Despite eating being a fundamentally pleasurable experience, many people experience a ton of negative feelings about food. Guilt, stress, or anxiety can take the joy and peace out of eating and can lead to a negative thought spiral and disordered eating. As a dietitian who specializes in helping people find peaceful, joyful, and healthy relationships with food, guilt after eating is something I’m all too familiar with.
This article will explain why guilty feelings underpin most disordered eating (and even some eating disorders), will help you understand what EXACTLY is causing your bad feelings about food, and will give you ideas for what to do about it.
Here’s what I want you to know: you can change your mindset around food and eating. You can eat what you want – without overdoing it – and then have nothing to feel guilty about. If you want to understand why your relationship with food is out of wack and bound up in guilt, I wrote this post for you.
What is food guilt?
Food guilt feels like you’re stuck in a cycle of trying not to eat certain foods (or too much of certain foods), eating them anyway, and then feeling self-blame, shame, and perhaps even disgust afterwards. You may feel like you need to do something to make up for it, or you may just feel hopeless and believe you will “never change”. It can feel pretty dang horrible.
Food guilt is actually very common. It may be the single most common complaint I hear from my clients. It happens for a few reasons, but a TON of it stems from the fact that our culture has turned eating into a moral dilemma, riddled with anxiety, rules, and morality.
A lot of this concern for healthy eating is motivated by folks really wanting to take good care of their health – to prevent chronic disease, live a long life, and stay active and healthy, maybe to stay off medications.
That’s all great! I am a dietitian nutritionist after all – I strongly believe in healthy food and the power of good nutrition. I think it’s great if you decide you want to make healthy changes to your diet, adding in more veggies or cooking more at home, for example. But feeling so bad about eating something that you beat yourself up is very much a different thing.
People typically feel guilty after they eat because they believe the type or quantity of food they’ve eaten is harmful to:
- their health
- their body
- their self-worth
How society causes food guilt
Our relationships with food can be so complicated, especially if we have a trauma history. But even seemingly benign childhood wounds about food and body size can greatly impact our relationships with food. Cultural and societal myths about what bodies are “good bodies” and how people with “good bodies” eat can worsen the way you feel about yourself.
Let’s start with a small chat about “guilt” more broadly. Guilt is a feeling of self-consciousness, a belief that something you’ve said, thought, or done, will cause negative consequences for you or someone else.
The mainstream dialogue about “healthy eating” often involves lots of fear-mongering about what foods are “good” and what foods are “bad”. This can escalate into feeling that the more good foods you eat, the better a person you are. You could be prone to feeling this way for several reasons.
Healthism (Misplaced over-emphasis with individual food choices)
Our culture subscribes to the false assumption that health is primarily made up of our individual choices about food, exercise, and lifestyle and then places moral judgment on whether or not one achieves health, or is able to make these choices. But the truth is that our health is made up of many things outside of our control, like demographics, food access, time availability, genetics, and things that cause stress like discrimination, low income, and other social inequities.
Blaming yourself for your health conditions can lead to enormous amounts of guilt and self-blame. Even if you struggle to eat a highly nutritious diet, chances are good that is because of your life experience or food preferences, not because you don’t care about your health or are lacking willpower and self-control.
An over-emphasis on personal food choices is one major reason that we have so much collective food anxiety. Turns out Americans are more anxious about the food we eat and simultaneously find less pleasure in food than any other major industrialized country. How embarrassing!. We think eating is just as, if not more, dangerous than starving! Yikes.
“Ironically, the Americans, who do the most to alter their diet in the service of health, are the least likely to classify themselves as healthy eaters.”Paul Rozin, PhD
Americans try extremely hard to eat “perfectly”, but we’re still blaming ourselves for not doing it well enough and feeling guilty for messing up. And just like stressing out about your job, or trying to measure up to society’s unrelenting expectations for perfect mothering (soap box alert), stressing out about food is not great for your body or your hormones.
Stress raises cortisol and inflammation – things that following the perfect diet are supposed to fix. Food for thought.
Diet culture and anti-fat bias
All of the popular weight loss diets out there put strict rules on what you can and cannot eat. If you’ve been susceptible to the idea that losing weight will make you happier or healthier, you could easily have very strict food rules in your head, rules that you judge yourself by. But the more rules there are, the more opportunities there are for you to break the rules and feel bad about it.
