Have you ever felt guilty when you ate dessert?
If you said yes, it’s no surprise – just think about the way we speak about desserts. They can be a guilty pleasure, a cheat or a treat, they are sinful. We learn how to satisfy a sweet tooth with no regret, or we learn how many minutes at the gym we need to “burn off” the calories.
It’s great to pay attention to the nutrients in food, but did you know that food guilt can be bad for your health? Feeling guilty when you eat can damage your well-being, lead to feelings of helplessness, and can be related to disordered eating habits.
If you’re someone who’s ever said to themselves “I am so bad for eating this” and then immediately felt guilty for doing so, here’s three tips to help you take the guilt – and stress – out of eating, so that food can be both enjoyable and nourishing to your body.
Tip #1 Don’t save calories.
How many times have you thought to yourself – since I’m going out tonight I’ll save my calories and have a very light lunch? Or perhaps you skip lunch all together.
The problem is, when you restrict food during the day, this can backfire and cause intense food cravings. You know the ones – like when you overindulge on the bread basket and then immediately feel guilty afterwards, all because you arrived at the table famished.
If your hunger gets to extreme levels, you’re more likely to eat quickly, which can lead to overeating and associated food guilt. It’s also much harder to listen to your fullness cues. And let’s face it, shovelling food down your throat probably means you’re not even taking the time to enjoy the food.
You are much better off eating normally during the day and arriving at a restaurant feeling only pleasantly hungry.
Tip #2 When you worry about “unhealthy” food.
We often feel guilty when eating food that we’ve labelled “bad” or “off-limits”. So much of what we’re taught throughout life categorises food as either “good” or “bad”. Even the red, amber and green food labelling has negative connotations, because red is thought to be related to a “transgression” and therefore encourages us to feel guilty.
Your relationship with food and tuning into your body can sometimes be more important than what you eat. In fact, research shows that savouring food that you think is indulgent can help you feel fuller quicker, and result in a more positive eating experience.
Food is more than just fuel and eating is more than delivering nutrients to your body. Yet food guilt can take away from the experience and joy of eating – like being able to enjoy a meal with friends and family, a birthday or cultural celebration, or just a fun party.
It may be worth reflecting on your own experience with food guilt. Journaling can be useful to help you identify what causes your food guilt and what happens when you’re experiencing it.
Tip #3 Let go of rigid food rules.
Do you have rules around food? Perhaps you tell yourself that you can’t eat after 8pm, or that you shouldn’t eat gluten because it’s bad for you? Maybe you’ve even banned ice-cream and pizza from your house because it’s off limits.
When we tell ourselves that we can’t eat something, we end up putting that food on a pedestal. Ironically, this makes you idolise the exact food you’ve restricted and creates more cravings for that food. Then, when you (inevitably) cave into those cravings, you feel even more guilty because you’ve just eaten food you deemed off-limits.
On the other hand, when labels are taken away and rules around food are relaxed, food has less emotional pull, we feel less out of control around food and less guilty when we eat.
It’s worth paying attention to your internal dialogue around food. Do you tell yourself you should or shouldn’t do things? Like, I should only eat before 8pm; I shouldn’t eat gluten. When you relax your food rules, the guilt starts to disappear.
I hope you find these tips helpful in taking the guilt and stress out of eating. Remember that this is a learning process – even if you enjoy relative food freedom, you might find guilt and stress creeping into your eating from time to time. That’s OK because it’s all part of the learning experience. But seriously – go ahead and enjoy that dessert.