Last Updated on April 8, 2023 by Katherine Dittmann, MA, MS, RD
Life is hard enough without judging every little thing you put in your mouth. It’s a double whammy when you judge other people for what they eat because then you feel guilty about that, too. Food guilt shows up as a way to police our own (and others’) eating behavior. We believe that if we make the price of breaking a food rule so painful, we’ll be less likely to eat the thing in the first place.
It should be no surprise that the threat of guilt usually doesn’t prevent us from going out of bounds with food. Inevitably, we end up carrying extra guilt just for doing the thing that everyone else does: eating. Perhaps seeing food guilt for what it really is, a strategy to keep our behavior in check, would make the situation a lot more clear. This simple shift in perspective turns our attention inward, rather than it being directed at food as a proxy for our feared sense of lack of control. It isn’t really the food we’re avoiding, it’s the horrible feelings of guilt that come with it.
Yet, we live in a culture that constantly puts people under a microscope. It’s as if one false move eclipses the entirety of a person’s life, particularly on social media. Because it is so easy to pretend perfection, buying into such illusions throws us into the trap of I’m-the-only-one-with-a-problem thinking, activated by the devastating comparing mind. The pressure to avoid being that person, the one on the receiving end of disapproval, is extremely powerful in this culture of food and body shaming. So, our first line of defense is to feel the guilt privately, on our own terms, rather than risk feeling shamed by others. We don’t want to give other people any opportunity to think ill of us. We want to make a good impression. We want to belong. To be good enough. To be liked.
Food guilt does more than just perpetuate a dichotomous view of foods. It may cause us to eat one way in public and another in private. It may lead to never eating the really yummy thing because the pain of guilt is too much to bear. For some, eating the “wrong” food can ruin the whole day with regret, rumination, or planning out how to “fix it” and atone for one’s sins.
We all get it. We’ve all felt food guilt to some degree or another. Even the most intuitive eater has eaten a bit too much and thinks, “Ugh, I wish I hadn’t eaten all that.” But, there is a not-so-fine line between passing regret and days ruined over what we’ve ingested.
It’s not enough to simply go against the rules and learn to tolerate the discomfort of unreasonable, self-imposed guilt. To truly break free, it’s essential to address the guilt at the cognitive level. Here are a few ways to do that.
Question your food rules.
Having rules or guidelines for behavior isn’t necessarily wrong. All cultures have their own taboos when it comes to what and how to eat. There are things that just aren’t done in some places that are perfectly permissible in others.
That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the rules that sneak in any time we suspect our behavior deviates from the norm or is at risk of getting out of control. Maybe we put limits on screen time or on how many cocktails we sip at happy hour. We may create artificial constraints to manage our spending or saving habits. Our personal rules are there to ensure that our behaviors remain within the realm of temperance.
So what’s wrong with food rules? For starters, they are often arbitrary, restrictive, and lead to unnecessary burdens of guilt. These rules can be absolute (“No carbs! Not ever!”) or they can be conditional (“Carbs only on Grandma’s birthday!”). The problem with creating rules like this is that they are so easy to break. They are especially easy to break if even a small part of us thinks the rule is dumb, doesn’t have a real purpose, or is keeping us from having something we want or think we need. In essence, it can trigger a battle between our inner good kid and our inner rebel. Knowing the disappointment that comes from breaking our own promises to ourselves and acting against our own best interest makes it clear why food guilt is so prevalent.
Tip #1: Challenge those food rules. Notice any time you’re about to choose something to eat and a little voice pipes up with, “I can’t have that!” or “I never eat that,” or “I only eat that if…” You’ve just found yourself a rule. Once you’ve recognized the rule, you can decide whether or not it’s rational or valid based on what you know to actually be true. You get to decide whether or not you want to follow it.
Start prioritizing pleasure.
Seeing the experience of eating as more than just fueling the body is a good way to balance out the guilt. Accepting that food is meant to be enjoyed when possible leads us to make more satisfying food decisions and feel less deprived. Deprivation is sure to backfire one way or another and when it does, you’re going to feel guilty about that anyway. You have to eat, so you might as well enjoy it when you can.
Tip #2: This one is pretty easy. Just choose the foods you like, try new things, pay attention to how they taste, savor them, and allow yourself to really have them. Give yourself full permission to enjoy them. We all deserve to enjoy our food without guilt, shame, or conditions. Just be careful not to make pleasure from food a zero-sum game. All the food doesn’t have to be yummy and perfect all the time. It’s statistically impossible and a set-up for failure.
Become aware of your natural hunger.
Our bodies have rhythms. Regular eating patterns lead to regular hunger cues. If you don’t believe me, think of a time when you have flown over a couple time zones. How long did it take for you to adjust to the new time zone’s meal times? It typically happens in a day or two if we release control and don’t overthink it.
Getting into a groove with your body’s natural appetite rhythm will make it way easier to stop the guilt that comes from eating the “wrong” amount at the “wrong” time. Once we are connected to our bodies in this way, we don’t need those rules as much anymore.
Tip #3: Track your hunger. Try eating enough at meals so you aren’t hungry for about 3-4 hours. If there are more than 4 hours between meals, have a snack. If you get hungry, have a snack. Aim for having a good appetite before a meal, but avoid getting too hungry, when overeating and guilt are way more likely to happen.
