun. And it makes for a much better girls' night. So, how can you do that? Eating without guilt involves learning new skills, such as self-compassion and intuitive eating.

How To Practice Intuitive Eating

You may also eat more intuitively as you work to let go of food shame. Intuitive eating means choosing foods responding to your body's needs and wants. 

Research has found that intuitive eating, in which you respond to your body's signals for hungry and full, is protective against disordered eating. Here's what you should know about fostering intuitive eating.

Avoid Nutritional 'Rules' 

Focus on something other than the number of calories or the type of food you're eating. For example, try noticing how your body feels.

"We rely way too much on our brains to tell us how to eat," said Evans. "Getting caught up in the number of calories or whether it's a good or bad food can keep you stuck." 

Instead, Evans continued, "After you eat a meal or snack, ask, 'How am I feeling physically?' and 'Would I like to feel this way again?' Then listen with curiosity and without judgment."

Use that information to help you make your following choices.

Honor Your Hunger

Eat when you're hungry and quit when you're full—even if that means you must eat lunch at 11 a.m. or have a second or third helping. 

"Reliably eating until you feel satiated teaches your brain and body to trust each other, which will help you feel more relaxed and in charge of your eating," explained Evans.

Let Your Weight Work Itself Out

Once you stop food shaming, you may find yourself eating more and even, yes, gaining some weight. Many people lose weight in the process because guilt leads them to overindulge in forbidden foods. 

Either way, "we usually see weight stabilize over time," said Oyston.

A Quick Review

Food guilt means obsessively focusing on whether foods are "good" or "bad" and feeling ashamed if you have too much (or any) of the ones you think are wrong. It can lead to unhealthy worry, stress, shame, and potentially disordered eating.

The way to break the guilt cycle, which can also cause you to binge, is to let go of definitions of "good" or "bad" and to practice intuitive eating. That's when you pay attention to what your body tells you need and what makes it feel good rather than food expectations and rules.

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