Food Guilt: What is it and how do you overcome it?

By: David Meine

| March 3, 2021

We’ve all been there. We are killing it with our workout routine, eating our green smoothies and kale salads, and can’t imagine why we would live any differently. Then, life happens. Work starts piling up, or you get sick, or your kids get sick- maybe you had a bad break up or you were passed up for that massive promotion- and suddenly, that pint of ice cream looks a lot more comforting than your pre-made boiled chicken and peas…

Heck, you may just be at a party where they roll out your kryptonite- fresh baked cinnamon rolls with homemade frosting.

The point is, we all cave. We all have days where we eat something (or a lot of somethings) that we know we shouldn’t. And once that tasty delectable is finished, it is usually chased by a whole lot of guilt.

What is “Food guilt?”

You might know the feeling: That sinking pit in your stomach after having a donut, cheeseburger, or even adding an extra sprinkle of feta to your salad. You feel like your mistake has completely wrecked your resolve and weeks of hard work and discipline.  This feeling of guilt typically leads to self-destructive thoughts against yourself and your decisions. So, what’s next? If you are like me, this insidious thought pattern usually ends with “well, I already proved I can’t stick to anything- why not go for round 2 (and, if we are being honest, round 5 or 6…). Or, the pendulum will swing and I promise myself to never, ever let anything unhealthy touch my lips again. (Spoiler alert- I still do).

Why food guilt doesn’t work

It’s one thing if after eating something and feeling sluggish or ill, you decide you’d like to provide your body with different kinds of nutrients. But feeling guilty is a natural, ingrained response to doing something bad. Therein lies the root of the problem. People typically label food “good” or “bad” every day. This practice is harmful because it moralizes what you eat in a way that’s all too easy to apply to yourself. It makes people feel like they are good or bad based on their food choices. Which obviously isn’t the case.

One of the most common responses to food guilt is to spiral out of control. For instance, if I had a cupcake, I thought I had “blown” it all and just ate even more. This catastrophizing can lead to eating more calories than you would if you just let yourself have something tasty without it being so emotionally charged.

Stopping Food Guilt in its tracks

Everyone messes up when it comes to eating healthy- everyone. But there is a major difference between those who forge on and accomplish their health goals, and those who do not. 

Forgiveness. That’s right. Guilt may be your primary emotion, but you have to forgive yourself immediately. What has changed my health significantly, has been the ability to forgive a mess up in the moment. I recognize that I am still a healthy, awesome person who can accomplish anything. I am not going to sugarcoat it and say that the feeling of guilt has now dissipated anytime I cave. Honestly, I don’t think that it ever will. But the difference is, I recognize the guilt, and offer myself compassion and forgiveness. I can move on without the self-deprecating thoughts, and recommit to my goals

Choose to get back on track immediately

The greatest thing I have learned from my health journey is the power of choice.  When guilt rears its ugly head after we eat a slice of cheesecake, that feeling isn’t necessarily a choice.  What IS a choice, is how we respond to it.  We have the choice to forgive, move on and rededicate ourselves to our health goals. If you are like me, “tomorrow” was my go-to word. I’ll start again tomorrow. Or, I’ll start again AFTER I finish the other 11 donuts.  Either way, I ended up doing more harm to my goals and initiating more guilt.  Now, I choose to get back on track immediately. I appreciate how delicious whatever sugary treat I ate was, and look forward to continuing onward with my goals. This practice sucks the life out of guilt. It empowers us, leaving no room for self-deprecating thoughts and allows us to chase after our health goals once again.