Do you find yourself overwhelmed with food guilt every time you indulge in your favorite foods? Are you tired of the constant battle between enjoying what you eat and feeling guilty about it? If so, you’re not alone.
Food guilt is a common struggle for many individuals, but the good news is that it’s possible to break free from its grasp. In this blog post, we’ve teamed up with a registered dietitian to bring you valuable insights and practical tips on how to liberate yourself from food guilt.
Discover a healthier and more balanced relationship with food as we explore mindful eating, positive mindset shifts, and strategies for finding harmony between your health goals and enjoying the pleasures of food. Get ready to embrace a guilt-free approach to eating and nourishing your body.
What is Food Guilt?
Food guilt refers to the feeling of remorse, shame, or anxiety that some individuals experience after eating certain foods or indulging in a particular eating behavior.
We tend to place labels on foods, deeming them “good” or “bad”, generally solely based on the nutrition labels. This can generate very specific, fixed feelings about certain foods and tends to generate fear around foods that society has deemed “bad”. Food guilt can be defined as a specific type of guilt that manifests after eating food items typically viewed as “bad” or “unhealthy”. It has become increasingly common in today’s society due to diet culture and weight shame.
In reality, there is no moral value assigned to any food, and all foods can fit into a balanced diet. Diet culture has brainwashed many into thinking they must only eat the healthiest foods, and shames those who choose to indulge in the occasional pizza slice or donut.
Survey data estimates that Americans feel guilty about 1/3 of the foods they eat, feel the most guilt during dinnertime and snacks, experience this guilt on average 5x/month, and attempt to actively seek out food items that do not cause guilt.1
The experience of food guilt is more common in women, but certainly not limited to any specific demographic.1,2 Food guilt can even occur as early as during middle childhood and adolescence.2 Regardless of age, the presence of food guilt is linked to low self-esteem, poor emotional regulation, and a higher likelihood of engaging in disordered eating behaviors.3
The most common guilt-inducing foods tend to be fatty, sugary convenience foods: think chips, cookies, candy etc.1,3 And yes, while we all can stand to moderate our intake of these types of foods, they can still 100% fit in an otherwise healthy, balanced diet.
At its most extreme, food guilt can lead to a pattern of disordered eating known as Orthorexia. Someone with orthorexia will obsess over the nutritional content of their food to the point where it can cause significant psychosocial disruptions and medical issues.4 While orthorexia is not currently recognized as an official DSM-5 diagnosis, its presence and impact is overt.
Why Do You Feel Guilty During or After Eating?
There are several reasons why you might experience food guilt:
- Diet culture and societal pressures: Modern society often promotes a narrow standard of beauty and places a strong emphasis on thinness. This can create an environment where certain foods are labeled as “good” or “bad,” and individuals may feel guilty for consuming foods that are considered unhealthy or indulgent. Media, advertising, and social influences can reinforce these messages, leading to feelings of guilt when deviating from prescribed dietary guidelines.
- Personal beliefs and values: Some people hold specific beliefs and values related to food, such as associating certain foods with health, morality, or ethical considerations. For example, individuals who follow strict vegetarian or vegan diets may experience guilt if they accidentally consume non-plant-based products. Similarly, those who prioritize organic or locally sourced foods might feel guilty when eating conventionally produced options.
- Emotional and psychological factors: Food guilt can also arise from emotional and psychological factors. Some individuals may use food as a coping mechanism for stress, sadness, or boredom, and afterward feel guilty for using it to regulate their emotions. People with eating disorders, such as bulimia or binge eating disorder, often experience intense guilt or shame associated with their eating behaviors.
- Perceived loss of control: Food guilt can stem from a perceived loss of control over eating habits. If someone eats more than they intended or consumes foods they consider “off-limits,” they may feel guilt for not adhering to their planned or desired dietary patterns. This can be particularly challenging for individuals who are trying to maintain a specific diet or achieve weight-related goals.
- Health concerns: In some cases, individuals with certain medical conditions or dietary restrictions may experience food guilt due to concerns about their health. For example, people with diabetes may feel guilty after consuming foods high in sugar or carbohydrates, as it could impact their blood sugar levels. Individuals with allergies or intolerances may also feel guilty if they accidentally consume a trigger food.
It’s important to note that while guilt can serve as a motivator for positive behavior change, excessive or chronic food guilt can be harmful to one’s mental and emotional well-being. It’s crucial to develop a healthy relationship with food by practicing mindful eating, promoting balance, and seeking support from professionals if necessary.
There are many reasons you may feel food guilt. Diet culture and societal expectations have hardwired our brain to focus on only consuming the “healthiest” foods. We may find this pressure to be heightened in social situations due to the fear of being shamed for an “unhealthy” plate.
Celebrity culture and social media can also worsen the problem as many influential figures may become spokespersons for particular diets and “healthy” food items. This may lead you to believe you must follow their specific diet in order to look and feel like your favorite celebrity or influencer.
Family influence can also be a strong factor. If you have grown up with a family who has strict food rules, you’re much more likely to develop them yourself. This is especially true for the younger demographic, as our parents/family play such an enormous role in the development of health-related behaviors that can follow us for the rest of our lives.5
Above all else, the stigma attached to larger bodies and the reverence of thinness in society may be the strongest influence on why food guilt is so common. We believe that we must focus on foods that will make or keep us thin, and that causes immense fear of any foods labeled otherwise.
How to Overcome Food Guilt
You are not destined to feel guilty about food forever. Overcoming food guilt can seem scary and difficult, but your mind and body will thank you once you’re on the other side.
