What do you think of when you hear the phrase “chocolate cake?” Do the terms “bad,” “decadent,” or “sinful” come to mind? If so, you’re like the countless Americans who link this sweet treat with guilt.
A hard truth I learned as a dietitian is that knowing more about my food doesn’t mean I won’t crave (and eat) my fair share of chocolate cake. Knowledge also doesn’t spare your guilty conscience.
It’s important for us to learn how to manage our attitude toward food because it can work against our weight-loss goals.
Consider this: A study in the journal Appetite found that people who felt guilt-ridden by chocolate cake were less successful at losing weight compared to those who associated chocolate cake with celebration.
But enough about chocolate cake. Let’s dig into the guilt part so we can help you understand why having a guilt-free relationship with food can help you hit your weight-loss goals.
What Is Food Guilt?
Feeling guilty about what you just ate, right? Duh! Not so fast. Feeling guilty is a symptom of a bigger root cause.
Food guilt is grounded in your beliefs of which foods you should or shouldn’t eat. Many of these beliefs take the form of “food rules.” These rules are subconsciously planted in your mind by your culture, those around you, and that very fit friend you have.
Examples include: “Don’t eat after 7 PM,” “Steer clear of pasta,” or “No dessert.” The point is we all have subconscious food rules that act as mental shortcuts. They allow us to quickly make the over 200 eating decisions that we make every single day.
Food rules aren’t inherently bad. They often emerge from good intentions — we want to make choices that benefit our health. In a sea of conflicting nutrition info, well-picked food rules anchor us to action, so we get the results we want. Otherwise, we may as well drown in analysis paralysis.
But here’s the twist: Some of us can take these rules a little too seriously. When this happens, we moralize our food choices as either “good” or “bad.” From here, it’s easy to spiral out of control when we break a food rule.
How Food Guilt Affects Weight Loss
Food rules set the standards for our eating decisions, so when we violate them (e.g., when we eat that slice of chocolate cake), we feel guilty about it. Guilt may be a typical emotion, but we respond to it differently.
An all-too-common response is tossing your hands up in the air and saying, “Well, there goes my diet. Might as well eat the whole cake!”
Doing so may have set back your weight-loss progress by a few hundred calories, but that isn’t even the tragedy. When you’re so worked up about breaking a food rule, you don’t experience the full of joy of eating a favorite food.
Focusing on food guilt leaves little room to savor each velvety bite. Plus, guilt can lead to feelings of helplessness and loss of control, deflating your motivation to lose weight and get in shape.
5 Tips for Getting Over Food Guilt
Food should fuel your body and bring you pleasure. Here are few strategies to help you have a guilt-free relationship with food:
1. Don’t food-shame yourself
Stop mid-sentence when your inner critic says, “That cupcake is going to go straight to my [insert body part].” Take the cupcake or leave it, but avoid being judgmental. Watch your words or else they may tinge your buttercream frosting with regret.
2. Commit to enjoying your food
Once you decide to eat a food that otherwise would make you feel guilty, start focusing on the positive. That means giving your full attention to what makes those fries so crave-worthy! Relish in the crunch of each bite. Savor your food slowly as you engage all the senses related to food (think: taste, smell, texture, color).
3. Try intuitive eating
Intuitive eating, also known as mindful eating, is about listening to your body, so that you can better give it what it wants. It involves everything in tip number two, plus reassessing your hunger as you eat so that you don’t overeat. Chances are if you prevent a binge you will feel less guilty about this “indulgence.” It also builds more positive experiences with foods you see as out-of-bounds. This may help you feel less guilty about eating these foods in the future.
4. Rethink your relationship with food
Does food guilt hit you hard? Take this as a sign that you need to change something about your relationship with food. Are you being too restrictive? Are you giving food too much power over you? Relax your food rules a bit to make room for what you love. It’s also helpful to avoid labeling food as “good” or “bad.” Doing so escalates a food rule from guidepost to moral doctrine. Remember, there is no such thing as perfect eating.
5. Distract yourself
If food guilt still has you in a chokehold, nutrition expert Elle Penner, M.P.H., R.D., says to “redirect your energy and intentions to achieve balance moving forward. Prepare a nutritious meal to enjoy the next day, do next week’s meal planning, or put your shoes on and go for a walk. You’ll be surprised how fast the guilt subsides once you take action and do something good for yourself.”
The Bottom Line
We know you know this, but it deserves repeating: Losing weight is a lifestyle change! In the long run, your long-term weight-loss efforts won’t be tanked by one chocolate bar. Eat well most of the time and the results will follow.