When you feel guilty about eating certain foods, you assume that your guilt is accurate. You assume that yes, you’re actually doing something wrong. Very wrong. And you feel terrible. You eat a cupcake or ice cream or French fries or a big bowl of pasta, and it feels like the end of the world. You’re angry with yourself. You’re disgusted. You keep replaying the moments before you reached for the food, and wondering why you’re the only person on the planet who has zero restraint. And you almost hate yourself. Or maybe you actually do.
As I talked about in yesterday’s post, our guilt signal is not gospel (the same goes for those negative, cruel thoughts). Instead, this signal has been shaped by diet culture, which leaves us clinging to random (and unreasonable) diet rules and untrue narratives about weight.
Thankfully, we can reduce our guilt, even if it feels like a bottomless well. Below are seven strategies to try.
Eat the food. Eating foods that make us feel guilty, over time, can reduce our guilt. So savor your favorite chocolate ice cream. Enjoy eating French fries at that delicious cafe across the street. Try the doughnuts at that new bakery. Make cookies with your kids and savor them with a cup of milk. “The brain gets bored! You won’t continue to feel guilty as you eat those foods,” said Emily Fonnesbeck, a registered dietitian in southern Utah specializing in disordered eating, eating disorders and body image concerns.
Have a list of mantras at the ready. When your thoughts become negative, Fonnesbeck suggested turning to mantras or positive affirmations to help. These are some of her favorites: “I am in charge, not the fear or anxiety.” “I am learning how to eat a wide variety of foods to nourish my body without guilt.” “Food is fuel, it’s not a moral issue.” “Food is meant to be pleasurable and enjoyable.” “I can trust my body to tell me when it’s had enough.”
Redefine healthy eating. Healthy eating, Fonnesbeck said, has “been hijacked by diet culture to mean restriction, extremism, rules and elimination.” Reclaim what healthy eating means to you, which isn’t influenced by the diet industry. Fonnesbeck defines healthy eating as “satisfaction, nourishment and flexibility.”
Unlearn negative beliefs. Rachael Hartley, a dietitian in Columbia, S.C., and blogger at The Joy of Eating, works with her clients on unlearning negative beliefs about food. “If a cookie is an addictive substance that probably triggers diabetes and will cause you to immediately gain weight, of course you’ll feel guilty eating it. But if a cookie is just a cookie, an enjoyable food that is just one of many foods you like to eat, then you’ll be able to eat that cookie without a side of guilt and shame.”
You might start unlearning your negative beliefs by writing them down and dissecting where each one came from and if it actually makes sense. According to Hartley, “Was it a women’s magazine going for flashy headlines? Was it a family member or friend trapped in a cycle of yo-yo dieting?”
Focus on neutrality. Feeling superior for eating “good” is just as problematic as feeling guilty for eating “bad,” Fonnesbeck said. “The goal is to have the same emotional reaction no matter what you eat—you aren’t patting yourself on the back for eating carrots or hitting yourself over the head for eating cake.” Because this only fuels the “good” versus “bad” mentality, she said. “Food is just food, you are just you.”
Rethink healthy. We tend to have very black and white thoughts about food: Veggies are a healthy choice; ice cream is not. But what actually determines whether a food choice is healthy isn’t the food itself; it’s “the intention or reasoning behind it,” said Haley Goodrich, a dietitian and nutrition therapist who’s passionate about helping others create flexible, joyful eating habits and cultivate a peaceful relationship with their body.
She noted that we frequently confuse nutrient density of foods with healthy foods. For instance, pizza is more nutrient dense than lettuce because of the amount of carbs, proteins and fats.
According to Goodrich, “if you are hungry and still have 3 hours before dinner, carrot sticks aren’t the healthier choice. With no protein or fats, and very little carbohydrate, you would be hungry again in 30 minutes. If it is 30 minutes before a meal and you want to keep hunger at a manageable level, a few chips or a roll from the bread basket is a quick source of energy. No one food is always the ‘healthier’ choice. This is another way we perpetuate the good food/bad food mentality, and create guilt or shame around certain foods.”
Get curious. According to Fonnesbeck, all foods fit. She encouraged readers to look at the bigger picture, instead of judging ourselves for one meal or one snack. “Can you be curious about your overall food patterns and assess for satisfaction, nourishment and flexibility rather than being judgmental about one food, food ingredient or food group?”
If you’ve tried these strategies and you’re still struggling, or you’d like more support, don’t hesitate to contact a non-diet dietician and/or therapist. Often, we think that our only options are to stay shackled to the heaviness of guilt or to restrict our eating, avoiding the supposedly “unhealthy,” guilt-inducing foods.
But none of these is a healthy (or nourishing) alternative. Because true healthy eating is flexible, and based on enjoyment and satisfaction. And because you don’t deserve to hate yourself over a heaping portion of anything.
Give yourself the gift of starting to chip away at your guilt today. Give yourself the gift of appreciating and savoring your food, of appreciating and savoring yourself.