As I’ve talked about in many posts already, weight is not a good indicator of health, weight loss often causes harm, and does not work for 98% of the population. Despite knowing this, it is very hard to reject dieting and realize that losing weight is not the answer to your problems when you are inundated with anti-fat bias and doctors telling you to lose weight to solve literally any health condition under the sun. Weight loss is not the answer, but healing your relationship with food could be.
If you feel guilty about eating on a regular basis, you might want to consider getting some help or at least considering whether or not you have an eating disorder.
Is feeling guilt after eating an eating disorder?
Eating disorders are serious mental health conditions where one has difficulty experiencing intense emotions, and so they use food as a coping mechanism to deal with the underlying emotion – eating it, not eating it, obsessing about food, and feeling conflicted about all of it. Guilt and shame are very often an extremely common experience of those with eating disorders of all kinds.
Here’s some about how guilt is experienced with a binge eating disorder, anorexia nervosa, and bulimia.
Binge eating disorder (BED)
With binge eating, the onslaught of guilt, shame and self-blame often happens directly following a binge episode, sometimes the moment the eating stops or even before it stops. Binging often happens because of a need to dissociate or be distracted from uncomfortable feelings, so the eating can be fast and all-consuming. You may feel unable to stop eating, which adds to the guilt and shame.
Because our society labels “emotional eating”, or simply overeating as a moral failing, people with BED additionally feel shame and guilt about their inability to control their eating habits, which can lead to more binge eating, creating a cycle that’s hard to break.
Binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder in the US and is also the most underdiagnosed and undertreated, mostly, due to a lack of awareness and anti-fat bias.
Characteristics of BED include:
- eating large quantities of food (often very quickly and to the point of discomfort) frequently
- a lack or loss of control during and after the binge
- experiencing shame, distress, or guilt afterward
- not regularly using unhealthy compensatory measures (e.g., purging) to counter the binge eating.
Because folks in larger bodies are incorrectly blamed for their size, eating disorders in this population go unrecognized. And worse, people in larger bodies are often prescribed eating disorder behaviors (like severely restricting calories and over-exercising) to lose weight. These weight loss attempts backfire and exacerbate the eating disorder, continuing the binge-restrict cycle or perhaps leading to anorexia.
(Side note: I specialize in binge eating and binge eating disorder and would love to help you if you need help)
Anorexia and food guilt
Food guilt is by no means limited to those who subjectively “eat too much”. Folks with anorexia nervosa can have intense food guilt when they do not adhere to their ED voice’s food rules, which are often extremely rigid and dangerous.
Guilt exacerbates the cycle of restriction, where the act of eating any food, regardless of its nutritional value, may trigger profound feelings of shame and a heightened fear of weight gain. The guilt felt after eating is not just about the calories consumed but is deeply tied to an individual’s sense of self-worth and control.
There is nothing weak about not being able to control your cravings – this is your wise body attempting to keep you alive. Not being able to control cravings is often how it feels but this is a faulty thinking. You are not going to outsmart your body – if your body is craving food, it’s going to (hopefully) win over your ability to deny your body what it needs.
Bulimia and food guilt
With bulimia, food guilt often happens after a binge eating episode, or when one perceives they’ve eaten too much or the wrong things. The intense and overwhelming guilt over their perceived lack of control can create a need to “compensate” by vomiting, restricting, or exercising intensely. As with all food guilt, it is not just about the food, but about the perceived moral failure for breaking self-imposed rules around food and eating, which I’m getting into next.
If you suspect you might be struggling with an eating disorder, please reach out for help. You can contact the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237 or the Crisis Text Line by texting “HELLO” to 741741.
The Psychology behind feeling guilty after eating
I have thought about this a lot over the years – trying to understand the psychology behind this tendency. Why do people have such a hard time finding that sweet spot of balance and moderation that makes them feel like they need the rules to begin with?
Perfectionism (black-or-white thinking)
Some people have a particularly hard time with nuance and are much more comfortable when things are either “right” or “wrong”.
Capitalism and hustle/productivity culture have conditioned many of us to think that to succeed, we need to be 100% in, clawing our way to the top. This can make moderation difficult and make you feel like you’re not trying hard enough. With food, if you’ve told yourself you should never eat pizza and one night you decide you want an extra slice, you might say screw it. I already messed up. I’ll just eat 3 more.
So I think the better question is – why do you need to be doing something perfectly in order to feel like you’re succeeding? Why does your brain find comfort in needing to either do things 100% or not at all?
Some psychologists think that this tendency is left over from the reptilian brain, from the days when choices were more black and white – run or stay put. Eat or be eaten. There is safety in knowing which direction to go.
