Updated: Mar 25
Medically reviewed by Serena Benali, Registered Dietitian.
You’re eating and you’re in the zone, it tastes so good… but afterwards the guilt sets in and you’re feeling some major regret… sound familiar?
Food guilt is very common in our culture, and you may be quite familiar with this feeling.
Experiencing food guilt can be a major barrier blocking you from developing a healthy, balanced relationship with food.
Here I share what food guilt is, why it occurs in the first place and the 6 best ways to get rid of food guilt.
What is food guilt
At its core, food guilt is tied to a internal belief system around food that says some foods are good and some foods are bad, and that certain "rules" need to be followed around food. So when we eat something we deemed as "bad" or break a self-imposed rule we are flooded with immense guilt and shame because a part of us feels that we did something bad.
The popular "cheat meal" label preserves this internal belief system that ties morality to food. Can you really enjoy a meal "guilt-free"’ if you’ve labeled it a cheat meal?
Our culture equates guilt and shame with pleasure often, many of us are all too familiar with the guilty-pleasure. But why does something we deem pleasurable need to have guilt associated with it?
Food guilt is something we learn which means it is also something we can unlearn.
Food guilt is destructive.
Feelings of guilt are associated with poor self-esteem, regret, loss of control, and it's also associated with attempts to correct "mistakes" (2).
A common well-intended reaction to food guilt is to try and compensate with restricting your food intake or promising yourself not to eat that food again (2).
These well-intended ‘strategies’ only further perpetuate a cycle of eat-repent-repeat and restricting and bingeing (3).
Trying to avoid food that you enjoy creates a lot of tension in the body, that over time no one can sustain, eventually the flood gates open and the binge commences… a natural response to depriving yourself of the things you enjoy.
Your mental and emotional well-being can suffer greatly due to food guilt, it can also lead to disordered eating habits and eating disorders. Furthermore, feeling guilty about one's food deprives one of fully appreciating and savouring life's experiences and the many roles food plays in them (4).
Why You Feel Guilty After Eating
Common causes of food guilt (5):
Eating food seen as "unhealthy"
Eating high-sugar or high-fat foods
Unhappy with weight
Irregular eating patterns
"Cheating" on a diet
Trying to understand your feeling and where it comes from is a helpful first step in overcoming food guilt.
Why You Shouldn't Feel Guilty About Eating
It's critical to realize that you have no business feeling guilty or ashamed about your eating habits. Let that sink in.
To reach a healthy, balanced relationship with food, it is essential to include a wide variety of foods and to recognize the many roles food plays in your life besides nourishment, like connection, celebration, comfort and pleasure, to name a few!
Eating is not always rational or free of emotion. Nope! Emotions, everyday stressors, and the environment all play a role in our food choices as humans, so we need to use this knowledge in a practical way.
When it comes to creating healthy eating habits, food guilt is not only detrimental to your physical and mental well-being, but it is also counterproductive.
In one study, participants were asked if they more closely connected chocolate cake with feelings of guilt or joy. Those who connected chocolate cake with feelings of guilt were more likely to overeat. Participants who associated chocolate cake with guilt also reported feeling a loss of control with food intake, unhealthier eating patterns and emotional eating (5).
In addition to the feelings of lack of control, food guilt can also lead to self-criticism and low mood, harming your emotional and mental health. Therefore, your mental energy would be best spent overcoming food guilt (5).
How to Stop Feeling Guilty About Eating
1. Avoid labeling food as good or bad.
Labeling food good and bad entangles morals with food and we want to learn to keep the food itself neutral.
Each time you label food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, it reinforces a belief system that is damaging and can cause fear, worry and guilt with eating. Instead of attaching words around food, empower yourself to think of food as pleasure and nourishment, rather than self-control.
When we begin to see all food on the same playing field, foods we deem less healthful don’t have the same kind of emotional baggage that comes along with eating it.
Good nutrition means a healthy relationship with food, a variety of food and enjoyment of food, without a side of guilt.
We learn to keep the food neutral, by removing labels from food. Next time you see yourself labeling food reframe your thought to one where the food is neutral. Instead of thinking this is bad, think: this is food and I deserve to feel good while eating and after eating.
Remove the labels and see how your relationship with those foods shifts.
2. There is no “perfect eating”.
I can’t emphasis this enough! There is no such thing as perfect eating.
“Eating x servings of vegetables per day”. “Avoid added sugar and refined carbs”.
It seems like there is a “right” way to eat “perfectly” and improve your wellbeing and if you don’t follow these rule, you feel like a failure.
