Today, it seems like one of the worst things you can do is to eat “unhealthy” food. This “unhealthy” food might include: fried food, fast food, sugar, sweets, potatoes, pasta, bread, and high-fat condiments like mayo.
These are actually all foods that Emily Fonnesbeck’s clients feel guilty about eating. Fonnesbeck is a registered dietitian in southern Utah specializing in disordered eating, eating disorders and body image concerns.
Maybe you, too, feel horribly guilty after eating similar foods, a palpable kind of guilt that washes over you like a wave, a mix of disappointment and anger in yourself for succumbing to your craving. A guilt that seems to take up residence in your stomach, that seems to produce a ringing in your ears. A guilt that makes you wonder where the heck your “willpower” went. A guilt that leads you to call yourself disgusting and other terrible names. A guilt that might lead you to restrict your eating.
One reason we feel so guilty about eating certain foods is because diet culture moralizes food choices, said Rachael Hartley, RD, LD, a Columbia, S.C. based private practice dietitian and blogger at The Joy of Eating. Diet culture paints the picture that we’re more virtuous for eating kale and skipping sugar (which is demonized along with carbs and fat).
Foods like sweets and chips also are seen as “empty” calories. Sugar has even been compared to hard drugs: “Think of all those headlines comparing the ‘addictiveness’ of sugar to heroin,” Hartley said.
In addition, we may have negative experiences with eating sugar: We feel completely out of control—and we fear that this will keep happening. “Of course, that has more to do with a natural reaction to depriving yourself of sweets than anything wrong with sweets itself, but many people chalk it up to a personal failing or lack of willpower,” Hartley said.
“There are also a lot of fear-mongering messages centered around dairy,” 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.
Either way, whether you feel guilty about eating gluten or fat or sugar or dairy, it’s understandable. Because, as Hartley said, “it’s only natural to feel guilty when we’re doing something we think is bad.”
Similarly, we feel guilty if we’re breaking some diet rule, said Fonnesbeck. So often her clients don’t even remember why they have a specific rule; “they just remember that a diet told them not to eat it.”
We become emotionally attached to these rules, whether they make sense logically or not, she said. “That’s what diet culture does to people—creates intense guilt when someone eats a so-called offending food.”
Diet culture also has created the narrative that there’s something wrong with us if we’re at a higher weight. It’s created the narrative that if we just exercise and eat the “right” foods, then we’ll lose weight. Then we’ll be thin (and healthy and happy and stress-free). But if we don’t do these things, we are failures. This is another reason we feel “a deep sense of guilt when eating foods that contradict this narrative of control,” Hartley said.
Fonnesbeck has seen this at her practice, too. “So many clients express the fear that they are doing something wrong with food if their body size isn’t decreasing or they find it increasing.” She believes that the real root of food guilt is fear of what certain foods will do to our weight—a fear we’ve been conditioned to cling to.
In fact, most of Fonnesbeck’s clients have been “taught that their appearance is what makes them worthy and valuable.” They’ve been “put on diets at a young age; encouraged to lose weight; and praised for obedience to food rules and diets and for losing weight or being thin.”
Explore where your own guilt stems from. Because your current food guilt is not some truth teller. It has turned into a faulty signal that’s been shaped by diet culture.
Thankfully, though, it’s a signal we can reshape. One of the best ways to do that is to work with a “non-diet dietitian and a therapist to slowly start exposing yourself to a variety of foods in a safe way,” Goodrich said. There are also things you can do on your own. (Stay tuned tomorrow for a post on strategies.)
“We aren’t born with food guilt,” Goodrich said. “But we are inundated with messages from society telling us that we should feel guilty if we aren’t dieting to ‘improve our health.'” We are inundated with messages that tell us we’re wrong and horrible and disgusting for eating certain foods. And, naturally, our guilt spikes.
We become preoccupied with food, so preoccupied that we start to fear it. And this preoccupation “keeps us from fully living in the moment and having positive food experiences,” Goodrich said. It keeps us from “things that are actually meaningful and valuable,” Fonnesbeck said.
Again, this preoccupation doesn’t have to be permanent. We can change it. We can chip away at it. After all, you deserve so much better than that, whether you currently believe it or not.