Did you have an extra slice of pumpkin pie over the weekend? Or some extra buffalo tofu wings with whatever football game you were probably watching? Or, for those of you who were just enjoying a regular old weekend, an extra brownie? An extra scoop of ice cream?
If you did, and I hope you did, I trust that you truly and mindfully enjoyed your indulgence. But if that extra piece of pie is weighing heavy on your mind, let’s talk.
I hear from a lot of people struggling with food guilt, and I hear and see it around me every day. From the colleague who has a ‘naughty’ bread roll with her soup to the friend struggling to kick a daily sweets habit, food guilt is rampant among the health conscious, and it can become seriously damaging if left unchecked.
So, where does food guilt come from anyways? First and foremost, I blame the mainstream media for both perpetuating the myth of an ideal body type and for labeling foods as either good or bad. We’ve been lead to believe that indulgence is a bad thing. Many popular ways of eating (diets, for lack of a better term) are constructed around avoiding indulgence altogether and foods are labeled as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. We’re taught/conditioned/told to avoid ‘bad’ foods, and feel bad about ourselves when we give into temptation.
I refuse to think of treats, or any food for that matter as bad. Your mom’s chocolate chip cookies? Fresh baked bread? Pizza? Ice cream? Not bad! Shoving chocolate chip cookies into your mouth day in and day out? Well that’s not a healthy and balanced diet, but let's be clear on that being very different from occasional indulgence.
We all overindulge from time to time. It happens, and that’s ok. But if every time you have a little bit of chocolate or a bread roll you’re battling with excessive shame, guilt, and regret, this is a sign of something more serious.
So, how do we avoid food guilt?
1. Stop labeling foods as good or bad.
Right now. Stop it. All food is inherently good, and we should be thankful for it. Rather than looking at certain foods through the lens of good or bad, focus on balancing your week. A Saturday afternoon indulgence of pizza and beer doesn’t look so bad when you look at it in the context of an entire week of mostly balanced plant-heavy eating.
Also, don’t be so hard on yourself. You are not good or bad based on what you eat. Your character, identity, and values don’t go away just because you ate a bowl of ice cream. Remember that food is fuel. It nourishes us, it doesn’t define us.
2. Listen to your body.
If you’re hungry, eat! Many guilt-inducing binge outs occur because we simply get too hungry. When you get into that place you lose the ability to portion control, and often just reach for the first thing we find – not necessarily the food choice we would have made if we weren’t irrationally hungry.
3. Plan indulgences!
I’m a huge advocate of this! It’s so much easier to stay on track with healthy eating 80% of the time if you know something great is around the corner. Trying to cut something you really like entirely out of your diet doesn’t work. I’ve seen many people try to completely give up sugar (or whatever) only to crash and binge.
I plan small indulgences during the week, like a couple of squares of really dark chocolate with my evening tea a few times a week. But I save my big indulgences, like brownies and ice cream, for the weekend.
Once you start planning indulgences and allow yourself the foods you love, you’ll notice that food isn’t such a big deal. It’s no problem walking past the office cookie drawer on Thursday knowing you’re going to have amazing brownies and ice cream on Friday.
4. Eat mindfully.
Mindful eating can be a real challenge, but an important one. It means not eating in front of a screen, robotically shoving food into your mouth not even really tasting it.
You can cook mindfully too! For example, one day recently I was really craving a grilled cheese sandwich with tomato soup on a day I would normally have salad for dinner. I told myself if I really wanted this I could have it, but I’d have to make it myself. So I took the time to make the soup from scratch. I found really good bread for the sandwich. And when I meal was ready, I put down the spoon or sandwich in between each bite and didn’t pick it back up until I was truly ready for the next mouthful. Until I did this exercise I didn’t realize how often I eat mechanically, never letting go of my utensils.
5. Take joy in food!
Remember that food is pleasure! We tend to eat treats in shame when we should be embracing them. If chocolate cake is your thing, plan for the best chocolate cake there is. If it’s pizza, go for a gooey slice. Choose something you know you’ll really enjoy, at eat slowly to ensure you’ll savor every last bite.
