Have you ever felt bad about yourself because you ate an extra serving of a tasty side dish at a family gathering? Or believed you’re a failure because you had birthday cake at a party? Do you beat yourself up when you order something besides a salad at a restaurant?
You might know that a nutritious diet is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers. While it’s important to make healthy choices over time, it’s not necessary to feel guilty about something you eat, according to UNC Health psychologist Christine M. Peat, PhD, and UNC Health dietitian Shelly Wegman.
They explain why we feel guilty about food and how to stop negative thoughts.
What is food guilt?
Maybe you have a list of foods in your head that are “good” for you, meaning that they’re considered healthy, or foods that are “bad,” perhaps because they’re high in fat, sugar, salt or carbohydrates.
“If you eat something you consider bad, you’ll feel guilty and ashamed,” Dr. Peat says. “If you eat something you consider good, you’ll feel virtuous, like you’ve done the right thing. Both of those reactions put us into a dangerous cycle. Foods don’t have moral values; they’re not good or bad.”
Rigidity around any kind of food rule—bad or good—doesn’t help a you make healthy choices in the long run.
“If you restrict a ‘bad’ food, you will overindulge,” Wegman says. “If you tell someone they can’t have something, it will be all they can think about.”
But focusing solely on “good” foods isn’t any better.
“We can become hyperfocused on the foods deemed by culture as ‘good,’” Dr. Peat says. “You can’t survive on kale alone. There has to be balance.”
Wegman adds, “Your nutritional needs are not the same as everyone else’s, so the ‘good’ rules don’t work for everyone. A high-fiber diet may not be best for someone with irritable bowel syndrome. It’s not one size fits all.”
What causes food guilt?
Dr. Peat and Wegman attribute much of our thinking about foods being good or bad to the rise of diet culture, which idealizes thinness as a sign of health.
“Diet culture is really detrimental to our attitudes about food,” Wegman says. “We hear a lot of rules: You must do this, (or) you should not do this. There’s also a lot of misinformation out there about food that makes our thinking about it more complicated.”
Misinformation spreads quickly on social media.
“Influencers may not have any education on the topics they discuss,” Dr. Peat says. “A person who says they’re a health coach may not have any training or expertise. Social media is a rabbit hole of information that can be really dangerous.”
We also internalize messages about food from family, friends and co-workers.
“Think of how often you hear someone say, ‘Let’s be bad and have a piece of cake,’ or ‘I’ve been good all week, so I deserve a treat,’” Dr. Peat says. “It may seem like an innocuous comment, but it assigns a moral value to the food. Food is not something we have to earn.”
How do I stop feeling food guilt?
To counter constant messaging about food being bad or good, “dietitians can help you understand food on an objective, factual basis and move away from value judgments,” Dr. Peat says.
Wegman says that when clients come in with ideas about good, bad or forbidden foods, she discusses those beliefs with them.
“First, we’ll talk about what’s actually in the food—the calories, proteins, fats and carbohydrates, all of which are essential nutrients,” she says. “Then we’ll talk about where their rules about a food come from. Did someone tell them they shouldn’t have it? What do they think is bad about it? What satisfaction do they get from it? How could they have a healthy relationship with that food?”
As long as a food doesn’t make you feel physically sick, there is no reason it needs to be forbidden.
“We don’t just eat to fuel the body,” Dr. Peat says. “We eat for celebrations, for holidays. Food nourishes the body and spirit.”
Wegman says that practicing mindfulness before eating can help you identify which foods will be most nourishing in that moment.
“We should ask ourselves why we’re eating something,” Wegman says. “Is it a food I want, or is it a food that’s in front of me? Am I hungry? If I’m hungry, how hungry? Am I bored, stressed or tired? How will this food make my body feel? Is this a food that brings me comfort, and do I need that right now?”
This kind of mindfulness can help make sure that if you choose to have a piece of cake, you fully savor the cake as you eat it and you don’t overeat without realizing it.
“When people work on mindfulness around food, they can recognize what their body needs and stop eating when satisfied,” Wegman says. “They can make informed choices, enjoy the food more and not obsess after.”
What if I can’t let go of food guilt?
If you have rigid rules about which foods are acceptable or constantly think about what you ate, you should seek help from a therapist or dietitian who specializes in disordered eating.
“Food should be a part of our day, but not the majority of our day,” Dr. Peat says. “If thoughts connected with food or your body take up most of the day, that’s a red flag.”
To learn more about the foods that will fuel your body best, talk to your doctor or a dietitian. Need a doctor or dietitian? Find one near you.