Food guilt is certainly not a part of a healthy relationship with food. Let’s talk about what food guilt is. I’ve listed below some food guilt that I’ve felt a lot in the past few years. As I’ve been working on establishing a healthy relationship with food, I have been able to stop or diminish those feelings of guilt significantly. Identifying those feelings is the first step.
Food guilt is…
- Feeling guilty after eating a certain food, no matter what quantity
- Feeling guilty after eating a certain quantity of food, no matter what the food
- Feeling guilty/ashamed for craving a food (whether or not you eat it)
- Feeling guilty for leaving food on your plate or wasting food
- Feeling like you’re missing out if you don’t try a food
- Feeling guilty for buying/owning/stocking a certain food
- Feeling guilty for spending money on a certain food
Stop and think. What food guilt do you feel? After eating something? Before eating something? While buying something at the store or choosing something at a restaurant?
Now try and eliminate that feeling. What would it take to stop feeling that way? Let’s pick apart my list and see…
Feeling guilty after eating a certain food, no matter what quantity
I used to feel guilty after eating certain kinds of foods, like ice cream, because I think of ice cream as a high fat, high sugar food lacking much nutritional value. I labeled it as a “bad” food. What good is it to me? Why do I crave it? Why we crave things is complicated. Oftentimes, food can offer a feeling of safety and comfort. But let’s leave cravings for another discussion. Are you labeling certain foods as “bad?” Stop that. Nothing is black and white. Everything in moderation. I don’t suggest going out and making meals of ice cream sundaes, but don’t view it as a bad food with a big fat “NO” sign and food police DO NOT CROSS tape all over it. If you crave it, let yourself have some. Even when I’m eating ice cream, I know in the back of my mind the fat, sugar, dairy, processed ingredients, etc. that I’m consuming. That’s fine to be aware of those things. But don’t let those guilt-inducing words, FAT & SUGAR, override your taste buds and prevent you from enjoying the food. Otherwise, what was the point of eating it in the first place? Sigh… ignorance is bliss, right?
I can’t tell you how many of my clients have sheepishly admitted to me that they had a piece of chocolate or a cookie the night before and then talked about working it off during our workout. First of all, I don’t like that thought, “I ate it, now I have to work it off” or the flip side, “I worked out hard, now I can eat whatever I want.” That’s just another way of superficially reducing the food guilt that you feel, and justifying eating more of something or eating unhealthy foods. Be good to your body. Care for it. Don’t beat it up by feeding it processed foods and then beat it up again by slaving away at the gym!
But let’s go back to that piece of chocolate. Whoa, wait. A piece of chocolate?! 20 burpees, now! …Just kidding! I’m not judging you. Unless you’re lying to me about the quantity. (Was that a piece of chocolate or actually a whole bar of chocolate? If it’s the whole chocolate bar, I’m still not judging. I understand, it happens. But we do need to address your reasons for overeating.) We can’t be 100% good all of the time. Eating one piece of chocolate isn’t going to throw off your progress. Eating one piece of chocolate and feeling so guilty about it that you end up eating the whole bar will throw you off track. Eliminating black and white thinking helps stop this form of food guilt. If you’re gonna eat ice cream (or a piece of chocolate), might as well enjoy it! That doesn’t mean stuff your face with it, either. Which leads me to:
Feeling guilty after eating a certain quantity of food, no matter what the food
Feeling guilty after eating a certain quantity of food can be very different from the guilt that comes from eating certain kinds of foods. Oh, no, I ate an apple. It wasn’t on my planned meals for the day. I’m going to go over my calorie allotment. Or… oops I ate that whole bag of carrots/pop chips/kale chips. Worry worry worry. Guilt guilt guilt. Clearly, the apple is healthy. The carrots are healthy. Pop chips are processed, so their place on the health scale can be debated, but they’re generally healthy (healthier than potato chips). Kale chips can have lots of oil… their healthiness can be debated, but the nutrients are there. Overall, it’s not the quality of food you’re worrying about with this form of food guilt, it’s the quantity. Let’s say you were even able to stop thinking about ice cream as a “bad” food, but you still ended up eating the whole pint. Now, you’re worried about the quantity of food you just consumed.
