Through all my years of helping people quit dieting and heal from disordered eating, destructive self-talk, and not-so-great body image, (and through my own journey with these things) something that comes up frequently is the constant feelings of guilt.
Feeling bad for eating certain foods. Feeling guilt when eating too much. Feeling guilty after eating anything at all, even. It can feel really miserable and can sometimes be totally consuming to the point where you can’t enjoy meals with friends because you are so worried about what others think of your eating.
When it comes to diet and exercise, you might be feeling guilty because you believe you need to do things perfectly. The perfectionist trap is a nasty beast, rooted in capitalism. This trap could also show up for you in the form of chaotic eating, binge eating, or resistance to exercise.
I have thought about this a lot over the years – trying to understand the psychology behind this tendency. There’s good research showing that rigid thinking, also known as dichotomous thinking, stands in the way of eating intuitively.
Why is food guilt so common?
I believe this is because we have a hard time going-for-the-grey. We have been conditioned to think that in order to succeed, we need to be 100% in. This makes moderation difficult and when we eat that extra slice of pizza, we decide, f it. I already messed up. I’ll just eat 3 more.
So I think the larger question is – why do we need to be doing something perfectly in order to feel like we’re succeeding and stick with it? Many spiritual texts, certainly in Buddhism, discuss the “middle way”. So why do our brains find comfort in needing to either do things 100% or not at all?
Here are some other reasons that guilt may be taking over your relationship with food and making it hard for you to be an intuitive eater.
1. You are using extremes with your diet and exercise
You are either eating “all clean” or whatever version of “good” or “healthy” or “low calorie/low carb, etc” and cooking all the time and taking your lunch to work OR you are getting lots of take out, snacking on crap at work, getting breakfast on the go, overeating a lot, and drinking too much coffee and/or alcohol.
When you try and do things a very particular, rigid way, and inevitably don’t reach those expectations, you could blame yourself for going overboard, or ordering what you told yourself you wouldn’t.
2. You believe one meal ruins everything
If you think that eating “badly” one day or one meal means you’ve blown it, then you feel guilty and continue to eat this way later on that day or the next day, binging, or eating way past fullness.
3. You’re tracking steps, or counting calories
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.
4. You over-commit
Once you finally do go to a workout class, you promise yourself you’re going to go 5 times a week (or 3, 4, whatever it is) and feel bad about not following through. So you find yourself doing exercise in bursts rather than consistently.
How Intuitive Eating Can Help You Stop Feeling Guilty After 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. Give yourself permission to eat the foods that you want will make you less likely to eat more than you need.
When you get rid of the food rules, there will be nothing to feel guilty about! Guilt eating won’t even be a thing if you didn’t break any rules – see how that works?
It’s ok if it’s hard for you to consider eating in moderation, or not succumbing to perfectionism. It’s baked into the culture. Our brains like certainty, even if it’s an illusion. It’s interesting – we continuously learn throughout our lives that certainty and perfection are unrealistic illusions, but we still crave them.
They make us feel safe, especially if we’ve been told or taught that our body is not okay as it is and we cannot be trusted to eat what we want. In a diet-culture world, where so many foods are deemed “dangerous” and immoral, it’s no wonder we feel like we need strict rules to keep it together.
Diets don’t work because the restriction is not sustainable and neither is doing anything 100% of the time. Eventually, you go from ALL to NOTHING. And there you are again, feeling bad about yourself. Sigh, what a roller coaster.
Ways To Feel Less Guilty With Food and Exercise
You can consciously choose to go for the grey. Take the middle ground, so you don’t have quite as far to fall. 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. 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.
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.
Give yourself compassion for where you’re at – today and every day. It may feel counter-intuitive to “go for the grey”, but you will eventually land at a relationship to food and exercise that feels balanced, natural, and like a beautiful form of self-care.
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.
And here’s a journal prompt to give you a taste of what my program offers:
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?
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.