You’ll notice there are no recipes on The Muffin Myth with words like ‘skinny’ or ‘guilt-free’ in the title. That’s been a very conscious decision on my part to not buy into ideals that create guilt around food. The Muffin Myth is a guilt-free zone, so let's work together to end food guilt.
Struggling with food guilt or trying to eat more mindfully? Let’s talk!
Thanks for this article. I have been strugling with this issue for so long and I have been reading about it this couple of months. This post is one of the most honests and realistic ones. Usually I'm a "clean eater" but under stress I find myself walking in the middle of the night to the nearest store to buy every chocolate cookie they have, eating them and then feeling guilty for days. Along with trying new ways to handle stress, I will give "indulgence planning" a try and let you know!!
Definitely try planned indulgences! For me it's one of the best strategies to keep on track the rest of the time. If you try to totally deprive yourself, it usually ends badly. Stress / emotional eating is another topic altogether, and one I will be exploring down the road. Stay tuned!
Monika @ MY FOOD AND HAPPINESS
Great article Katie! This is something I need to work on myself as well. Funny thing is I don't feel guilty about eating something sweet because it's always worth it but I do feel guilty if I have had a bit too much bread. I love bread but it's somehow a no-no food in my mind unless it's a very clean bred. Food for thought as they say and your article has definitely given me something to think about, thanks for sharing!
Bread has a bad rep these days, and not one I necessarily think it deserves. Not to say you should be eating tons and tons of refined white four wonderbread, but this issue of 'clean' foods vs what? 'dirty' foods? is I think in the same realm as good or bad. And how delicious is a nice crusty baguette from time to time? We need to enjoy those foods in moderation, acknowledge that we're enjoying them, and then move on.
I will be getting a fresh baguette sandwich today for lunch and I am going to enjoy it! Haven't had bread in a few days so definitely nothing to feel guilty about! 🙂
Definitely nothing to feel guilty about even if you were to have a bit of bread every day! Balance is the key. Enjoy your sandwich!
Caroline @ Shrinking Single
Such a great article. I particularly love your comments on being mindful about food. In the past year I have really made an effort to get away from my desk at lunch time and appreciate eating lunch. And definitely agree on planning indulgences. There is no way anyone should be thinking about calories in cake on their birthday.
I always tell people calories don't count on your birthday! Mindful eating is a challenge and something I'll definitely write more about, but I think it's important for us to get away from all the screens and really focus on the act of eating and enjoying food from time to time.
I like to say that I swing between 'eat to live' and 'live to eat'. And my waistline is a reflection of where I sit in the balance at any given time.
Instead of a whole lot of the Thanksgiving 'indulgences' this year, I prepared fewer dishes and smaller quantities, and we thoroughly enjoyed not being overwhelmed by food. The good things were very good.
Always find your blog to be very good!
I think life is all about walking that balance. Fewer dishes, just the really good ones, is a good strategy. I only made one, the most important... pumpkin pie!
Gosh Katie, these are just the things we talk about in my weight management classes (notice that it isn't called weight loss) for those post cancer treatment. I feel like you have got into my brain and had a peak around! Spooky. So, of course I think this is exceedingly sensible advice. I would also add that some of our guilt and negative food associations can also come from childhood, especially as females. We carry a lot of emotional baggage from your younger years, with food often being a part of it. It is sometimes helpful to explore if this is this case and address it. Then let it go. But yes, the media and our current environment 'feed' our guilt, while conversely urging us to eat in ways that are not healthful. Love your work, and way of putting things, Katie.
Thanks Kellie! I've said before it seems like we share a brain sometimes! You're right about guilt and negative associations from childhood, or other emotional baggage we're carrying it around. So tough to let go of sometimes! I also think that some food guilt comes from a sense of both righteousness and judgement (we're all guilty) that leads to shame and self loathing. A terrible cycle I hope we can break!