Do you find yourself looking at your empty plate, and thinking, “Why do I always feel so guilty after eating? Why do I feel so bad about what I just ate?” ”Why do I constantly doubt my food decisions? This can be a vicious cycle we often play on repeat and find hard to break.
Feeling guilty after eating not only makes us feel bad about ourselves, but it reduces our sense of satisfaction and ultimately heightens our stress response. In fact, feeling guilty after eating can lead to a cascade of other feelings like uselessness and loss of control.
So let me be clear from the outset, food should not be a source of guilt. It should provide nourishment, satisfaction, and joy. Not every meal will hit the spot, and not every meal will be nutritionally sound but food should provide regular opportunities to feel like you’re taking care of yourself.
If you are constantly feeling guilty after eating, it’s time to take back your power around food.
Where does food guilt come from?
From my experience, we can feel guilty after eating for two main reasons:
1. Feeling like you’ve eaten “too much” or;
2. Feeling like your food choices are “too unhealthy.”
If you feel guilty after eating a large amount of food, it is generally triggered by the thought of eating too much. Notice the emphasis on the word thought — because you’d be surprised how often this is actually triggered by not eating enough.
For example, if you skipped breakfast and had a small lunch with minimal protein in your meals, chances are you will be screaming HUNGRY by the time dinner rolls around. Consequently, you may eat a bigger dinner than normal followed by dessert, and still want a late-night snack. That amount of food consumption might make you feel guilty. However, it’s not guilt from actually eating too much food. It’s guilt from thinking you’ve eaten too much food — when in reality you’ve eaten a normal amount of food if you take into account your day’s caloric intake. In fact, it may even be under your basal metabolic needs: the calories you need to eat just to maintain basic bodily functions.
Too often when people are trying to lose weight, they reduce their caloric intake for so long that they became accustomed to eating low calories and thinking it is normal. Then, when they eat more than their usual caloric intake, they beat themselves up and wonder why they feel guilty after eating. When really, they didn’t even eat that much in the first place! It just felt like they did, and that’s what made them feel guilty.
I Feel Guilty even When I do Eat Enough
What if you actually have eaten enough during the day? What if you’ve hit your basal metabolic needs and still feel guilty after eating?
Then we might be dealing with guilt from eating food that’s considered “too unhealthy.”
It seems to be that people have the perception that in order to lose weight they have to eat perfectly. That means making only “healthy” food choices in order to reach their desired weight loss goal. In reality, however, eating perfectly all the time is unachievable. There are always going to be times in life when we make less healthy food decisions – we are perfectly imperfect human beings after all! However, often, if we make a choice considered too unhealthy we then start to berate ourselves and feel that guilt for not being able to consistently make healthy food choices.
Studies have shown that a “high dietary restraint” fuels feelings of guilt and worry about food. This is the vicious cycle of we eat “too much” of something that’s considered “unhealthy” and then we feel guilty. In response to those negative thoughts, “why do I feel guilty after eating?” we attempt to regain control by restricting our diet further. We want these strict diet rules to prevent us from eating too much or too unhealthy again, but in reality, they actually trigger more overeating. Because for every restriction, there is an equal and opposite binge.
This is the downward spiral of guilt and overeating.
How to stop feeling guilty after eating?
In the bid to reach food freedom, improve your relationship with food, and ultimately banish that feeling of guilt around food, there are a few things you can do:
1. Ask yourself, does eating “too much” or “too unhealthy” trigger your guilt?
The next time you feel guilty after eating, stop and ask yourself why. If nothing clear comes up, get specific and ask yourself if you feel guilty about eating too much or too unhealthy. The answer may be both.
Don’t despair if you fall into both categories. Awareness alone is helpful. In order to heal something, we need to feel it first. This is often where people go wrong. They don’t want to feel the discomfort, they would rather numb it or override it with more food rules in the hope of not doing it again. In reality, many of us have no idea why we feel the way we do around food. Fortunately, when you slow down and take the time to get curious — not beat yourself up, but simply be curious when you’re wondering, why do I feel guilty after eating? — it opens up the door of awareness. Awareness is the first step to healing.
2. Let go of your tight food rules
We can’t develop a healthy relationship with food when we are constantly battling ourselves about it. When we label certain foods as bad, we self-attack each time we want it. Remember, food has no moral value, when we attach moralism to food, we are in fact continuing to attack ourselves as when we think the food we are eating is bad, this then translates to ourselves being bad and is an instant trigger for food guilt. When we spend energy resisting specific foods, we only give that food more energy. This is why we binge on the exact foods that we restrict. We can’t help it when we make it all completely off-limits!
An alternative way to approach food, rather than being good or bad is asking yourself how does this food make you feel? Do you get what you need from it? How do you want to feel? At the end of the day, it’s not so much about the food itself but more that the dose makes the poison. Giving yourself permission to eat relieves the guilt after eating. I will leave you to ponder that.
3. Prioritise stopping compulsive eating long term
Are you afraid that you will eat everything and not stop if you let go of your strict food rules, and then REALLY feel guilty after eating?! Unfortunately, this is what regular dieting can turn us into.
If this is the case, I encourage you any time you feel the desire to eat when you’re not hungry, to stop what you’re doing, or about to do, move into another room and give yourself 5 minutes to feel what it is you’re feeling. It sounds simple but it’s actually not – that’s why you reach for food – to not feel.
When we develop awareness and, more importantly, tolerance for the negative emotions that drive us towards food, we can stop overeating patterns. In turn, this helps us stop feeling guilty after eating because we stop eating too much altogether.
4. Use Breakfast as an opportunity to experiment
If you struggle with feeling guilty after eating foods that you consider are too unhealthy, you might be rebelling against food rules, try using breakfast as your chance to experiment and relax those food rules a little. For example, if you are afraid of adding bread back into your diet because you’re scared you’ll binge on it, try adding it in at breakfast. This helps your body use food as fuel throughout the day and what often happens is night time eating will reduce. Too often I see people skip breakfast only to binge at night time. However, if you use breakfast as your experimentation time, you get to play with the foods you think are “too unhealthy” and you also fuel your body so that you’re less likely to eat “too much” later in the day.
5. Make Sure You’re Actually Eating Enough
I know this will be a hard one for those that have lofty weight loss goals but please do consider the possibility that undereating is triggering that “why do I feel guilty after eating?” thinking.
Those of us that want to lose weight attempt to reach our goals by dieting. This is innocent enough since many in the weightloss industry claim that weight loss is a matter of “less calories in than calories out.”
But here’s the thing:
When we’ve been dieting for so long that we no longer realise we’re undereating, we begin to equate eating less with eating normally. Then, when we end up eating actually normal amounts of food (aka, your basal metabolic needs) we feel like we’ve eaten too much, and then we feel guilty! But we shouldn’t feel guilty because we’re just breaking even.
At the end of the day, long-term thoughts around food and food guilt don’t need to be permanent. You can reassess the way you view food and the thoughts you tell yourself. You need to be eating enough to do this, you need to be willing to be aware of your why, you need to be willing to feel your feelings and you need to be open to trying new things.
If this is something you feel like you need help with or need to explore further, please click on the contact me button to book some time in. I am happy to help. This doesn’t need to hold you back any further.