Do you ever feel guilty about what you eat? Me too. It’s no secret that we all feel guilty about food - we just don’t talk about it! We don’t even give these feelings any acknowledgment. I've recognized the impact that my own guilt around food choices has had on me, and I want to address it and talk about it openly with others. I’m excited to explore this topic more openly and look more closely at the reasons why guilt is so deeply entrenched in our relationship with food. Welcome along on my journey!
I believe that feeling guilty about food is a universal, shared experience. I looked up ‘food guilt’ online and the results were plentiful. After reading page after page of negativity, I tried to look for material that talked about food pride and feeling confident about food. This time, the results were slim. I understand why it’s not as widely talked about - it’s a long journey to encourage ourselves to feel confident about what we eat. The first step is looking at when and why we feel guilty, then we can start to learn from it.
What Do I Mean by Food Guilt?
I realize that I don’t just mean the guilt associated with breaking from a diet or a food pattern. Or the guilt after eating ‘unhealthy’ food. I mean the everyday guilt. There is so much more to food guilt than breaking a diet or eating "unhealthy" food. Some times of food guilt might include:
- Cheating on a diet
- Eating ‘unhealthy’ food
- Metabolism or appetite guilt
- Food waste guilt
- Personal food likes and dislikes
- Lack of relationship with food
- Eating sugary or ‘junk’ foods
- Eating after you’re already full
- Irregular eating patterns
Guilt around food, in a way, has become socially acceptable, and we think that makes comments like ‘I can’t eat that’, or ‘I shouldn’t eat that as well’, or ‘I’ll eat it if you do’ okay. Everyday guilt takes hold of us in our own judgement of our food choices, and the ways in which we constantly compare our choices to others. It’s there when we judge our choice to eat out or to order in. There when we don’t have time to prepare a meal, or do have time and choose not to.
It’s even there when we choose to go on a diet, and call our food "clean eating" implying that other people and our past selves have eaten "dirty." This presents a binary of right or wrong with food, which fuels our doubt about our choices and ultimately our food guilt. When these instances occur, we have to recognize what’s happening and then talk openly about them.
When Do We Learn to Feel Guilty about Food?
For a lot of us, food guilt starts at a young age. I think of parents telling children to ‘finish your plate’, threatening punishment or no dessert afterward. This can be the start of food guilt for some, but perhaps not for others.
From a young age, we also learn to be critical of our bodies. We watch our parents on diets being critical of themselves or see people in the media ridiculed for gaining weight and being judged for what they are eating. We are criticized when we don't look thin and "perfect" and then further criticized if we look too thin, which is then seen as "unhealthy."
We unfortunately absorb and internalize these messages, and go on to be hyper-critical of ourselves. And we are never taught how to be on this spectrum in a healthy way that feels good to us.
I know we all have some form of liking or disliking the way a part of us looks and then making choices around wanting to change that. There is a balance between full self-acceptance and making choices that make me feel good, and I'm still on the journey to figuring it out.
My Own Journey With Food Guilt
My journey with food and acceptance of my choices started in school. I absorbed other people’s narratives about what my body was rather than setting that narrative myself. Different people told me that my body fell on different ends of the spectrum - in school they called me anorexic, while at home, with diabetes in my family lineage, I was called fat. Concern was expressed about every food choice that I made. It was so confusing and difficult to reach acceptance of my choices or to understand the connection between body image and food choice. It was difficult to learn that I could make my own decisions based on how I felt, instead of what other people told me I should eat or look like.
I would binge eat food in secret, barely chewing and not even enjoying it. Things like king-size Snickers bars and bags of Flaming Hot Cheetos, then I would take the trash with me into school the next day so I wouldn't get caught. Food guilt manifested as I labeled foods that I liked as "bad" and "fat" and "deadly", and I felt terrible about myself that I enjoyed them so much.
Learning about my own body, my own needs, and how food makes me feel has been a long journey since that time. And I am still on that journey.
I’ve been through many phases of accepting my food guilt. I decided to do an intense elimination diet with the intention of connecting with food differently, as a reset. To figure out what foods I'm allergic to, and figure out which foods just don't make me feel great. I started to explore food, to write about it, and create my own recipes. And now I want to encourage others to be open to talk about their food guilt and share their experiences.
How Can We Start to Reframe the Guilt We Feel About Food?
First off, we can consciously take some time to figure out what our own food guilt looks like. We can be aware of our choices in the present moment and address any negative feelings that we have, instead of dismissing them.
We can recognize that we do get to make a conscious choice, and whatever that choice is, it doesn’t have to incite regret or guilt. Not every food decision we make has to fall into a binary category such as good or bad or healthy or unhealthy. Not every decision has to be framed as a positive or negative one. The choice can just be. And we can frame it in terms of how it made us feel in the moment, how it made us feel after the fact. Then, next time, we get to make different choices based on how previous ones have made us feel. We’re constantly learning to make choices that feel good for us.
Some food decisions we enjoy in the moment, but make us feel bad later. For example, looking forward to dessert after a meal, and it tastes amazing, but afterwards the guilt sets in for feeling too full. Then we shame and judge ourselves and invalidate that moment of enjoyment by feeling guilty. Then another time, we might eat the exact same thing and feel totally fine about it.
It can be confusing to process these feelings. A large part of this journey is learning to listen to ourselves, and our bodies. It’s really hard, but it helps to make the effort not to shame ourselves. We are already so self-critical. And it makes a big difference to explore and accept our choices rather than shame them.
If we want to tackle our own food guilt, we should also be cognizant of our effect on the guilt of our friends and those around us. When I’m feeling food guilt and I hear something like, "you have nothing to worry about...you look great" I know these words are meant to be comforting. But in reality they diminish and invalidate any feelings I have about my own food guilt and body image.
Friendship and relationships should be about support, especially supporting each other around how we feel about ourselves. Our food journey should be no different. Just as we shouldn’t brush off our own feelings, we shouldn’t brush off our friends either. We should rethink that reaction and instead say “tell me more about that” or “let’s talk about these feelings” and help stimulate a discussion.
The Takeaway: Recognizing and Reframing our Food Judgement
Reframing food guilt is all about acceptance of our own choices, and mindfulness around the choices we make. We can acknowledge a choice that didn’t feel good without shaming or blaming ourselves. Then, we can be conscious about making choices that make us feel happy, feel fulfilled, make our bodies feel good, make our taste buds sing, and make us learn more about ourselves.
We all have a journey with food guilt that has ups and downs. Let's support each other on this journey instead of comparing and invalidating. It’s so hard when we feel guilty about food, but it’s even harder to talk about those feelings. Let’s encourage open discussion about it, without any judgment. Acknowledging food guilt is the first step to reframing it.
How does food guilt affect you in your relationship with yourself or others? I love hearing from you! So please share with me in the comments below.
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This blog is a place for you to learn what foods feel good to you. It’s a place to experiment, discover, and have fun. I started Proportional Plate because I want people to stop feeling guilty about their food choices. Let’s make food that feels good! Read more about Candice and Proportional Plate here.
“ There is a balance between full self-acceptance and making choices that make me feel good, and I'm still on the journey to figuring it out.” This has to be my new mantra! This article felt comforting to read. Knowing I’m not the only one experiencing these highs and lows in my relationship with food makes it feel like less of a scary struggle.
I am so, so happy to hear this, Salima. And thank you so much for sharing with me! Yes, self-acceptance and acceptance of being on the journey are both so important. I hope you share with me how it's going for you down the line!