Not a day goes by without me hearing some variation of this…
“I ate a food I enjoy and now I feel overwhelmed with guilt.”
In this post, I am going to talk about how food guilt could be keeping you further from your goals, how to get rid of it, and how to manage your weight while having a diet that is inclusive of your favorite foods (all of them!).
First, a quick disclaimer…. this or any article about food guilt will be woefully insufficient if you’re deep in disordered eating – don’t hesitate to reach out to a therapist who specializes in disordered eating if you have any reason to believe that you would benefit from that.
Okay….let’s start here… we can’t have a productive conversation about guilt without first defining it…so what is it?
Guilt is the feeling we get when we believe we have behaved in a way that is inconsistent with our values.
If we value compensating people for their products or services (Btw please buy my stuff) and we accidentally take something without paying for it, we will feel bad. We did something wrong – a thing that is inconsistent with our values – and we regret it.
So…how the hell do we get this from food in the first place?
Is it a personal value of yours to never enjoy food?
Do you believe that people should only eat bland foods and people are morally inferior if they have things that are tasty?
I’m being a little bit provocative, but I’m also sincerely asking. If you hold these beliefs, it’s time to dive deep and explore those thoughts.
Most likely though…. the values that this guilt is associated with relate to your weight.
For example, it’s important to you that you control your weight. And therefore, when you eat a brownie, you feel you are living in conflict with that value.
You feel guilt because you feel that by having a “treat” food, you are forever condemning yourself to gaining weight or the inability to lose it.
Does that sound about right?
Let’s start breaking this apart…
1)No food is inherently bad or promotes weight gain.. No food has power outside of our behavior. We’re in control of how much we eat of any given thing, as well as the rest of our diet to make room for all of the foods that we want to eat
2) Different quantities are more appropriate for different kinds of foods. Are brownies bad just because you shouldn’t eat a whole tray every day? From a health perspective, they’re “neutral” unless you exceed a reasonable percentage of your calories from them (same deal with any other low nutrient food). If you eat too much of something, it’s not good for you. That’s why it’s called “too much” (< hat tip to Amber Rogers, who I just ripped off big time with that one)…
But we can also say the same thing for “health foods”. If you were to eat 5 lbs of vegetables in a single day, that would be great. If you were to eat 5 lbs of avocados or 5 lbs lean grass fed sirloin, that would probably be way too much. EVERY food has a quantity that is reasonable and a quantity that is excessive. Avocados aren’t bad just because you wouldn’t eat 5 lbs of them just as table sugar isn’t bad because you won’t eat it in avocado sized portions. Some foods you eat more of – some foods you eat less of. Simple as that.
3) You can lose weight eating an unhealthy diet! I don’t want you losing weight while feeling terrible all the time, so I don’t endorse that. But it’s important to understand that what determines weight loss, maintenance, or gain is total calorie intake. And if you really wanted to, you could lose weight eating nothing but brownies, or ice cream, or Twinkies, or McDonalds happy meals… as long as you don’t eat so much that you take in more calories than you burn per day.
It’s also worth noting that often guilt for food choices coexists with the use of food as a coping mechanism. You feel bad about something that happened at work so you eat some candy, and then you feel horrible about eating candy, so you eat more. Food guilt likes to pull you into a downward spiral taking you further from your goals, not closer to them.
That is why having guilt over higher calorie foods is probably not serving you. Now let’s talk about some practical steps…. HOW to enjoy higher calorie foods like desserts and still be in control of your weight.
1)Prioritize whole foods. If you’re excessively hungry, you’re not going to eat cake just to enjoy it…you’re going to eat it to fill the big void in your stomach from BEING TOO DAMN HUNGRY. Although I have talked with a small handful of clients privately about creating a “treat budget”, in the Habit Project™ we have had dramatic results moderating sugary foods simply by being more proactive about more satiating foods. This allows for you to enjoy your favorite desserts without being dependent on them.
2)Practice your satiety skills. In this context, the most important thing is to be mindful of how much room you’re saving for dessert when you finish your meal. Assigning numbers to different levels of satiety isn’t very productive in practice (“What the hell does 80% feel like?”), but they work for illustrative purposes.
Let’s say you currently eat your meal until you’re at an “8” on a scale of 1-10 of fullness. You tell yourself you’re not going to have your favorite ice cream that is sitting in the fridge. But then you say “F IT!” and before you know it, that “8” is a “9” and you’ve eaten too much.
Instead, you can be intentional. By planning on having dessert after your meal, you can leave room. You can finish your main course at a “7.5” and then have your dessert bring you the remaining half a point. You may be wondering “Why did the unplanned dessert add one whole point of fullness whereas the planned dessert only added a half of a point?”. Because with the planned dessert, you’re much less likely to binge. 😉
3)Stop using hyperbolic language to describe your food choices. No food is “good” and no food is “bad” – there’s simply a spectrum of how much is appropriate to eat per day. But I invite you to look past simply these two terms – be careful about replacing them with fancy ways of saying the same things. “Cheats”, “Indulgences”, “foods that don’t support my goals”, or even “treats” or “sometimes foods” can also be ways that you’re reinforcing black and white labels on food. I say “can”, not “are” because it really depends on what those terms mean to YOU. The intent here is to break free from that downward spiral of food guilt that can lead to over-consumption.
4)Enjoy the hell out of them! Approached the right way, your favorite dessert can be the most important food for weight loss. How? Because if eating 1-2 tablespoons of ice cream every day stops you from eating 2-3 pints per weekend, that is a HUGE reduction in calories long term. And by having an inclusive diet – one focused on sustainable habits rather restriction – you will be less likely to think of your nutrition strategies as short term measures that you can’t wait to be over and done with. Okay…but how the hell do you eat smaller portions? a) Getting out of the guilt downward spiral will help on its own; and b) By savoring what you are eating. When you give yourself permission to enjoy something and really tune into the experience of enjoyment, you will find you don’t need nearly as much as you would if eating mindlessly.
In terms of the type of habits that we practice in The Habit Project ™, here are a few that are the most relevant:
- Satiety and eating awareness habits such as Eat Until Satisfied, Not Stuffed and Be More Relaxed and Mindful When You Eat
- Habits for diversifying your meals and maximizing satiety via what actually goes on your plate such as Practice Macronutrient Awareness, Eat More Protein, Eat More Vegetables, and related habits such as Planning.
- Eat Meals Instead of Snacks so you’re eating the right amount of food to carry you to your next meal where you can enjoy dessert mindfully, as opposed to getting ravenously hungry shortly after lunch and having to raid the pantry.
- Habits that help you be less emotionally dependent on food to feel better (and to be kinder to yourself when you do use food for those purposes) such as Practice Self-Compassion Daily or Reward Yourself With Something Other Than Food.
If you’re trying to develop the skills to control your weight with an inclusive diet and without feeling guilt about eating food you enjoy, having the right habits to practice is important. But even more important is having a community of people working on the same thing. Humans are social animals, constantly taking cues from those around us. There’s nothing more powerful than being around our peers who are improving their fitness and nutrition skills as they shed unnecessary guilt. That’s why communities such as The Habit Project™ are so effective.
The Habit Project is a Registered Trademark of Sean Flanagan Fitness & Nutrition, Oakland CA 2016