Remember from societies standards we can always be healthier, the goal post always moves further and there’s no end in sight, until maybe we are intravenously infusing ourselves with kale?!
The idea of “eating perfectly” is created by the diet culture. If you try and follow diet culture, it will disconnect you from your bodies natural cues and bring you guilt, stress and anxiety around foods, to name a few!
Food plays a vital role beyond nourishment, and it is meant to be enjoyed and satisfying! Instead of following diet culture and feeling guilty about everything you eat, slow down and enjoy the eating experience.
Remember the big picture. Anything you eat is just a small part of your overall diet.
3. Not all food-related guilt comes from overeating
Our relationship with food is heavily influenced by our childhood environment. The way you ate as child shapes your beliefs around food, how you view food and how you interact with food today.
How you feel about certain foods may have been affected, often subconsciously, by your parents or guardians. Especially if you grew up in a household where family was constantly dieting or labeling certain foods as “bad”.
The feelings you have about food may be a sign of something you experienced growing up. It can help you understand what influences your food choices and help you identify why you eat and perhaps where the food guilt comes from.
When you begin to feel the onset of food guilt, pause and consider what has just occurred
Before you ate it, how did you feel?
What thought started the spiral into guilt?
When was the first time you remember feeling like this with food?
What other action can you take right now to feel good, or better, in this moment? (change your thoughts, do something else..)
Things can be revealed about ourselves if we take the time to dig deeper into our thoughts and feelings. After we have greater insight, we can use this to plan for a more compassionate future for ourselves.
We can quickly spiral out of control if we allow our thoughts to get out of hand. So take back the reins. It's a good idea to take a moment and think about the questions above when you start to feel guilty about eating.
4. Journal about your eating experience
To identify patterns in your experiences with guilt and shame, you may want to keep a journal noting your feelings before, during, and after each meal.
A journal can help identify what thoughts or behaviours trigger your guilt and what impact that has on the rest of your day, other food choices and mood. From here, you can better support yourself and alter your behaviour if you know what's causing it.
Questions to reflect on your eating experience and feelings of food-guilt:
Describe your thoughts and behaviour when you ate the food.
How did you feel after?
How does this eating experience influence how you eat for the rest of the day?
How does this eating experience impact your mood?
This activity is meant to help you identify and understand the patterns that shape your relationship with food, but if it's bringing you more stress, stop and seek help from a registered dietitian.
Things can be revealed about ourselves if we take the time to dig deeper into our thoughts and feelings. Now that you have this information, you can plan for a more compassionate future for yourself.
5. Incorporate mindful eating into your daily routine
Our relationship with food is no different than any other area of our life that can benefit from mindfulness.
Mindful eating is a beneficial tool to help you be in tune with your body, stress less about food, and put yourself back in control of your food choices (6).
The times when you eat on auto-pilot can be reduced by practicing more mindful eating.
The key takeaway with mindfulness is that it’s process-oriented; focused on your experience of the moment. It focuses on appreciating the experience of food and it’s not concerned with restricting intake.
Studies have shown that with a mindful approach, a person often eats less, savours eating more and eats a healthy balanced diet (6).
Here are some strategies to help you implement mindful eating into your next meal:
Eat intentionally. Put away distractions and pay attention to your food.
Check in with your body. Assess your reason for eating: pleasure, hunger, boredom?
Give appreciation for you food.
Savour and be present: use all your senses to enjoy and savour each bite!
Check in with your body after each bite. Have you had enough? Does it still taste the same as when you first started eating? Do you need more?
When you’re present with your food choices, the right food choice will always come forward for you. With mindfulness, you can be present with food and receive more of the pleasure and enjoyment of the eating experience!
6. Use distraction to draw attention away from the meal
Feeling terribly guilty post-meal?
For some people, the time after a meal can be more stressful than the meal itself. You may feel terribly guilty and experience psychological distress from eating. You may have overwhelming feelings that you don’t know how to deal with or deal with in unhealthy ways.
Instead of thinking about what you just ate, why not use distraction to provide some time for those feelings to naturally fade to a more manageable level?
It may be helpful to plan structured activities after meals, such as games, puzzles or watching some short funny clips on YouTube.
Food guilt is common in our society and it is detrimental to your physical, emotional and mental wellbeing. Learning how to deal with it and why it occurs in the first place is really critical.
Overcoming food guilt can be a journey of self-discovery, be patient with yourself and try some of these best practices!
Remember – You deserve to eat and feel good during and after it. Always.
If you're ready to take the next steps towards a healthier relationship with food download my free Healthy Relationship with food starter guide!
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Written by: Haige Ding, Dietetics Student