In other cases, guilt or shame can contribute to anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or other mental health or mood-related disorders, Dr. Nagata says. Guilt and shame can also isolate you from friends and family, as well as from cultural and family traditions around food, Dr. Webb points out. (For instance, she grew up in Jamaica, eating rice and peas with most dinners; Americans’ demonization of carbs created some dissonance when she moved here.)
What’s more, these emotions can disconnect you from your own internal cues about what your body wants and needs, Dr. Streno says. Relearning how to trust those signals is key. In some cases, depending on the severity of the emotions and the behaviors they trigger, you may need a professional to help you unpack that (more on that later). But if you feel healthy enough to experiment on your own, there are things you can do to tune in to your own authentic voice and work to reduce your food guilt and shame.
1. Spot your “should”s and “shouldn’t”s.
Start paying attention to how often your inner dialogue includes the word should. “I always talk to patients about avoiding that word, because as soon as you say ‘I should,’ or ‘I shouldn’t,’ if you do the opposite, you feel guilt,” says Reece, who calls herself an intuitive eating dietitian.
Tallying your “should”s is a good first step, Dr. Streno agrees. Then you can practice taking a pause to question where the thought comes from and what function it serves. For instance, does the idea that you “shouldn’t” eat a particular food arise from a social media post or a restrictive diet, rather than an assessment of what your own body needs?
From there, you can try flipping your language—and, eventually, maybe even your behavior. Ideally, instead of “I shouldn’t eat this ice cream,” you’d say, “I want this ice cream, and I’m going to have it,” if that’s what your body’s authentically craving. You might not be up to that every time, and that’s okay, Dr. Streno says. But with practice, you can better tune in to those thoughts, then experiment with different responses.
2. Make a list of difficult foods you can try to experiment with eating.
Therapists often treat fears and phobias (ongoing fear about certain things that is intense enough to qualify as a type of anxiety disorder) with exposure therapy—helping people confront their issues in a safe, stepwise manner. If your guilt and shame stem from value judgments around food, you can take a similar approach to deprogramming them, Reece suggests.
Start by making three lists: “green” foods you can eat without a problem, “yellow” foods that cause you some hesitation, and “red” foods that trigger more extreme negative emotions. At first, try small amounts of one yellow food at a time, noticing how you feel as you do. Ideally, as your confidence grows, you’ll be able to progress into red foods.
“Start working foods in slowly and you’ll realize you can eat these things in balance as part of your overall diet, and your health is not going to fall off a cliff,” Reece says.
To navigate any anxiety you feel as you do this, try deep breathing or repeating a mantra or affirmation centered around body positivity, Dr. Streno suggests. (Choose one that resonates for you, but examples can include “I am strong,” “I’m nourishing my body and mind,” or “I am gaining health.”) She also points out that some anxiety is normal when you make changes. “When we trust that anxiety can come along for these challenges, but not stop us, the anxious symptoms tend to lessen,” she says. “As one starts to engage in new behaviors or choices more consistently, this helps to build trust and deflates the power and control the anxiety once held.”