How to stop this worrying? Well, I must say, this worrying is founded in something (as is the previously mentioned guilt). Going around stuffing your mouth with large quantities of food (no matter how nutritious) is not a good way to keep yourself healthy. Let’s discuss, what factors lead to overeating?
- Portion-size– We tend to eat what’s in front of us. If you start eating baby carrots straight out of the bag, you’ll eat more. If you grab a handful of carrots, put them in a container and place the bag back in the fridge, you’ll likely eat less. Try portioning out your food using bowls and containers, instead of eating directly out of the bag or original container. I personally don’t like the pre-portioned snacks (100-calorie packs and the like). It’s too easy to open one and another… and another… On the other hand, if you consciously portion your food out, it’s more effort to dish out more. You’ll think twice. Am I really hungry?
- Stress– Stress can drive us to the fridge/pantry/cabinet. Try to identify those times that you’re simply eating because you’re stressed. Once you’ve identified the stress, figure out what it is that you can do to alleviate the stress or relax without eating something. Need to take a break from your work? Take a walk, or stretch your limbs. Take a mini Youtube break and watch a funny video. Need to pamper yourself? Give yourself/get a manicure (I’m trying to make this gender neutral… what’s a manly pampering activity?). Indulge in a beauty/health magazine like Men’s Health (I don’t like Women’s Health, I think it’s too much about models and beauty rather than health and strength, but read what you like, feel no guilt.) Need to get shit done and don’t have time for any of these things I mentioned? Take a deep breath, and make a list. Sort the list in order of things you absolutely need to do first, or absolutely want to do first. Put the thing(s) you need to do for yourself on there, too (relax, take a walk, watch a fun video). At least you have that to look forward to, if not now, later. Sometimes knowing where to start is the first step.
- Mindless eating– Mindless eating occurs everywhere. There’s a whole book on it, called Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink, which I highly recommend reading. But for the most part, I’m talking about the mindless eating that happens in front of the screen. Snacking in front of the TV. Eating lunch in front of your computer. Eating dinner while reading the news on your cell phone. We wolf down our food in 10 minutes without thinking about it. Never once enjoying the flavors in our mouths. The color and texture and freshness of the food. The sound of crunching in our ears. The feeling of satiety in our stomachs. You expect yourself to eat less, so you spend less time on eating, more time on multitasking. That’s the wrong way to think about it. Focus your full attention on the taste of your food and your diminishing hunger level as you’re eating your meal. Doing this will stop you from mindlessly eating, and help you to get in touch with your stomach again. Check out this article on Hunger Signals at WebMD.
- Hunger– Sometimes our hunger causes us to overeat. You skipped breakfast, only to have a HUGE lunch because you were starving… and you ate too fast, in front of your computer at work. You punished yourself by skipping a snack and promising yourself a tiny dinner after work… but by the time you got home, you were starving again and ate a ton of whatever quick food you could find in your fridge/cabinets. Sound familiar? For people that have this problem, it’s better to plan ahead and have some healthy snack on hand at home and at the office. Stop mindless eating, pay attention to your hunger signals, and make sure you have something in your stomach before the commute to/from work/school so you don’t get enticed by that bright neon fast food sign or giant billboard with the dripping, glistening pictures of food.
Feeling guilty/ashamed for craving a food (whether or not you eat it)
What about food cravings? Once you get the notion that you want something in your head, it’s kinda hard to get rid of it. Craving something? That’s probably because you’re used to having it. Don’t feel guilty about it. You can retrain your brain to crave healthier foods, but that takes time. By introducing fruits and veggies and new healthy meals into your diet, you can let your body and your taste buds adjust. Just don’t expect that because you went on that 24-hour juice cleanse your mind and your body will immediately forget those french fries that you always crave and start longing for kale smoothies all the time. That’s just BS.
