Does this sound familiar: you have a bad day, and you end up eating (even though someone somewhere told you not to do that.) You may feel guilty because you broke a food rule, and the whole experience feels like a low. Instead of repeating this cycle, you can learn strategies to help you stop feeling guilty after eating and start feeling back in charge of your diet. Keep reading to find out how!
Food guilt is feeling bad after eating a specific food or a significant portion of food. It can happen if you have been taught that foods should be labeled as “good” or “bad.” This type of messaging is trendy in the diet industry.
Can you relate to any of these food guilt thoughts?
- “I am bad for wanting second servings.”
- “I can’t believe I ate the entire dessert. Why did I do that?”
- “If I eat chips tonight, I’ll skip breakfast tomorrow.”
- “I could never eat that food.”
Knowing that the language you use to describe food matters is essential. Assigning morally charged words to food, like good or bad or cheat foods, contributes to the emotional toll they can have on you after eating.
You should never feel guilty when choosing foods to nourish your body. Although some foods are more nutritionally dense than others, it doesn’t mean you have to feel guilty about indulging. These foods serve other roles in your well-being and can safely be included in a balanced diet.
Feeling Guilty After Eating
Everyone has an opinion on what the “best practices” are on the topic of nutrition. Whether you get your information online or from friends and family, it can be overwhelming to keep up with all the advice. If you can’t keep up with a recommendation from a trusted source, you start to feel bad or even guilty.
The most common patterns in these diets include:
- Strict food rules. An example could be foods you are allowed to eat or not allowed to eat
- Consuming social media perpetuates diet culture.
- Having family and friends in your inner circle who comment on your eating and food choices.
Hopefully, comments from loved ones aren’t fueled by ill will. Enforcing boundaries on nutrition and food choices can make you feel better. There is a possibility people aren’t even aware their words are affecting you. Try to open the channel for conversation when and if you feel ready.
What Are Food Rules?
The diet industry is notorious for creating food rules to help people lose weight. Often these rules are restrictive practices disguised as helpful one-liners, “don’t eat after eight o'clock because it could make you gain weight.” Here are other standard food rules observed in western society:
- Avoid sugary fruits.
- Avoid all white flour foods.
- Do not snack between your meals.
- Only eat dark chocolate because it’s healthier.
- Honey is better for you than white sugar.
- If you’re hungry, drink water.
- Avoid emotionally eating.
New rules pop up every day, but a consistent outcome is that if you break a food rule, you are more likely to feel guilty. Some people even feel guilty about breaking a food rule and indulging.1
It can be a game-changer to realize these food rules are made up and don’t carry any weight on your health. They certainly can’t decide if you are a good or bad person. Letting go of these food rules is freeing but can take time to unlearn. Be gentle with yourself as you move through this process.
Are All Food Rules Bad?
Some people can become obsessed with food rules and grow fearful of breaking a rule. They worry that a particular food or food group can negatively impact their health and will avoid them at all costs. Meal times can be very stressful, and if their diet is too restricted, they might expose themselves to nutritional deficiencies.
A rigidity in favor of food rules can be a precursor to a severe mental health condition and an eating disorder called orthorexia.2 It can start with a clear ambition to follow a healthy diet, but unfortunately can turn into obsessive behavior. If this sounds like you, contact your doctor and ask for an assessment. They can guide you to the appropriate treatment options if it is required.
8 Tips to Overcome Food Guilt
Most Dietitians will be the first to tell you there are no good or bad foods. Certain items have more nutritious qualities than others. However, comfort foods satisfy other essential parts of you too. Such as nostalgia, celebrations, milestone moments, once in a lifetime opportunities while traveling or experiencing a new culture.
1. Increase Awareness At Meals.
Bring awareness to how you label foods. Are you categorizing them as good or bad? Do certain foods evoke a strong reaction? Taking time to understand how you react can give you insight into how food guilt is manifesting throughout your day.
As you navigate these emotions, being kind and gracious to yourself is essential. Some food rules have been instilled in us since childhood! Take your time and approach these changes with curiosity and positivity and ditch any critical inner dialogue.
