Food guilt is one of the most common things we see people struggling with on their journey with eating well.
You’ve likely experienced this before because food guilt can be so common in our society.
Nearly a third of all food Americans eat makes them feel guilty, according to one study.
The study found that food guilt is caused primarily by the awareness of food being unhealthy. High sugar content and overeating were also found to be leading causes of guilt.
But food guilt can be damaging to your mental and emotional wellbeing too, and it can also lead to disordered eating habits, which are damaging to both your physical and mental health. Plus, experiencing food guilt takes away from experiencing your life and fully enjoying and appreciating your food and the many roles it has in your life.
Learn why food guilt is not serving you and the first steps you can take to begin overcoming feelings of guilt around food.
Why There is No Need to Feel Food Guilt
First things first. There is no need or role for feeling guilt or shame with your food choices.
A well-balanced diet and lifestyle includes all types of food and honors the many roles food plays in our life — from nourishing our bodies on a cellular level to tradition, culture, and enjoyment.
Not only is food guilt not productive for creating healthy eating habits, but it also can be really damaging to your physical and mental health.
There was a study where people were asked if they associated chocolate cake more with guilt or celebration.
The people who said the chocolate cake was associated with guilt are not healthier or more motivated than those who associated it with celebration.
In fact, they felt less in control of food and said they were more likely to overeat.
Have you ever felt that way around foods you associate with guilt or shame?
This leads to that start-and-stop cycle that we often share about — the shame and guilt intensify after overeating, so you try more rigid and restrictive behaviors to make up for being “bad,” only to feel out of control around food because you’ve become hyper-aware that you can’t have it, and then you overindulge.
Or maybe instead of feeling out of control, you simply try to rationalize with yourself, “I haven’t had any (insert food item here) all week and I’m not going to have it again, so I might as well just have all of the (insert food item here) now.” And the cycle repeats itself. Ever been there before? We call this the last supper mentality.
Whenever you’re in this start-and-stop cycle, you’re not able to form consistent eating habits that support your daily and long-term physical health. Additionally, over time, this can also turn into more serious health conditions.
This guilt and shame lead to feelings of helplessness and lack of control, as well as self-criticism, all of which can encourage poor self-esteem and low mood, impacting your mental health.
This is why it’s important for you to put some of your time and energy into overcoming food guilt.
How To Lessen Food Guilt
Overcoming food guilt is a journey.
Even if you recognize that you want a positive relationship with food and want to experience food freedom, those feelings of guilt or shame will still happen, especially when eating foods that have been ingrained in your mind as “bad” or after having a moment of overindulgence.
It’s completely OK and normal to be experiencing thought patterns that aren’t aligned with a healthy relationship with food.
Know that it takes a lot of compassion, patience, practice, and support to really help you reframe your mindset around your relationship with food and remove feelings of guilt.
This is why our program is year-long, because any type of change, especially ones that are so deeply rooted in us, takes time and practice!
But with what I’m going to share with you, you’ll have a few first steps to begin removing that guilt and calling it out when it happens, so over time, you can get to a place of feeling at ease and at peace with your food choices.
1. Bring Awareness to When and Why You’re Experiencing Food Guilt
This first step is all about bringing awareness to when and why you’re experiencing food guilt.
There are usually two common causes of guilt around food.
You may have made a mindless choice and realized it after the fact
First, feelings of guilt can happen if you made a food choice that’s not in alignment with what you truly wanted or needed. This usually happens when external factors influence our food choices without us even realizing it, like emotions such as stress or boredom, our environment, or eating while distracted.
You may experience this if you made an in-the-moment decision that you didn’t truly want to make.
This type of guilt tends to have less to do with the food itself, but more to do with you taking or not taking a specific action.
You may be holding negative beliefs around food
The second and often more deep-rooted cause of food guilt we see is feeling guilty around after eating foods that are often labeled “bad” or “off-limits.”
This can happen even when you consciously choose to eat something because you truly enjoy it and what it is, but the sense of shame creeps in any way because we’ve been taught to think of some foods as “good” and others as “bad.”
In either case, you can use a reflective food journal to bring awareness to what’s causing your food guilt and when you’re experiencing it.
