Written by Lucy Walton
Food guilt is a commonly experienced by people struggling on their journey to a healthy relationship with food. This is not surprising given the labels which are often attached to food in today’s society such as ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Overcoming food guilt can be challenging, but it is 100% possible.
What is guilt?
Guilt is a moral emotion which serves an important purpose. It’s the voice inside your head that tells you if you have violated your moral compass. It is needed to help us take responsibility for our actions, providing us with accountability and to create a positive action to feel better.
Guilt is defined as “the fact or state of having committed an offense, crime, violation, or wrong, especially against moral or penal law”.
Guilt becomes an issue when we align it with something such as food, where it was never meant to be. During eating disorder or disordered eating recovery, guilt creeps into our association with certain foods and can impact food choice and our thoughts around food. There are a few reasons why we might start to experience guilt around food:
1. Food labels
When we label food as good or bad, we can attach moral values and unhelpful thoughts to a food. If we eat a food we have labelled as "bad" then we can think that we are being bad because we have broken a rule and feel guilty as a result. Other labels to be mindful of are ‘treat,’ 'junk' or 'clean.' Remember there are no good and bad foods. Food is food.
2. Comparison is creator of guilt (or the thief of joy)
Comparing our food intake to other peoples plates or to what we see on social media (for example 'what I eat in a day' posts) can make us feel guilty for our own food choices if we are striving for perfection or a "healthy" or "clean" diet.
3. Diet culture
Diet culture is engrained in our society, there are so many messages out there which demonise foods or try to make us believe there is only one right way of eating. Whether it’s low carb, low fat, fasting, juicing, or even portion sizes of certain foods (one square of chocolate anyone?), we are led to create rules and unhelpful beliefs about food.
4. Food beliefs
Sometimes we believe that if we look a certain way, are a certain weight or eat a certain way (following a diet or food rules) we have strong willpower or are a 'good' person. When we break these food rules, we can feel as if we have failed and are 'bad.'
Unless you decide to steal food from the supermarket, there is nothing to feel guilty for, you are not a bad person or performing a bad act.
The diet cycle
The diet cycle is heavily linked to food guilt. There are a number of ways we can fall into the cycle but the overarching themes are the same.
The cycle begins with breaking a diet or food rule. This could be overeating or ‘binging’, eating a food you have forbidden or eating during a period of fasting
Following this, it is common to feel guilt and shame as we associate breaking this rule or diet with being 'bad'
As a result, we re-engage in the diet or restrictive eating pattern to make ourselves feel better. This reinforces the label and value we give to the food rule.
However, following a restrictive diet commonly leads to physical and psychological deprivation (why most diets don't work) leading to increased cravings, overeating, binge eating or breaking a food rule as the initial diet or strict food rule wasn't sustainable. We break the rule, and the cycle repeats. It is easy to become trapped in this cycle for many years if restrictive eating behaviours continue and if someone's relationship with food doesn't improve.
No rules, no guilt
We eat for many reasons including for nourishment, emotional and social reasons. Having a healthy relationship with food means that we see food as neutral, there are no food labels or food rules. Feeling guilty about eating food can be damaging to our relationship with food and in turn effect our mental and psychical health. This was highlighted in a study where people were asked if they associated chocolate cake more with guilt or with celebration. The people who said with guilt were 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 (1).
Practical steps to overcome food guilt
Our moral compass shouldn't mix with our food choices. Overcoming food guilt can take time and requires you to challenge old beliefs about food and create new ones.
1. Challenge irrational or unhelpful thoughts
Every time your inner critic raises it's voice, ask yourself why you feel guilty about food choices and reframe the unhelpful thoughts. For example:
Crisps are bad because they are too high in fat to eating fat doesn't make you fat. All foods can be eaten in a balanced diet.
2. Let go of the food rules
Removing food rules means there will be no rules to break, so nothing to feel guilty for! Work on including all foods in your diet and making all foods neutral.
3. Ditch the food labels
Instead, try focusing on the nutritional value of foods and the benefits they may have for example giving your brain energy to concentrate at work.
4. Do the opposite action
Food guilt leads us to avoid foods and feel even worse. Re-engaging with unhelpful behaviours or food avoidance sends the message to our brain that the food is 'bad.' By performing the opposite action (eating the food we are trying to avoid) and relearning that it is okay to eat all foods will teach the brain that we don't have to feel guilt when eating certain foods.
5.Honour cravings and mental hunger
Give yourself permission to enjoy the foods you really want and make you feel good. This will free up brain space and reduce overthinking about food.
6. Be kind to yourself
Unlearning food rules is extremely difficult. It will take time and patience, but it is absolutely possible.
If you are struggling with food guilt or overcoming food rules, we can help. Reach out to our clinic for 1:1 support or check out the Rule Breaker Challenge! The next round starts in January, 2022.
Lucy is a Registered Associate Nutritionist and intern at TCN! With Lucy's background in nutrition and psychology, her aim is to help you become more confident in your food choices and enrich your mindset. You can find Lucy on instagram @lutritionw and her website here
 Kuijer, R., Boyce, J. and Marshall, E., 2015. Associating a prototypical forbidden food item with guilt or celebration: Relationships with indicators of (un)healthy eating and the moderating role of stress and depressive symptoms. Psychology & Health, 30(2), pp.203-217.
Talia Cecchele Nutrition is a team of registered dietitians specialising in eating disorders and disordered eating. We aim to bring balance back to nutrition, help you to break free from food rules and find food freedom. We offer virtual consultations and group programs so whether you are based in London, the UK or around the world we would love to support you. To enquire about a private consultation please fill out a contact form.