There are many reasons for craving foods. It could be that your body actually needs a certain vitamin or mineral. But most people I know aren’t that in-tune with their body in the first place (Read “Do Food Cravings Indicate Nutritional Deficiency?“). It’s not just about your taste buds. It’s not just about nutrition. It’s about your mental state. Perhaps you’re feeling stressed. Maybe you need some comfort. Could be that you need to relax. Or do something enjoyable. Ask yourself why you want that chocolate bar. Are you really hungry, or do you just need a mental vacation right now? What can you do other than eating that might satisfy that “craving” you feel? See the above bullet point on Stress. You can read more theories on food cravings here: “What Does Your Food Craving Mean?” or Google other theories… but for the most part I think it varies based on the individual.
Drinking water helps. Absolutely. If you can remember to drink a big glass of water and wait 15 minutes before eating something that you feel guilty for wanting, that’s great! It may be that you’re just thirsty. Or maybe you just needed to take a step back from your craving. Water can help with both of those things. Other people like to focus on their breathing.
Feeling guilty for leaving food on your plate or wasting food
Here’s my quandary: I’m at a restaurant. My friends and I have all finished our meals and are feeling pretty full/satisfied. One person decides that they want dessert and orders a decadent piece of chocolate cake (or insert your idea of a delicious food here) for the table. Some people are probably secretly rejoicing, some are indifferent, and others are squirming because they are on a diet but know they won’t be able to resist (food guilt!). The dessert comes, and everyone has their taste. Those who want more continue taking bites and sharing. But the cake is soooo rich. Delicious, but rich. “Ugh, I can’t finish that,” one of my friends says. Can’t finish it? What? Who are you? What are you? It’s a piece of chocolate cake! Can’t leave it sitting there. I think, as I reach for more.
I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. I’ve always been like this. Even as a kid. That pudding cup in my lunch? Always scraped clean. Even as a skinny, neurotic teenager. That perfectly portioned scoop of ice cream after dinner? Practically licked the bowl. Do I have such a sweet tooth that I can just continue eating and eating a big piece of chocolate cake until it’s gone? Maybe. I do love sweets. But what’s driving me to finish it more than just the taste… is the knowledge that it’s still there on the plate and won’t be taken home in a doggie bag. It won’t be eaten by someone else. It’s gone forever. Why waste such deliciousness? I paid for it. Why waste money? I already indulged in it. Why not go all out? That’s a slippery slope.
How to prevent this? Don’t think in all or nothing terms. You can come back to this restaurant and order the cake again if you so choose. And you can waste however much you want. Get a few bites to satisfy that craving, and let it go. Without food guilt, those last bites of chocolate cake don’t look all that enticing anymore. Sure, it tastes good. So why do you have to have it ALL at this moment? You can always get it (or something similar) again. (Unless of course, it’s some crazy rare flavor, like violet gelato. In that case… do what feels right. Is your guilt of not eating it going to outweigh your guilt of eating it? Call me crazy but almost 10 years later, I’m still thinking about that violet gelato flavor that I didn’t try in France…)
I’m an environmentalist. Waste upsets me. The idea of purposefully wasting food took a lot for me to grasp a hold of. Ok, so you can’t save all the chocolate cake from the garbage can, and it doesn’t have to go into your stomach and be converted to fat in your body either. That’s just as much (if not more) of a waste as throwing it away. This goes for groceries in your fridge/freezer as well. Just because the expiration date is tomorrow (or yesterday, gross), doesn’t mean you have to cook it up and eat it all yourself tonight. If you don’t want it and/or your body doesn’t need it, don’t eat it. Can you share it with others? Sure! But don’t force the food guilt on them, either. Take a deep breath, and throw it away (or compost it, if you can).