Adopt an attitude of curiosity versus one of judgment.
How does judgment feel? Self-righteous? Superior? Knowledgeable? Maybe, but it’s also a hard “No.” Inflexible. Rigid. Cold. Disconnected.
On the other hand, what is curiosity like? Open? Accepting? Interested? Flexible? Curious people seem friendly and connected, don’t they?
You can easily practice being more curious about your eating. Not only in a mindful eating sense, meaning, in part, being interested in the sensory qualities and how the food feels in your body, but also by being curious about the judgments themselves.
Tip #4: Start by catching yourself in judgment mode. Just recognize when you are judging your food (or someone else’s). Then, see if you can be curious about the thing you are judging and go from there. Where do the judgments come from? Do they stem from beliefs and rules? Are they even your own beliefs and rules or are they someone else’s?
Stand by your choices.
Are you even aware of how many food decisions we make in our lifetimes? Or day to day? Honestly, it can be overwhelming. Throw in various rules and restrictions and it gets even harder (although the original intention is often to make choosing food easier by eliminating some of the choices!)
When coming from a deprivation mindset, it can feel like every calorie has to count. For some, deciding what to eat feels like a life-or-death decision. But is it? Is it really? In the grand scheme of things, does it really matter if I pick white or wheat, chocolate or vanilla, pancakes or omelette? Today? Just right now in this moment?
No. No it does not. In no world does that matter. Unless you have a food allergy or other legitimate reason for avoiding a food, adding all foods to your diet can ease the fear of not getting enough or getting too much of one nutrient or another.
Tip #5. Don’t take your food out of context. If you isolate one meal from the context of a person’s overall eating, you learn absolutely nothing about them. So there is no need to hem and haw. There is no wrong decision. Just the decision you make. Anyone who tells you otherwise doesn’t know what you need or what they are talking about. You have thousands of opportunities to make a different decision another time. Let it go.
Understand the difference between guilt and shame.
We’ve been exploring food guilt in this essay, but the really insidious part of this whole thing is when guilt becomes shame or when shame is disguised as guilt.
Guilt is pretty easy to understand. There is a sense of having done something wrong, broken a rule, or hurt someone else. I suppose by extension, the guilt we feel after overeating could be explained by causing our own body harm, but normal eaters are pretty good at forgiving themselves and paying more attention next time or basking in the glow of a particularly delicious meal. Or something like that.
Shame happens in secret. It’s eating foods in private because no one else can know. It’s believing that you are defective because you just love potato chips so much you can’t control yourself. It’s questioning every morsel of food you eat against what someone else would think if they saw you in that body actually eating. It’s the fear that your physical body does or could represent something socially unacceptable, so you try to control it through eating. It’s the belief that your body reflects your sense of discipline or control.
Shame is isolating. It is literally the emotion that binds humans together. What that means is that shame keeps us in the group. At one time, long ago, if you didn’t follow the group rules, they might kick you out and you’d die. Public shaming has long been used as a tool to control behavior through fear of being ostracized. Remember Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter? She paid dearly for her transgression, enduring the scorn of the community, while her accomplice suffered quietly from guilt. Do we think we’ve changed so much as a species since then?
Once you realize that shame truly represents an underlying need to be loved, to be valued, to be accepted and connected, it gets a bit easier to trigger spontaneous self-compassion.
Tip #6: Start checking in to notice if what you are feeling is food guilt, food shame, or both. A quick-and-dirty litmus test is asking yourself, “Do I really wish I hadn’t done that?” An affirmative answer indicates guilt, or some regret for having done a thing. Then ask, “Do I feel like this happened because I’m intrinsically flawed in some way?” An affirmative answer may point to shame, a sense that if someone knew this about you, they would devalue you as a person.
Develop the skill of self-compassion.
I cannot say this often enough, but self-compassion is a skill. Some of us learned how to be kind to ourselves growing up and some of us didn’t. Luckily, like any skill, practicing self-compassion can lead to more natural self-kindness and compassion all the time.
Sometimes people get self-compassion wrong. They think all it is is putting a hand on your heart and kissing your boo-boos away. You can certainly do that, if it helps with the pain, but it’s not really the whole package.
Self-compassion employs empathy and a desire to act. It is being fully present with whatever feeling arises and not running away. It’s telling yourself, “It’s OK. We’ll get through this. I’ve got you. I’m here for you.” And then, once the stress and ickiness fades a bit, it is much easier to decide what to do next, since you are acting from a grounded place of self-trust and acceptance.
Tip #7: When feelings of guilt and shame arise around food, notice the tone of voice you are using with yourself. Can you soften it a bit? Can you reframe the situation in a way that reminds you that everyone feels this way sometimes? No one is a perfect eater. This event doesn’t say all that much about your character. Is there any way you can be kind to yourself, just in this moment? Even a little bit?
To summarize, guilt does not have to be an inner drill-sergeant policing your every move and running your life. Save it for the big-ticket items, the truly poor decisions and lapses in judgment. As I said before, life is hard enough as it is. You deserve to eat good food without paying an emotional price.