You can find a simple food journal prompt in our free guide that you can download to follow along.
With a reflective food journal, the focus isn’t on calories or listing “good” and “bad” foods, but rather uncovering more about what you felt before, during, and after eating so you can notice where these feelings of guilt — or anything else you may be experiencing — come up.
These insights about yourself can actually help guide you and help you learn how to best support yourself. When your focus is solely on feeling guilty, you never get the chance to do this self-discovery and you’ll continue to go through this cycle of guilt.
Once you have more clarity and awareness on what’s causing feelings of guilt, the next step is to take a small action to help you through that.
When you do notice you’re feeling guilty, call yourself out and practice compassionate curiosity. Allow yourself the space to explore why those feelings are coming up again, recognize that they’re there, and remind yourself that food guilt doesn’t support your wellbeing.
It’s a daily practice.
2. Let Go of The Food Rules
Think about what would happen when you were a kid and your parent, guardian, or teacher told you that you weren’t allowed to do something. How would you react?
I’m willing to bet you wanted to do exactly what they said not to do, and wanted to do it so much more.
This is the exact same series of events that occurs with food and food rules. It’s simply human nature.
When we tell ourselves that we can’t have a food item, it’s bad for us, we’re not allowed to have it – we’re inadvertently putting it on a pedestal. A pedestal that makes us idealize the food item and want the food item so much more than if we had just allowed ourselves to have some in the first place.
Once we do have the food item — either because we finally allow ourselves, reward ourselves, or it’s simply placed in front of us and we no longer have self-control — we’re much more likely to overindulge and subsequently experience that extreme sense of guilt we’re looking to avoid.
When we remove these food rules altogether, when we take the food item off of the pedestal, the food item no longer has power over us. We no longer feel out of control around it, and therefore that guilt cycle stops.
Let go of the food rules, and the guilt will go with it.
3. Slow Down Before Meals
And that leads to step number two, which is to practice slowing down before and during your meals.
Sometimes food guilt can stem from mindless eating — where you were simply distracted or something in your environment or the situation you’re in triggered you to eat when you weren’t truly hungry or didn’t truly want it.
Taking a moment to pause before eating and checking in with yourself to see what your body needs and wants is such a great way to become aware of what external sources are influencing your food choices versus you’re choosing based on your body’s needs or what you’d like to consciously choose.
When you’re taking this pause, ask yourself why you’re eating — is it boredom, stress, situational, or are you experiencing physical hunger?
Then ask yourself if what you are choosing to eat is something you truly want or only want because of external factors.
If your food guilt stems from eating specific foods, this pause can allow you to give full permission to yourself to intentionally choose and enjoy that food.
4. Grant Yourself Permission to Reduce Food Guilt
Create an experience around food that allows you to fully enjoy and appreciate what you’re eating.
For example, if you’ve decided that you’d like to have dessert, then sit at the table with no distractions and slowly savor and taste each bite. Allowing yourself that joy and pleasure from your food — whether it’s what we call a “food for the soul” or a nutrient-dense meal — brings so much positivity to your experience with that food.
You’ll then be able to feel more satisfied and move forward, rather than bringing up that guilty feeling.
5. Practice Compassionate Curiosity
The older we get the more we learn that things don’t always go according to plan. It’s inevitable for things to take a sharp left turn without our intent every once in a while.
When this does happen, practicing compassionate curiosity can allow us to break the guilt cycle.
Instead of beating yourself up the next time you find yourself in a situation where things could have gone one way, but unfortunately went in another, pause and reflect. Ask yourself without judgment, “Why did this happen?”, “How might I do things differently next time to prevent this same situation from happening again?”.
By reflecting with compassion and curiosity, you’re able to look ahead to the future and plan for success rather than dwell on the past.
These are just a few of the first steps to take to overcome food guilt. By practicing these and other mindful eating practices, you’ll start experiencing more freedom and peace with your food choices over time.
How to Recieve More Support If You’re Experiencing Food Guilt
If you’re looking for more support, sign up for our free workshop, where you’ll learn more about the actions you need to take to let go of food guilt and create more supportive and balanced eating habits for yourself. You’ll also learn about our group coaching program you can join to reclaim balance with your eating habits.