Let's stop feeling guilty about food

December 12, 2019

It was announced yesterday that researchers at the University of Loughborough are promoting “exercise labels” for food. With the introduction of these labels, we would be constantly reminded in the supermarket that, to enjoy that piece of cake, we’ll have to jump on the treadmill for 25 minutes. These labels got us thinking about food guilt.

Food is one of the great joys in life. It brings people together, it makes us feel happy, and it is downright delicious. 

But when you’re trying to shape up, slim down, or maintain a healthy lifestyle, we begin assigning moral value to our food and we start feeling guilty. 

When we follow diet trends or overemphasise ‘healthy’, we begin to marginalise certain foods. And when the temptation arises and we allow ourselves one of those tantalising cookies, the guilt sets in. 

“I didn’t need to eat that! I am so [enter self-deprecating insults about weight and wellness]!”

And that immediate guilt leads us to think, ‘well I’ve had one, I might as well eat the entire pack’. Because we’ve already broken our rules, everything’s ruined, let’s eat 12 cookies.

It is because we assign moral value to foods that we end up thinking and eating this way. “Good” foods and “bad” foods are a construct we invented to guilt people (mainly women, but of course other genders) into staying societally-acceptably rake thin. 

Assigning moral value is completely irrational. But as common as overindulging in those cookies. 

We all overindulge sometimes, especially at this time of year. Your family’s offering an entire plate of mince pies, your friends are inviting you to drink a glass [or a bottle] of mulled wine. But when we are in the mindset of “good” versus “bad” food, we make our mental health suffer by viewing ourselves as failures for eating Santa’s mince pie rather than Rudolph’s carrot. 

But we’re all human and life happens. We may get carried away and eat more than we need to or drink more than we should. And that’s okay (just as long as it’s not a daily occurrence, which for most, it isn’t.) 

When these feelings of guilt arise, it’s even worse for our mental wellbeing to criticise ourselves for feeling guilty. There is no need to double down on thinking negatively about ourselves and our relationship to food. We should notice these feelings and, instead of feeling worthless for eating a slice of cake, positively reinforce and encourage ourselves for all of the good things we have done to our bodies and our minds.

Sure, maybe you didn’t make that 6am gym session. Maybe you had one too many glasses of red wine last night. But maybe you slept for a full 8 hours, drank lots of water, and ate some nutritionally dense food. Congratulate yourself for those wins, don’t slate yourself for having a good time. 

Because no-one, and I mean absolutely no-one, eats, drinks, and exercises perfectly all the time (and if they do, what kind of life is that? A life without cake?! A life at the gym, instead of at the pub with your friends?)

Living a healthy life is not about being perfect all the time. That’s why most actually healthy people advocate an 80/20 approach to their lifestyle - 80% eating healthy, going to the gym, keeping hydrated; 20% doing exactly what you want. 

So let’s stop assigning moral value to our food, and it will help us stop feeling guilty about indulging. After all, there is no such thing as “good” and “bad” food - it is simply nutrient-dense food and less-nutrient-dense food. 

Go to the gym, eat lots of veggies, protein and healthy snacks, always stay hydrated - but don’t feel bad if you fancy a pint or a few brownies. Consciously enjoy them and don’t think about how much you’d have to work out to burn off those calories. Relish in those calories, love those calories, and acknowledge that you’re not going to eat them every single day so don’t feel shameful for having them in the first place. 

What’s your experience of feeling guilty about food? Do you have any tips and tricks for overcoming the guilt?

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