Do you feel guilty or ashamed when you think you have eaten too much or eaten something “unhealthy”? Food guilt is an effect of diet culture and an unfortunately common experience. Here’s how you can overcome it.
A viral YouTube video earlier this year compiled instances of American supermodel Gigi Hadid as a teenager being told by her mother on the reality show The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills to “stop eating”—an alarming scene showing Gigi defending her choice to be allowed to eat unhealthy foods because she “has been good all week”. This sense of morality being applied to food, and labelling them as “good” or “bad”, and being allowed to earn “bad” foods because of having eaten “good” previously is something a lot of us fall prey to. Social media and the fitness industry’s focus on weight loss, diets and food rules can often create negative emotions around food, leading to feelings of guilt and shame about eating.
“We’re constantly labelling food as good and bad – when in reality food has no moral value. When we use words like ‘cheat day’, we’re inherently implying that we’re doing something wrong. More often than not, that ‘something wrong’ manifests as guilt and shame,” says Kripa Jalan, non-diet nutritionist and founder of Burgers to Beasts, a holistic wellness centre. Food guilt can manifest in different ways. Perhaps you are on a weight-loss diet, and you ate something sugary that was not included in your diet plan. Maybe you had a craving for chocolate after dinner, and you gave in. Or you might have reached for the third slice of pizza after you told yourself to restrict it to two.
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Why Do We Feel Guilty About Eating?
Constantly reading value-laden messages about healthy eating, or being asked by social media to go on a diet after you have eaten without restrictions for a week to achieve the ideal body, can take all the pleasure out of the experience of eating. “One of the primary reasons we feel guilty about our food choices is that we’re often guided by a comprehensive list of food rules that tell us what, how, and when we can or cannot eat,” says Kripa. “These rules work great until one event, one thought, or one feeling throws things off. Suddenly, all bets are off – and there are no rules left to guide us; we think we’ve “blown it” and feel extremely guilty.”
In Kripa Jalan’s experience during her practice as a nutritionist, while food guilt is a common experience, those who suffer from poor body image, have had a history of disordered eating tendencies, or have hopped from diet to diet hoping the next one would be the solution, or those who live with extremely rigid fitness rules tend to experience guilt after eating more so than others. “Just because it is common, doesn’t mean it should be normalised,” says Kripa. “I don’t think there’s any place for guilt and shame in the wellness spectrum.”
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This is because while healthy eating is a worthwhile endeavour, feeling guilt or shame about food can cause serious harm to your mental and physical health. It makes you feel anxious and miserable. Food guilt can disconnect you from internal cues about what your body needs and wants, leading to you constantly overthink about everything you are eating. A 2019 study published in the journal Psychology and Psychotherapy also found that shame was a common contributing factor of disordered eating in both men and women.
Although overcoming food guilt is complex, and can take a lot of patience to achieve, the nutritionist recommends some easy steps in which you can repair your relationship with eating.
5 Ways You Can Combat Food Guilt
● Let go of food rules
Food rules have us policing our food and bodies in ways that are often unrealistic to follow all the time. People give up certain food groups, eat meals at fixed times, or count their calories meticulously in order to stick to these rules, and food guilt is an obvious result of “breaking” them. “Food rules even lead to what is called the “screw it” phase, where we deliberately try to break the food rules, and as a result, end up overeating,” says Kripa. Try mindful eating instead, which is about listening to your hunger cues and paying attention to the sensory aspect of eating, bringing back the elements of pleasure and satisfaction. A study published in Obesity Reviews in 2018 shows that mindful eating contributes to overall well-being and reduction of unhealthy eating behaviours much more than any diets.
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● Stop labelling foods as “good” or “bad”
“Don’t moralise your food,” advises Kripa. This means letting go of the idea that certain foods are bad or wrong or harmful. If you want ice cream or a piece of cake, you do not have to spend hours at the gym trying to “earn” it. All foods can be part of a healthy diet, and you do not need to feel guilty about eating what you like so long as your overall diet is healthy.
● Unfollow social media accounts that are contributing to it
Scrolling through your Facebook or Instagram feed full of extremely fit people and their perfect bodies who follow certain kinds of diets can trigger feelings of guilt after eating. If you are constantly being exposed to messages about not doing the “right” things or eating “the right way”, then it might be time to go on an unfollow spree.
● Let go of perfectionism in how you eat
“You have to understand that days of ideal eating are few and far in between,” says Kripa. “Develop a mindset where you choose to eat healthy because it nourishes you, but also indulge because you’re a human.”
● Talk to a professional
If you are having intrusive thoughts about food that constantly interrupts your daily life, then seeking help can be hugely beneficial. Talk to a therapist or dietician specialising in disordered eating or body image issues, who can help you unpack these feelings of guilt and distress and help you heal your relationship with food.
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