Food guilt is one of the most common ailments we see people struggling with on their journey to developing a balanced relationship with food.
I’m willing to bet you’ve experienced it before. Food guilt can be so common in our society! Especially if you’ve been dieting on and off for years. Research even shows that nearly a third of all food that Americans eat makes them feel guilty. Internally, feeling guilt is often seen as something productive. We beat ourselves up and tell ourselves to do better for our own sake. When in reality, the guilt we feel only does harm.
Over time, food guilt can lead to disordered eating habits, which are damaging to both your physical and mental health. It ultimately takes you away from fully experiencing your life, from fully enjoying and appreciating your food and the many roles it has.
Because food guilt is so common, it’s important to understand why food guilt happens and how to overcome it. Learn why food guilt is not serving you and the first steps you can take to begin overcoming feelings of guilt around food.
Why There is No Need to Feel Food Guilt
It’s important to understand on a logical level, that there is no true need to feel guilt or shame about your food choices. It truly doesn’t serve you!
A well-balanced diet includes all types of food. Food for nourishment, as well as enjoyment. It also honors the many roles food plays in our lives. From nourishing our bodies on a cellular level, to tradition and culture. We eat to thrive, not to just survive.
Not only is food guilt not productive for creating balanced eating habits, but it also can be really damaging to your physical and mental health.
A study was conducted where people were asked if they associated chocolate cake more with guilt or celebration. The results of the study showed that the individuals who said the chocolate cake was associated with guilt were no healthier or more motivated than those who associated it with celebration. In fact, they felt less in control around food and said they were more likely to overeat.
Have you ever felt that way around food items you associate with guilt or shame?
Food Guilt Perpetuates a Start-and-Stop Cycle
This mentality leads to the start-and-stop cycle that I teach inside my Free Masterclass.
The shame and guilt intensify after overeating, so you try more rigid and restrictive behaviors to make up for being “bad”. You’re then left feeling out of control around food because you’ve become hyper-aware that you can’t have it. The end result? You overindulge and the cycle continues.
Maybe instead of feeling out of control, you simply try to rationalize with yourself. “I haven’t had any (insert food item here) all week and I’m not going to have it again, so I might as well just have all of the (insert food item here) now.” Once again, the cycle repeats itself.
Ever been in either of these scenarios before?
Whenever you’re in this start-and-stop cycle, you’re not able to form consistent, balanced eating habits that support your long-term health. Over time, this can also lead to more serious physical and mental health conditions. This guilt and shame lead to feelings of helplessness and a lack of control, which can encourage poor self-esteem and low mood.
This is why it’s so important for you to put some of your time and energy into overcoming food guilt.
How To Stop Feeling Food Guilt
It’s important to note that overcoming food guilt is a journey and it will take time. But it’s absolutely possible to accomplish!
You can get started by following these few steps to begin removing guilt and calling it out when it happens. Over time, you’ll get to a place of ease and peace with your food choices.
1. Bring Awareness to When and Why You’re Experiencing Food Guilt
This first step is all about bringing awareness to the situation. There are usually two common causes of guilt as a result of eating certain foods.
You may have made a mindless choice and didn’t realize it until after the fact
First, feelings of guilt can happen if you make a food choice that’s not in alignment with what you truly want or need. This usually happens when external factors influence our food choices without us even realizing it. Emotions such as stress or boredom, our environment, or eating while distracted are some common factors.
You may also experience this if you make an in-the-moment decision that you didn’t truly want to make. This type of guilt tends to have less to do with the food itself, but more to do with you taking or not taking a specific action.
You may have food rules
The second cause of food guilt we see is feeling guilty after eating foods that are internally labeled “bad” or “off-limits”. This can happen even when you consciously choose to eat something because you truly enjoy it. The sense of shame creeps in any way because we’ve trained ourselves to think of some foods as “right” and others as “wrong.”
Compassionately reflect to inflict change
In either case, you can use a reflective journal to bring awareness to what’s causing your food guilt and when you’re experiencing it. You can find a sample food journal prompt in our free guide that you can download and follow along with!