But this does not help us these days. You must actively choose the middle way if you want to create sustainable health and food habits. There’s good research showing that rigid thinking, also known as dichotomous thinking, stands in the way of eating intuitively.
Some people use a strict binary when it comes to behavior to keep things organized and safe in their brains and to keep themselves from making mistakes. People who are more prone to perfectionism, or have strict codes of conduct for how they feel all people should follow, could be more prone to feeling guilty after eating the thing they’ve deemed “wrong”.
Why do I feel guilty after eating? (think of this like a quiz)
If you find yourself in a state of self-blame, shame, or regret about the things you eat, it’s likely there are some beliefs about nutrition or your body (or both) that are standing in your way of eating peacefully and without guilt. Myths need to be busted.
Read through this list and ask yourself which of these resonates with you.
Diet starts tomorrow mindset
Being stuck in the dieting mindset can keep you in a loop of “mistakes”, all-or-nothing thinking, and blaming yourself and your body for being the problem. You may think that eating “badly” one day or one meal means you’ve blown it. This belief can make you feel guilty when you aren’t sticking to your diet, so you continue to eat this way later on that day or the next day, binging, or eating way past fullness because “might as well.”
You feel guilty for eating the forbidden food and then decide to give up altogether, overwhelmed and unhappy. This guilt may be with you for a while until it it too much, and then you may go back to the diet cycle once again to start it all over.
It is a vicious cycle.
Your food rules are too rigid
If you have been going on and off diet after diet for the past 5, 10, or even 20 years, there may be a LOT of food rules in your head, leftover from each diet you’ve been on. Or maybe you’re done with official diets, but there are still a lot of food rules in your head.
If you are trying to follow strict food rules (like no white carbs, no sugar, vegetables with every meal or snack, fat-free, nothing fried, no fast food, etc, etc, ect.), you will probably want to break those rules at some point. That’s normal. We don’t like to follow rules, remember?
As I explained above, humans want to break rules. We hate being restricted and will often rebel against the rules we’ve made for ourselves. So if you’re currently binge eating or emotionally eating, and you’re feeling guilty about it, this could be why.
You’re tracking steps, or counting calories
If you have a number of calories, macros, or steps that you’re supposed to hit every day, but you’re struggling with that, these arbitrary numbers could be leading to guilt. The thing is, these metrics aren’t scientifically based and often just cause us to feel bad about ourselves for not meeting the goals.
If you’re reluctant to go for a walk or go to a yoga class once in a while because you feel like it doesn’t count or isn’t worth it unless you go every day or complete whatever ideal amount of minutes, steps, miles, or calories burned, the tracking could be backfiring for you.
Social media comparison
Social media perpetuates unrealistic expectations for just about everything, food, lifestyle, and aesthetics being at the top of that list.
Wellness influencers love to post flawless images of themselves eating very aesthetically pleasing food, in “just right” quantities, in perfect kitchens, or whatever. What I eat in a day videos, before and after shots, bee polen smoothie bowls, and whatever other type of “ideal” eating – this is wellness crack.
You can think of this as just another way of selling an “ideal” body or lifestyle. We are attracted to people who seem to have it all figured out. Maybe if we just keep looking at their perfect lives, we’d be able to figure it out too. It’s just an illusion, designed to make you feel bad about yourself, and to come back for more.
Friends or loved ones stuck in diet culture
It’s no secret that some people love to talk about how superior they are because they are following a strict diet. If you have friends or family members who are vigilant about what they eat (and talk about it a lot), this could cause you to compare your eating, or your body, to theirs, and make you feel shame or guilt for not doing it the same way.
Or perhaps you have someone in your life who is critical of what you eat, always judging or commenting on your food. This can also make you paranoid that you’ll eat the wrong thing and judge your food choices more harshly.
This might look like the smug, workout guy in his 60s who preaches to his adult plus-size daughters about his workout routine, or in the ‘flawless’ 20-something bee pollen influencer who whips up a smoothie bowl – definitely no dairy – and obviously tops it with bee pollen, maca root, and chlorella. Gee, they really have it all together.
If these people make you feel like you’re doing something wrong, I’d like to let you off the hook.
They are the problem.
If your relationship with food is troubled, having people in your life commenting on your food or body can be harmful.
Perfectionism and high-achievement
Perfectionists hold themselves to very high standards and often blame themselves more harshly when they make a mistake. If they also believe that achieving a very toned or sculpted body, or eating “perfectly” makes them a more successful person, they can feel heightened guilt
Your health goals are unrealistic
In a culture that prizes instant gratification, many people seek quick solutions to things that are just simply not quick. This often happens because you may feel really uncomfortable in your current body, and feel a lot of urgency for it to change.