If you find yourself frequently experiencing food guilt and want to work on reducing or eliminating those feelings, here are some RD-approved strategies that may help:
Become aware of why you’re feeling guilty
Identify the source of guilt. Is it coming from a place of diet culture, social expectations, fatphobia, family expectations or a combination? Once the source is identified, you may be better able to understand how to focus your energy elsewhere. It can also be very helpful to stick to the objective, science-driven facts, rather than to let your mind wander.
For example, let’s say you are feeling guilty about having a slice of pizza due to fear of weight gain. A quick google search will confirm to you that no one specific food can cause weight gain as long as you are not eating an excess of calories. So, you eat an appropriate portion of the pizza and incorporate lots of veggies as a side. You feel better knowing that you’ve done your research, and incorporated some veggies on the side for balance.
Avoid extreme diets
Overly restrictive dieting is detrimental if you are trying to overcome food guilt. In fact, the diet industry profits off of your food guilt.
When we tell ourselves a specific food item is “off limits”, it becomes all that more appealing. Dieting can make the guilt worse, lead to obsessions over specific foods, binge/starve behaviors, and other unhealthy mechanisms. Diets are rarely successful in the long-term, and can seriously impair your relationship with food and body image. This is quite literally the opposite of what you’re looking to accomplish when trying to overcome food guilt!
Focus on being fully present and attentive while eating. Pay attention to your body’s hunger and fullness cues, and savor the flavors, textures, and smells of your food. Mindful eating can help you develop a healthier and more balanced relationship with food, reducing the likelihood of guilt.
Embrace the “all foods can fit” mentality
As discussed above, when we deem foods “off limits”, it causes us to put them on a pedestal and want them even more. By embracing an attitude that any food can fit as long as the diet is otherwise balanced, you will learn to relinquish the moral value you’ve assigned to a particular food and focus on the bigger picture.
Promote balance and moderation: Rather than adopting strict and rigid dietary rules, aim for balance and moderation in your eating habits. Allow yourself to enjoy a wide variety of foods, including those you consider indulgent or less healthy, in appropriate portions. Allowing for flexibility and occasional treats can help alleviate guilt and prevent feelings of deprivation.
Practice mindful eating
Sensory-based eating without distractions and negative influences can improve your relationship with food and the overall eating experience. When you enter and exit the meal feeling present and focused on the experience rather than the nutritional composition, you’re much more likely to feel good about the foods you’ve just ate.
Focus on overall patterns, not individual meals: Instead of fixating on one specific meal or snack, consider your overall eating patterns and habits. A single indulgent meal or snack does not define your entire diet or health. It’s the overall balance and consistency that matter most.
Be kind to yourself
Positive self-talk and self-compassion can be extremely influential. Our bodies are smart, and when we are stressed out, they can tell! It’s important to extend kindness to yourself regardless of what the meal you just ate was. Focus on speaking to yourself as you would speak to a friend, a family member, or your inner child.
Challenge and reframe negative thoughts: When feelings of guilt arise, challenge the negative thoughts associated with them. Question the validity of labeling foods as “good” or “bad” and remind yourself that food is meant to nourish and provide enjoyment. Replace negative self-talk with more positive and compassionate statements.
Support, whether from an interpersonal or professional relationship, can be extremely helpful. A support system can provide feedback, positive reinforcement, and words of wisdom. You can also challenge a fear food by eating it with a non-judgmental party. Strength in numbers!
A registered dietitian or therapist can also be an invaluable asset to your food freedom journey.
If food guilt becomes overwhelming or significantly impacts your well-being, consider seeking support from a registered dietitian, therapist, or counselor who specializes in disordered eating or body image issues. They can provide guidance, support, and tools to help you navigate and overcome food guilt.
The Bottom Line: Free Yourself from Food Guilt
By incorporating these tips, you too can shift your focus on what matters most: balanced, sustainable, and enjoyable eating patterns.
At the end of the day, food is fuel, and we can learn to stop assigning moral value to our choices. Your health is an accumulation of habits that we work on over time – one single meal is a blip on the radar in the grand scheme of our nutrition.
Remember, everyone’s relationship with food is unique, and it may take time and effort to overcome food guilt. Be patient with yourself and focus on developing a positive and balanced approach to eating that aligns with your physical and emotional well-being.
- Knoblauch M. Americans feel guilty about almost a third of the food they eat. New York Post. March 13, 2019. Accessed May 1, 2023. https://nypost.com/2019/03/13/americans-feel-guilty-about-almost-a-third-of-the-food-they-eat
- Mason TB, Smith KE, Naya C, Chu D, Dunton GF. Eating-related guilt and mental health across middle childhood to early adolescence. Journal of Affective Disorders Reports. 2021;6(1): 100221. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadr.2021.100221
- Psychtests. Remorseful for Every Morsel – New Study Looks at the Psychological Complexities of Food guilt. March 30, 2019. Accessed May 1, 2023. https://www.prweb.com/releases/remorseful_for_every_morsel_new_study_looks_at_the_psychological_complexities_of_food_guilt/prweb16191634.htm
- Kalra S, Kapoor N, Jacob J. Orthorexia Nervosa. J Pak Med Assoc. 2020;70(7)-1282-1284. PMID: 32799294.
- Adamo KB, Brett KE. Parenteral perceptions and childhood dietary quality. Matern Child Health J. 2014;18(4):978-995. doi: 10.1007/s10995-013-1326-6.
Written: Emily Ventura, RD, CNSC
Edited: Caroline Thomason, RD CDCES