With a reflective journal, the focus isn’t on calories or listing “good” and “bad” foods. Instead, the focus is on uncovering more about what you felt before, during, and after eating. That way you can notice where and when those feelings of guilt arise.
These insights about yourself can really help you learn how to best support yourself. When your focus is solely on feeling guilty, you never get the chance to engage in this self-discovery. You end up continuing to go through this cycle of guilt.
2. Let Go of The Food Rules
Think about what would happen when you were a kid and your parent, guardian, or teacher told you that you weren’t allowed to do something. How would you react?
I’m willing to bet you wanted to do exactly what they said not to do and wanted to do it so much more. This is the exact same series of events that occurs with food rules. It’s simply human nature.
When we tell ourselves that we can’t have a food item, it’s bad for us, we’re not allowed to have it – we’re inadvertently putting the food item on a pedestal. A pedestal that makes us idealize the food item and want it so much more than if we had just allowed ourselves to have some in the first place.
Once we do have the food item — either because we finally allow ourselves, reward ourselves, or it’s simply placed in front of us and we no longer have self-control — we’re much more likely to overindulge and subsequently experience that extreme sense of guilt we’re looking to avoid.
When we remove these food rules altogether, when we take the food item off of the pedestal, the food item no longer has power over us. We no longer feel out of control around it, and therefore that guilt cycle stops.
Let go of the food rules, and the guilt will go with it.
3. Slow Down Before Meals
Practice slowing down before your meals. Just as we mentioned above, sometimes food guilt can stem from mindless eating. This happens when you’re simply distracted by something in your environment, or the situation you’re in triggered you to eat when you weren’t truly hungry.
Taking a moment to pause before eating and checking in with yourself is such a powerful tool. You’re able to see what your body needs and wants. That way, you can become aware of which external sources are influencing your food choices.
When you’re taking this pause, ask yourself why you’re eating — is it boredom, stress, situational, or are you experiencing physical hunger? Are you eating out of intention and mindfulness? Or is it unintentional and mindless?
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 yourself full permission to intentionally choose and enjoy that food.
4. Grant Yourself Permission to Reduce Food Guilt
Create an experience around food that allows you to fully enjoy and appreciate what you’re eating.
For example, let’s say you’ve decided to have dessert. Ideally, you would sit at the table with minimal distractions and slowly savor and taste each bite. Allowing yourself that joy and pleasure from your food — whether it’s what we call, “food for the soul”, or a nutrient-dense meal — brings so much positivity to your experience.
You’ll then be able to feel more satisfied and move forward, rather than succumbing to that guilty feeling.
5. Practice Compassionate Curiosity
The older we get the more we learn that things don’t always go according to plan. It’s inevitable for things to take a sharp left turn without our intention every once in a while. When this does happen, practicing compassionate curiosity can allow us to break the guilt cycle.
Instead of negative self-talk, when you find yourself in a situation where things could have gone one way, but unfortunately went in another, pause and reflect. Ask yourself without judgment, “Why did this happen?”, “Was it even in my control?”, “If possible, how might I do things differently next time to prevent this same situation from happening again?”.
By reflecting with compassion and curiosity, you’re able to look ahead to the future and plan for success rather than dwell on the past.
How to Receive More Support If You’re Experiencing Food Guilt
These are just a few 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 food choices over time.
As you get started with these steps, don’t forget to be patient with yourself. It’s normal for those feelings of guilt or shame to come back up every so often. This is especially true when working to remove food rules. Know that it takes a lot of compassion, patience, practice, and support to really help you reframe your mindset around your relationship with food.
Do You Want to Experience More Balance with your Food Choices?
Then find your balanced eating type!
Take this 45-second free quiz to find out which balanced eating archetype you are, and what your unique type needs to maintain balance with the way you nourish yourself. That way, you can finally be free from food and diet obsession, maintain a balanced weight, and cultivate a positive relationship with food and your body.