2. Say Goodbye To Diets.
2023 will be the year you take back control of your hunger cues! Instead of following prescriptive diets, work on tuning into your body’s natural signals which prompt you to eat. Building trust with your nutrition intuition can take time, but the reward of eating without feeling food guilt can be worth the change.
Whenever someone approaches you with a new diet, simply say, “Thanks, but I’m trying to work on a different approach to eating without a diet.” Letting people know that you are not interested in diets can remind them not to bring up that topic with you in the future.
3. Unfollow Social Media Accounts.
You may find this step the most helpful if you regularly consume social media. Unfollowing accounts and hashtags can improve your mood and mindset toward food guilt within a few days.
It’s very hard not to compare yourself to people online. This 2020 review of thirty studies found that young adults were aware of social media's influence, but they still fall victim to online messaging.3
Despite knowing the content can be highly edited, they still compare their body image and food choices and seek validation from the online community. Sometimes unfollowing accounts perpetuating food guilt is the only way to maintain healthy boundaries.
4. Avoid Labeling Foods As Good And Bad.
Your body needs nutritionally dense foods to stay healthy long-term. These include fiber-rich choices paired with healthy fats and colorful vegetables and fruits, which offer vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
Foods are also consumed at celebrations, milestone moments, or to satisfy nostalgia and cravings. You are okay if you eat for these reasons; food serves a more significant role instead of only providing the body with nutrients. Instead of labeling these foods as “bad,” consider opting for gentler language, such as foods for the soul.
5. Actively Say Yes To Eating Opportunities!
Take action by saying yes to snacks, meals, or dining opportunities you may have otherwise said no to because of food rules you learned.
Observe how this change in response feels. Initially, it could feel a little scary because it’s going against the grain of what diet culture promotes.
The truth is these uncomfortable moments are where the most growth can happen, and you can change your relationship with food. If saying yes scares you, and you get stuck in inaction, consider working with a Registered Dietitian.
6. Keep Track Of What’s Working.
Documenting your progress is a powerful resource that could help if you ever feel stuck. Instead of reinventing the wheel, you can look through past data and use a strategy that worked.
A tracker can also be a great tool to inspire you along the way! Keep track of empowering quotes and memorable moments that make you feel in control of your diet and nutrition choices.
7. Reach Out For Help.
If you want to make changes but need help figuring out where to start, working with a nutrition health professional is a great place to start. Registered Dietitians have extensive nutrition training and can help you manage any guilt around food.
8. Limit Food Restrictions.
A 2013 study revealed that people who tried to restrict their intake did not eat fewer calories. Instead, they felt higher levels of guilt after eating. A review from 2018 also found that restricted eaters were more likely to overeat when they experienced negative emotions.4,5
Reducing the number of food restrictions in your diet can help release you from guilt and shame after eating. Introduce “forbidden” foods back into your diet slowly and patiently. Your goal should be to work on long-term sustainable changes, which will take time.
Work With Nourish
Unlearning food rules can be challenging. The first step to making effective changes should be hiring a professional in the nutrition space, like a Registered Dietitian (RD). Together you can work on a plan to help you overcome food guilt and learn sustainable eating habits. Nourish is connected with several Dietitians that could be the right fit for you; check them out now!
- Elder, R. S., & Mohr, G. S. (2020). Guilty displeasures: How imagined guilt dampens consumer enjoyment. Appetite, 150, 104641.
- Tabri, N., Yung, J. J., & Elliott, C. M. (2022). Connecting a health-focused self-concept with orthorexia nervosa symptoms via fear of losing control over eating unhealthy food and disgust for unhealthy food. Eating and weight disorders : EWD, 10.1007/s40519-022-01494-4. Advance online publication.
- Rounsefell, K., Gibson, S., McLean, S., Blair, M., Molenaar, A., Brennan, L., Truby, H., & McCaffrey, T. A. (2020). Social media, body image and food choices in healthy young adults: A mixed methods systematic review. Nutrition & dietetics: the journal of the Dietitians Association of Australia, 77(1), 19–40.
- de Witt Huberts, J. C., Evers, C., & de Ridder, D. T. (2013). Double trouble: restrained eaters do not eat less and feel worse. Psychology & health, 28(6), 686–700.