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How to Stop Feeling Guilty About What We Eat

by Elise Museles

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Tell me if this has ever happened to you:

It’s a special dinner—Thanksgiving, your birthday, or any celebratory occasion—and you’re surrounded by your favorite, most loved people. The house is cozy, and the air is thick with the smell of a delicious meal that is about to take place.

You sit down to a table filled with colorful food, tuck your napkin in your lap, and proceed to eat significantly more than you really need. There’s a second serving of quinoa, another scoop of mashed potatoes, a few extra turkey sliders, and a sampling of all the desserts because you don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings!

And then you spend the next few days beating yourself up and feeling guilty.

Or what about this:

You’re meeting up with your girlfriends for a long-overdue catch up. You’ve just huddled down into a corner booth at your favorite breakfast place, the sun is streaming through the window, and you’re feeling thankful for the wonderful women in your life and delicious buckwheat pancakes you’re about to enjoy.

But instead of chatting about the good things in your lives or your plans for the weekend, you and your friends start detailing all the ways you’ve been “bad” lately. Nancy mentions that she should be at yoga class right now, counteracting the pizza she ate last night. You chime in with all the “bad decisions” you’ve made about food lately because of stress.

And then you spend the next few days beating yourself up and feeling guilty.

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Has this happened to you? It’s happened to me innumerable times. In the world of eating psychology and nutrition, we spend a lot of time talking about emotional eating, perfectionism, and intuition. But we don’t spend much time talking about something that’s much more common: food guilt.

How common? In a 2013 survey, 75% of women said they often felt guilty about how much they ate. These feelings of food guilt come in all shapes and sizes. It might be the passing thought, “I shouldn’t have eaten that.”  In more extreme cases, we pass moral judgment on ourselves: “I’m so ‘bad,” “I’m weak; if I had any self-respect I wouldn’t have eaten that whole container of hummus,” “Ugh, why can’t I get my act together? I should be smarter than this.

(Side note: You do not become a “bad” person because you opted for a cupcake rather than an apple. You are the exact same person you were before you ate that cupcake.)

Food guilt can affect our overall self-esteem, our relationships, and even how we spend our time and energy. When we devote mental space to food guilt, we have less of it for the people we love, the books we’re reading, the vacations we’re planning, and the big, exciting projects we’re undertaking.

When we spend time and energy feeling guilty about what we ate, we’re not fully present in our lives. We’re so busy obsessing about the linguini we consumed, we’re not appreciating the bright blue sky or really listening to our friend’s hilarious story.

Food guilt can permeate our psyches and affect how we interact with others. It’s pretty hard to love other people if we can’t love ourselves because we ate two cookies.

And food guilt isn’t just psychological, it’s physiological. In fact, our thoughts quite literally affect how our bodies function. Guilt and other negative, stress-related emotions trigger the release of cortisol, which can cause us to store more calories as body fat. Thinking stress-inducing thoughts after a meal impacts our digestion and nutrient assimilation and removes any pleasure we might have experienced while eating. The thoughts we think about the food we eat instantly become reality in our bodies via the central nervous system.

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So what can we do about food guilt?

Changing the way we talk to ourselves and treat ourselves is an ongoing, loving, sometime life-long process. But like so many other habits, we change one day at a time.

Rather than worrying about all the ways you could possibly “screw things up” throughout a whole week or during an upcoming trip, just focus on the next 24 hours. Think positively about the choices you’ll have the opportunity to make AND the food you can take pleasure in.

If you’re meeting friends for dinner, say to yourself, “I’m going out to dinner and I’m going to have dessert.” When you plan your “indulgences”, you’re giving yourself a chance to get comfortable with them, look forward to them, and properly savor them. And you’re a lot less likely to regret them!

Then after you’ve had that delicious dessert, and you’re thinking about the next day, say to yourself, “I’m going to a power yoga class and then I’ll make myself a nourishing green smoothie—not as a punishment, but because it makes me feel good…and it’s what my body needs.”

When we plan, acknowledge, and address the way we feel about food, it’s easier to step back and see the big picture. We can decide to happily partake in our indulgences and then move on with healthy choices. Most importantly, we release the power that they might have over us.

Guilt has absolutely no place in our relationship with food. It’s unhelpful, unhealthy, and completely counter-productive. So, let’s commit to eating food that makes us feel good, whether because it’s nourishing or because it’s a pleasurable splurge that we give ourselves permission to enjoy…unapologetically.

Now it’s your turn: How often do you feel guilty about what you eat? How do you deal with your guilt? Let’s inspire one another to release it!

P.S. If you have any questions about food guilt or your Food Story that you’d like to ask me privately, feel free to email me (elise@kaleandchocolate.com). I’m here to help!

5 Responses to How to Stop Feeling Guilty About What We Eat

  1. Yeimi Gagliardi February 18, 2016 at 2:19 pm #

    Hi Elise! I love your website! I met you at one of your NIH Children’s Inn cook demos. I still use some of your recipes at home.
    Thanks
    I do not think so much about guilt. Food can be a pleasurable experience. I find that allowing yourself to be mindful and present whenever you eat is a good way to go about it. To me is more important the connection and the socialization that happens when we gather for meals. We try to have a little bit of everything, fruits veggies and some treats.

    I also grew up in a third world country were food was not always available, and there is so much here!
    There always has to be a balance.

    Once I went to do charity work at a prison and the inmates cooked in South America. They did not have much, in fact, the only grain the had available was some homemade bread, with white processed flour! IT was DELICIOUS!

    I knew it was not the best option or the healthiest, but I was grateful to be able to share that bread with them. It was all they had and they had the heart and soul to share it with us. I work with many undeserved families and sometimes the only food they had are highly processed foods. We try to educate people about making better choices, but sometimes the food pantries only have processed foods. From my part I do try to donate foods that are healthy in hopes that, little by little, we can offer the healthy option as the easy option, for all, regardless of their income.

    • Elise Museles February 18, 2016 at 7:12 pm #

      Hi Yeimi!

      So nice to see you here after meeting you at the Children’s Inn. I really appreciate your thoughtful comments that you bring to this conversation. It is so easy to lose perspective and forget how lucky we are to have food available to us at all times. Thank you for the important reminder.

      You are so right that there always has to be a balance for everyone involved.

      Thanks for sharing!

      Xo

  2. Andria February 18, 2016 at 4:31 pm #

    Hi Elise…I feel like you wrote this article just at the perfect time. I’m on vacation at an all inclusive resort and was worried about being ‘bad’!!’ It’s a word I’m ashamed to say I use A LOT. Today I woke up and decided I’m taking it meal by meal and day by day. I was happy with my breakfast choices. Buffets have always been a challenge for me. This week I’m working on listening to what my body needs, allowing myself some balance and eliminating the words ‘bad’ and ‘guilt’ from my vocabulary!!!

    • Elise Museles February 18, 2016 at 7:12 pm #

      Hi Andria! I am so glad to hear that this post resonated with you. I love that you are going to really go on a vacation and not bring those words along with you:). Enjoy your time away.
      xo

  3. Gisela September 5, 2016 at 2:44 pm #

    Thank you for offering suggestions on how to release the food guilt. I love your blog (and the design)! 🙂 🙂 🙂

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