And I get it. This is hard, emotions can run high in these moments. But setting too high of expectations for yourself is just going to backfire.
How to stop feeling guilt after eating
Here are 8 things to think about when trying to reduce your feelings of guilt before, during, and after the eating experience.
Stop thinking about food as “healthy and unhealthy”, “good and bad”.
Learn to see food on a spectrum and to appreciate many types of eating for what it has to offer. Stop putting food in categories of good and bad, healthy and unhealthy, or labeling food as “junk”, “clean”, or “garbage”. Words matter and thinking this way often has the unintended side effect of making us feel that if we want to eat something in the “bad” or “unhealthy” category that we are bad or unhealthy.
But that is not how food works. Healthy eating can include a wide variety of different types of food – some that are packed with lots of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, or fiber, for example. And some foods that are just merely delicious and bring you lots of joy.
Once we take the morality out of eating and stop labeling everything we eat, we see that our bodies naturally desire a lot of highly nutritious foods, and we can also enjoy fun foods without worry and guilt.
Permit yourself to eat the food you love
This is based on the 3rd principle of intuitive eating – make peace with food – where you need to give yourself unconditional permission to eat all foods, even the ones you worry are “bad for you”. In time, and with patience, the foods you’re currently binging, feel guilty about, or are eating more frequently than you want will become less appealing, a process called habituation.
I realize this concept can feel crazy, especially if you have tried this before and have ended up eating a ton of your fear foods. But it works! People who give themselves permission to eat what they want unconditionally, end up eating a wide variety of nutritious foods, have less disordered eating and body image concerns, and stress way less about what they eat.
So, instead, think of it like this:
If you’re already eating fast food three times a week but feeling horrible about it, why don’t you try and permit yourself to eat fast food three times a week? You’re kind of hacking the system, working backwards, trying something new.
“I’m already eating Chick Fil-A three times a week (for example) even though I’m telling myself I should never eat fast food. I wonder what would happen if I just stopped telling myself I shouldn’t eat it and allowed myself to have it when I want it and not feel bad about it.”
Ask yourself when you’d like to have it. What places are your favorites? When would be the most enjoyable time for you to get fast food? Just bring some permission and mindfulness to the experience, instead of actively trying not to do it – and then doing it anyway.
Recognize you’re doing your best
Often what’s needed is for us to realize we are already doing enough. We are trying really hard to take care of ourselves and we just don’t have to do that perfectly. Many people I talk to, who are making huge strides to eat more fiber, be more mindful and balanced, andbe more prepared to eat well throughout the week, still feel like they’re not doing enough. Shouldn’t they be making the marinade themselves? What about superfoods??!! Isn’t buying pre-chopped cauliflower bad?
No, darling, No it is not.
If you try to follow all the nutrition guidelines, food-righteous suggestions, and magic cures out there, you will lose your mind. There is just too much bad information out there, and it can create a real sense of overwhelm.
When talking to yourself, use words like sometimes, often, and usually instead of always and never. Be present with yourself when you’re going for your walk or eating your “kinda healthy” meal – enjoy it. Don’t let yourself tell you it’s not good enough. It is good enough.
Learn to make realistic food and exercise goals
If you are unhappy with the way you are eating, try and take just one tiny step forward. Remember that those social media people who make gorgeous beet hummus or make their own almond milk might not have another job. They also might have an assistant, a camera person, and an advertising budget.
Allow yourself to go for a 10-minute walk if that’s all you have time for. It does count and it does matter. You can choose to have pizza for dinner on a Tuesday because you’re tired and have no food in the house, and then go grocery shopping the next day to make your favorite pasta dish. You can choose to have a big, hearty salad for lunch with croutons and plenty of ranch dressing and feel just great about it.
Remember that sticking to extremely rigid eating plans has not worked for you in the past, so you might as well take some of those rules away and see what happens. Pick one small thing you want to do, don’t try to do it all perfectly.
Some people are going to be more interested in cooking from scratch. It’s okay if you are not one of those people. That doesn’t mean you don’t care about your health. You have other hobbies. Spend time doing those. You are a wonderful person with a whole life to live.
This is how to build sustainable moderation. This work can take time and patience, and sometimes more healing work is necessary to process past trauma and free up space to feel safe making change.
