Food guilt is something I come across regularly when working with people in their journey to healing their relationship with food and body. Chances are you have experienced this at some stage in your life too.
Studies have found that food guilt is caused primarily by the awareness of food being considered “unhealthy” or “fattening”.
But I find that more than the physical effect, food guilt can be damaging to your mental and emotional wellbeing too, and it can lead to disordered eating such as binge or emotional eating. Moreover, experiencing food guilt takes away from experiencing your life, being present in the moment and fully enjoying and appreciating your food which essentially sucks the joy away!
Needless to say food guilt does not serve you but you don’t need to live with this forever. There are steps you can take to begin to let go of those guilty feelings around food.
YOU DO NOT NEED TO FEEL GUILTY AROUND FOOD.
Let me say that again. You DO NOT need to feel food guilt, shame or blame with your food choices. All food should be able to be enjoyed and if you have worked with me or read any of my previous blog posts you will know that I often say food has no moral value. There should be no blame or shame attached to food. It is neither good nor bad. Sure, some food has more nutritional value than others however, it doesn’t mean when you eat it you should punish yourself for it. It doesn't make you a bad person. There is a place where it can all be enjoyed. That place is called moderation.
A well-balanced diet and lifestyle should include all types of food and respect the many roles food plays in our life — from nourishing our bodies to tradition, practice, culture, and enjoyment.
But too often, because we categorise food into good and bad, when we eat the “bad” food, we consider ourselves “bad” people. This feeling is what often leads people to feel the need to punish through more “bad” food. This can also lead to a binge restrict cycle, in which the shame and guilt intensify after overeating, so you try more rigid and restrictive behaviours to make up for being “bad,” only to feel out of control around food because you’ve become hyper-aware that you can’t have it, and then you binge and so the cycle continues. Along with the feelings of guilt and shame around this, you can also experience feelings of helplessness and feeling like you’re out of control, often feelings of failure come into it, failure to “eat well”, failure to “stick to your diet”, failure to not eat all the food; all of which can impact self-esteem, mindset, mood and ultimately goals.
This is why it is so important for you to put some of your time and energy into learning how to ease up on the food guilt.
HOW TO REDUCE FOOD GUILT
Letting go of food guilt can happen, it just takes time and practice, especially if those feelings of associating guilt with “bad” food is well ingrained in your way of thinking. It is very normal to be experiencing thought patterns that aren’t aligned with a healthy relationship with food. It takes compassion, patience, practice, and often support to help you reframe your mindset around your relationship with food and remove feelings of guilt.
Here is a good place to start:
1. Identify When and Why You’re Experiencing Food Guilt
Guilt can come up if you made a food choice that doesn’t align with what you actually wanted or needed. This can happen as a result of external influences such as emotions, our environment, eating while distracted or after eating foods that are labelled “bad” as per my comment above.
This first step is all about bringing awareness to when and why you’re experiencing food guilt.
To start, notice when you experience guilt and also identify what is causing you to feel this way. Has something happened in the day? Is it a particular food? Is it people, a place? Certain times? How did you feel before, during and after eating the certain foods? Were there any triggers for you?
Pay attention to the connections and insights you have, as these will help to guide you moving forward. Rather than focusing solely on the what, ie the feeling of guilt, focus on the why to be able to provide insight to move through this.
Once you have more awareness around what’s causing these feelings of guilt, the next step is to call yourself out when these guilty feelings arise and practice compassionate curiosity. Allow yourself to sit with these feelings and explore why they are coming up again, recognize that they’re there, and remind yourself that food guilt doesn’t support where you want to go. Speak kindly to yourself and ask yourself what you need in that moment.
Practice this as regularly as possible.
2. Let Go of The Food Rules
Cast your mind back to when you were growing up and you were told that you weren’t allowed to do something. What would you do? Chances are you would do exactly what you were told you weren’t allowed to do. The exact same situation also applies to food and our food rules. As soon as we tell ourselves something is off limits, it’s bad for us, we want it so much more than if we had just allowed ourselves to have some in the first place. Inadvertently we give it so much more power than it deserves.
Often, once we do have the food, we’re much more likely to overindulge and subsequently experience that extreme sense of guilt we were looking to avoid.
When we remove these food rules altogether, when we take our power back, the food no longer has power over us. We no longer feel out of control around it, and therefore that guilt cycle stops.
Bottom line - let go of the food rules.
3. Slow Down with food
This practice is very important. Often food guilt arises when we eat mindlessly, when we are distracted when eating, or when we want to numb out from something. So we eat even though we aren’t actually hungry.
Taking a moment to breathe before eating and ask yourself what you’re actually hungry for is such a great way to become aware of what external sources or emotions are influencing your food choices versus you choosing based on your body’s needs or what you’d like to consciously choose.
When you’re taking this breath, ask yourself why you’re eating — is it boredom, stress, situational, or are you experiencing physical hunger?
Then ask yourself if what you are choosing to eat is something you truly want or only want because of external factors.
If your food guilt stems from eating specific foods, this pause can allow you to give full permission to yourself to intentionally choose and enjoy that food.
4. Practice Standing by Yourself
Next time you find yourself in a situation where you didn’t make the choices you wanted to, try to release the blame and shame and instead stop and reflect. Ask yourself without judgment, “Why did this happen?”, “How might I do things differently next time to prevent this same situation from happening again?”.
By reflecting with compassion, you’re able to look ahead to the future rather than dwell on the past. This also is the practice of supporting yourself through this journey in a positive way, learning how to stand by yourself even when things don’t go as you would have hoped, rather than abandoning yourself in the process.
These are just a few of the first steps to take to overcome food guilt. By practicing these and other mindful eating practices, you’ll start experiencing more freedom and peace with your relationship with food.
If this is something you feel you could do with some more help on, please reach out to me via my contact me form on my website www.sagewellness.co.nz. Let’s chat as you don’t need to navigate this alone.