Feeling like you’re missing out if you don’t try a food
This is the classic case of something I’m going to call “buffet syndrome.” The food is there. Right in front of your face, beckoning to you. Whether it’s the description on the menu or the actual sight of the food, it sounds/looks delicious, and you’d be missing out if you didn’t have a taste. It could possibly be a once in a lifetime opportunity! Ok, wait. Hold on. Step back and stop over-analyzing the situation. Say it with me. It’s just food. Unless you’re a chef or a food critic and your career depends on you experiencing new flavor combinations… A missed opportunity in tasting food really isn’t that critical. Take a deep breath. Your time would be better spent freaking out about that missed networking opportunity than the unique food experience you passed up. (Chelsea, let the violet gelato go.)
Feeling guilty for spending money on a certain food
If you’re reading this, you’re most likely in America. Consider yourself lucky. You have access to almost every type of food grown or made in the world. We have great food processing and storage facilities, well-maintained roads and transport pathways for trucks and other reliable methods of transportation, fully stocked supermarkets, amazing farmers’ markets… the list goes on. We have more of a problem with food deserts than food shortages. We are well-equipped with food. To quote a recent article I read on North Korea in Lucky Peach: “Americans have come to expect this as an inalienable right: to eat what you want and as much as you want, when and where you want it. The freedom to diet, the freedom to get fat.” Read the rest of the article on North Korea in the magazine (or some of it here), and you’ll start to feel pretty good about your situation with food. The freedom to diet. The freedom to get fat? Yeah, we got that!
Back to food guilt. I’ve felt it before: getting a pastry at a local cafe (they’re judging me, I know it!), going to the grocery store for a pint of ice cream, buying a bottle of wine, adding a chocolate bar into my basket of groceries, purchasing a $12 bag of cherries, spending one more dollar per pound on organic peppers, or choosing to spend one dollar less per pound for conventional produce. But, wait. For once, embrace the fact that you do have the freedom to buy these things. I don’t care if you’re spending your last cent on that chocolate bar or if you’re using your food stamps to purchase those organic peppers. It doesn’t matter if the cute cashier at the cafe knows and teases you for your brownie purchases. You have the ability and freedom to make those choices. Don’t let your inner perfectionist or others’ judgement completely dictate your food decisions.
Tap into your rational self. You can use it to your advantage to take a second look at your food purchases. Why am I buying this in the first place? What do I value about this food purchase? The brownie is well-made and delicious (hm not good enough reason for me… is it really worth it?). The wine may be enjoyed with friends on a special occasion. The chocolate bar may be a moderate snack after dinner for the next week, and may stave off the urge to get that brownie. The bag of cherries may replace the chocolate bar during a sweets craving, and $12 for a big bag of cherries isn’t that much compared to the amount most of us spend on lunch. Purchasing the organic peppers supports sustainable farming practices. Or the money saved on non-organic, conventional peppers can be put towards savings/gym membership/something healthy. Think about these things and be sure that your purchase is truly a case of ‘taking care of yourself’ rather than ‘punishing yourself.’ If you bought that bottle of wine (or case of beer… or chocolate bar) to drink/eat all alone in your room, of course you’ll feel guilty for your purchase! That’s not taking care of your needs, that’s numbing the pain and drowning your sorrows!
Feeling guilty for buying/owning/stocking a certain food
I used to do this all the time. I would buy something that I deemed “bad.” Peanut butter. Ice cream. Cereal. Energy bars. (Yup, energy bars. One person’s health food is another person’s junk food.) And then I would think about it all the time. It’s in my house! It’s in my cupboard! It’s gotta go, so I can make sure I keep eating healthy. Be strict! Fruits and vegetables! Unprocessed foods! This kind of thinking stems from all of the above forms of food guilt. Reduce those feelings of guilt, and this one should go as well. I’m still working on this. I still don’t keep jars of peanut butter or cartons of ice cream in my apartment. I feel like if it’s there, I’ll eat it. Certainly, stocking your pantry and fridge with fresh fruits and vegetables, whole, unprocessed foods should encourage you to eat those things. Keeping ice cream and chocolate in your kitchen will likely entice you to eat those things. Keep yourself on the healthy path, but allow some leeway for indulgence as well. This, truly, is a healthy relationship with food.