Embrace body neutrality
If you are actively trying to lose weight and therefore have rules in your head about what you can and cannot eat, it could help a lot if you put the weight loss on the back burner for now.
Try to improve your health by eating healthfully (for the most part) and moving your body on a regular basis, instead of toward the goal of weight loss. If you’re unhappy with your body, that’s okay. Most people are! Consider the idea that you could just accept that you might not ever “love the way your body looks”, but that you can still take good care of it.
People who are trying to eat healthfully to feel good have a much easier time than those who are convinced they need to lose weight. When you go on a rigid diet that requires you to eat less than your body needs to thrive, you are going to end up feeling deprived. The diet creates rules that you are going to want to break.
And once you break them, you feel bad – and then can feel like guilt because we’ve tied an incredible amount of morality to the idea that being thin makes you a good person.
In addition to checking your mindset about what, when, and how much you eat and your rules about eating, you also want to look at HOW you’re eating. Here are two tips for focusing on the eating experience that can help you reduce feelings of guilt about eating.
Focus on pleasure
Choose to enjoy your food more and worry less. Eating well doesn’t have to mean eating clean, or eating all whole foods. It could mean eating with love and intention. Prioritizing the experience of the meal, like lessening distractions or putting your takeout on real plates.
Try spending a couple nights not eating in front of the TV, maybe just put on a podcast or some music.
Or it could mean giving your meal some TLC. Buy the fancy cheese to have as an appetizer before dinner at home, make your favorite family dish from childhood. I think these moments are so deeply calming and soothing, they might just counteract the guilt-inducing labels.
Use mindfulness when you catch yourself in a food guilt spiral
Using mindfulness is a split-second decision to pause and notice the present moment. If you’re caught in a spiral of feeling bad about food you ate, take a breath. Remind yourself that no one meal, or one day of eating means anything about you, nor will it change your body or your health.
Remember to use a compassionate voice with yourself. Imperfection is part of the messy (but wonderful) human experience, and this one eating experience doesn’t define your worth or your health. The more you practice mindfulness, the easier it will be to make mindful food decisions as well, so you could less the episodes of eating that trigger your guilt to begin with.
Focus on community and connection
Research shows that it’s good for you to enjoy your food, stop obsessing about the details, and prioritize the social and spiritual aspects of eating with others.
Intentionally eat meals with people you love, and focus on connecting with the people you’re eating with. If you’re eating alone – great! Love on yourself. Put on your favorite music or movie, light a candle, and make sure to use real plates and silverware. You deserve a nice eating experience, no matter what.
Check out this blog post I wrote recently about how to love yourself the way bell hooks thinks you should.
Practice intuitive eating
Working through the steps of intuitive eating can help you feel less guilty after eating, and less guilty in general about your life, frankly. You’ll learn to eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full.
As you let go of food rules and unrealistic expectations, you’ll find you can trust yourself more and rely on rules and rigidity less.
Give yourself compassion for where you’re at – today and every day. It can also be helpful to curate your social media feed to make sure you aren’t following accounts that promote doing things right or perfectly. Here’s a list of great accounts to follow that will support you on your anti-diet nutrition journey.
If you want more of this, join me for the next cohort of The Love Food Again Program.
Journal prompt to help with guilt after eating:
What beliefs do I have about the way that I eat? Why do I attach so much of my self-worth to the way my body looks or the diet that I stick to?
Where in my life do I feel stuck, like I don’t have enough willpower to stick to a way of eating or exerting? Are my expectations for what I should be doing too rigid or too high? Do I even have time in my life to cook every night and exercise 5 days a week? What if I try cooking once a week and going for a short walk after work a couple of times?
To sum up, if you wonder why you feel so guilty after eating, it could be because you’ve attached morality to the way you eat. Being caught up in the diet mentality, believing that you must eat a certain way in order to be healthy and happy, can cause a lot of complicated feelings when you mess up. You can learn to trust yourself and let go of those rigid rules for your eating. If exploring this on your own feels complicated and you’d like a non-diet dietitian to guide you through, I’d love to help. I offer individual and group non-diet nutrition counseling. Set up a free discovery call to talk about working together.
Emily Van Eck, MS, RDN specializes in intuitive eating, mindfulness-based eating practices, embodiment with food and movement, and healing from years of weight-bias and disordered eating. She helps womxn find balance, consistency, and peace with their eating habits so they can feel confident to get outta their heads and into their bodies. Emily is a registered dietitian and certified intuitive eating counselor with a master’s degree in nutrition science. Read more about her here.