Happy International No Diet Day! No Diet Day is all about embracing our bodies, enjoying a healthy relationship with food (not a diet culture influenced one), and raising awareness about the problems diet culture creates in our society. It felt only right that today I talk about food guilt: what it is, why it happens, and how to fight it. This comes up often in recovery as fear foods and exposures are tackled, but the feelings of guilt and shame surrounding food start long before recovery- often before you even know you have an eating disorder. Like fear foods, food guilt isn’t exclusive to eating disorders. In fact, I’d argue that a lot of people experience feelings of guilt due to the “good” and “bad” labels that are put on food by diet culture. You definitely aren’t alone and it’s never too late to unlearn harmful messages regarding food. So, in honor of no diet day, let’s talk about all things food guilt!
(If you haven’t checked out my article on fear foods or my piece on disordered eating, check those out before jumping into this one!)
Guilt is something we feel when we do something wrong. In a lot of ways the fact that we can feel guilt is a good thing. If we never felt guilty for lying, being mean to others, cheating, or other moral issues, it’s likely our whole world would look different.
Food isn’t a moral issue, though- and that’s why the guilt that can surround it is a big problem.
Food guilt specifically is feeling anxiety, disgust, guilt/shame, or other negative emotions after eating something. It can look different for different people, but often it comes with food jugement and/or behaviors. This can look like you feeling guilty after eating a cookie and going to workout to “burn it off” or rewarding yourself for eating “clean” for a whole day and then eating past your peak fullness the next day. If you’re unsure about if you’ve ever experienced food guilt or food judgement, take a look at these additional examples:
- Wanting one dish but ordering another after seeing the calorie count
- Avoiding a sweet or snack because it seems like it would “ruin” what your physical activity has been that day
- Feeling “good” for eating “healthy” but then binge on actual cravings, resulting in feelings of shame
- Not eating something because of negative thoughts about your body
All of the things above are examples of how food guilt creeps into our lives. Do any of those things seem fun, positive, and self-loving? Nope! Think about this:
If diet culture, social media, or pop culture (which often go hand-in-hand) had never told you that desserts were “bad,” stretch marks were something to be ashamed of, juice cleanses were “healthy,” sizes 00-2 were ideal, hourglass figures were the sexiest, or having a rest day was synonymous with a “cheat day”- what would you think about yourself?
Would you still feel guilty over your pick for dinner?
Would you still want to change your body?
The answer is probably not. It’s unfortunate that we have been told these things but we are not alone or the only generation to encounter far out beauty standards, celebrity ideals, and dangerous diet messages. As we get more advanced and have technology all around us these messages will continue, contradict, and come at us- but we can unlearn and undo this toxic trajectory for ourselves. Here are a few ways to combat food guilt, specifically:
Notice the thought and let it pass
This technique is not just good for food guilt but also negative emotions/thoughts in general. All you have to do is notice the thought and let it pass. Don’t judge the thought- but let it go. If you have a thought about a particular food being “good”/”bad” or a negative thought about yourself after eating something, notice that and let it pass without further shaming your mind for having those thoughts.
Delete fitness apps that count calories (and stop counting calories yourself!)
Counting calories may seem like a productive thing to do, but I promise you it isn’t. Eating disorders will only want your goal to get lower and lower. An app that you check only makes it easier for the disorder. For those without eating disorders, counting calories could lead to disordered behaviors, eating disorders, and/or negative body image. Plus, when has counting calories ever made anybody feel good about themselves? If you are looking to get more nutritional knowledge or help with food issues, contact a dietitian instead. Preferably one that follows HAES (Health at Every Size) or has eating disorder/disordered eating knowledge.
Expose yourself to fear foods and/or foods that bring up feelings of guilt
Again, check out the fear foods article for more background on this! Food guilt and fear foods often go hand in hand. You feel guilty for eating something and avoid it, making it a fear food or your disorder tells you a food is bad and you eat it, creating food guilt. The only way out is through. Try tackling fear foods one at a time so they aren’t overwhelming and don’t be afraid to ask friends/family/dietitians to help you plan and execute these exposures. The more you expose yourself to a fear food, the less power it will have.
Talk it out
Whether you talk to a friend, family member, therapist/dietician, or even yourself- try talking out your food guilt. Food guilt is often tied to other things or is based on false information. Are you worried about your body changing, feeling “unproductive,” challenging ED, stressed about something else and trying to control something (i.e. food), or feeling “bad” because the food you ate is a fear food or you feel like you indulge? Talking out your emotions can have a cathartic effect and make you feel better versus letting the guilt get pent up inside and risk engaging in behaviors. It can also help you identify why you feel the way you do so you know what you can work on. This might include coming up with a plan to keep your social media feed a safer place, getting a therapist/dietitian taking more time for self-care, and/or challenging food fears.
Food guilt can look like a variety of things to different people but nobody should have to feel guilty or shameful for fueling their body. Remember that having food guilt is nothing to be ashamed of and you are definitely not alone. Luckily there are ways to unlearn harmful mindsets picked up from diet culture. Talking it out, coming up with a coping plan, deleting fitness apps, noticing the thoughts, and continuing to eat challenging foods are all ways to combat food guilt and improve your relationship with food/your body. Remember to treat everyday like it’s No Diet Day and show your body, mind, and soul lots of love and respect!
All content on RecovRoad is based on personal experiences, research, and ideas. Please do not repost/share without credit and be aware that nothing on this blog takes the place of professional help. This is also a formal trigger warning: content about and relating to eating disorders may be triggering to survivors. Please see the “RESOURCES” tab, call the National Eating Disorders Association hotline at 800-931-2237, and remember to take care of yourself.