Something I often hear from readers (and have experienced myself) is the feeling of guilt around eating certain foods. The gnawing, palpable, feel-it-in-the-pit-of-your-stomach unease that arrives after you’ve eaten something you thought you weren’t supposed to.
It’s a guilt that can linger even after you’ve decided to ditch the diet mentality. For instance, it might pop up after having a piece of cake, a plate of pasta or a bowl of chips and dip.
What I’ve realized is that we don’t deserve to feel guilty. (Umm, we haven’t done anything wrong!) We deserve to feel peace around food and our choices — and to enjoy eating.
But I know that’s easier said than done. So I wanted to be able to share a few expert strategies for minimizing food guilt.
That’s why I reached out to Susan Schulherr, who I’ve interviewed many times on Weightless. Schulherr is a therapist in private practice in NYC and author of the book Eating Disorders for Dummies.
(You can learn more about Schulherr at her website, which is also filled with valuable information on eating disorders.)
According to Schulherr, it helps to take a step back and consider that “guilt is an emotion about morals.” She says that it “tells us when we’re violating our own moral code in some way,” and “nudge[s] us to get back on track.”
“Unless we’re stealing our food from starving orphans, it’s really hard to make the case that what we put in our mouths is a moral issue. Ditto for rating ourselves ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for what we’ve eaten,” she says.
Unfortunately, as she says, even though many of us can agree that eating is not a moral issue, our guilty feelings still might be deeply entrenched.
Fortunately, we can move forward and minimize the guilt.
“…Feeling guilty about high-calorie foods, or fats or sweets, is a habituated response,” Schulherr says. “…the habituated thought is going to come up whether we like it or not. So the trick is to recognize it for what it is: a habit, not a truth.”
“As I say to my clients, you may not be able to stop the thought or related feelings from popping up spontaneously, but you don’t have to set out the tea service and invite them to stay. Once we recognize we’re in the guilty feelings, the step toward change is to interrupt them rather than to let them romp at will in our psyches.”
What does that mean or look like?
According to Schulherr, “If guilt pops up when you’re trying to enjoy a food treat in peace, you need to take that step back and respond with your own version of ‘Oh, of course, there’s that guilt stuff again. It makes me feel like I’m being bad, but I’m actually not.’”
(She brought up the saying: “feelings aren’t facts!”)
Schulherr says that we can further stop treating guilt like the truth by “substituting something that feels truer and healthier.”
So rather than saying something like “I’m bad,” you might say these statements (or something else that’s meaningful to you):
- I don’t have to earn the right to enjoy what I eat.
- What I eat has nothing to do with being good or worthy.
Other options I’ve come up with: “I can nourish myself in many different ways”; “Being restrictive is unhealthy”; “There are no shoulds in eating”; “Normal eating is flexible” (from Ellyn Satter); “I can have fun with food.”
What helps you in minimizing food guilt? What do you still struggle with? Do you find the above helpful?
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Last reviewed: 30 May 2014