When I think about how I used to eat, I cringe.
When I think about how I used to feel after I ate, it hurts.
I was an emotional eater for almost two decades, and throughout this time, I felt like I had zero control over how much I ate whenever there was food in front of me.
I’d eat compulsively until I felt sick, and because of that, guilt and shame were never far away.
But because I had no idea why I was eating the way I did, the question that I had in my head for the longest time was “why do I feel guilty after eating, all the time?”.
WHAT IS FOOD GUILT?
Food guilt is the feeling that you’ve done something bad or wrong by eating certain foods, and not others, or have eaten in a way that you perceive is bad for you, like over- or under-eating.
WHAT CAUSES FOOD GUILT?
While there can be many events that trigger feelings of food guilt, it’s often held up and reinforced by a belief that certain foods are ‘good’, and others are ‘bad’.
This guilt can also come about when you’ve placed unrealistic and rigid rules or expectations on yourself, and find yourself breaking those rules or falling short of those expectations because surprise, surprise: You’re human.
It can come up when you:
- have eaten something that you feel you shouldn’t have.
- have eaten too much of something.
- have not eaten something that you feel you should have.
- want to eat something that you think is unhealthy or fattening, but haven’t.
HOW TO STOP FEELING GUILTY AFTER YOU EAT
Feeling guilty around food is not normal and is a behavior that you’ve been taught to feel.
The truth is, you’ve been conditioned to feel guilty around food by society’s ridiculously unattainable standards of beauty, the multi-billion dollar diet industry, and just about everyone around you who’s bought into what’s being sold indiscriminately.
It’s time to put all that guilt where it belongs — back on the shelf — so you can finally start feeling safe and good about eating.
1. Acknowledge your feelings
The first step to overcoming your guilt is to identify and acknowledge it.
This simple but powerful first move allows you to validate what you’re feeling and accept that it’s there so you’re then able to deal with it rather than avoid or bottle it up, either of which can set you up for emotional eating down the line.
2. Be kind, not cruel to yourself
Your instinct may likely be to mentally beat yourself up when you ‘slip up’, but allowing your thoughts to take a mean, negative turn will only serve to chip away at your self-confidence and self-esteem.
This, in turn, can keep you from taking a step back to look at your perceived ‘mistakes’ objectively or see them as opportunities to learn, grow and ultimately, succeed.
Instead, try talking to yourself the way you would to a close friend who’s going through a similar struggle: With self-compassion and kindness.
3. Break your negative thought patterns
Once guilt starts creeping into your consciousness, negative thoughts usually aren’t far behind.
Try disrupting their path to what could be the start of a lengthy cycle of mindless rumination by doing something that’ll need your undivided attention.
This could be a workout, talking to a friend, going for a walk or even watching your favorite TV show.
The less energy you spend on negative thinking, the more energy you’ll have for stuff that’ll do you good.
4. Replace judgment with curiosity
Letting go of guilt calls for you to un-learn everything diet culture has taught you, and an important part of this un-learning process involves creating more space for compassionate curiosity.
For example, instead of saying “I’m lazy and have absolutely no self-control”, consider asking yourself: “Why am I feeling guilty after eating this meal?”.
Gently peeling off the layers that are contributing to your food guilt-ridden state of mind with questions will help you shift gears from judgment and blame to problem-solving.
5. Stop labeling food as good or bad
A big driver of food guilt is the belief that some foods are ‘good’, while others are ‘bad’.
Although putting labels on food sounds helpful on the surface, it can teach you to attach your self-worth to how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ you’re eating, effectively turning your food choices into a morality issue.
One of your first steps to loosening the grip food guilt has on you is to stop thinking this way. In its place, consider seeing food as just…food.
It’s neither good nor bad, and is simply something that you eat when you’re hungry.
6. Reject restrictive dieting
If your goal is to lose weight, it makes sense that one of the first things to come to mind would be to go on a restrictive diet, simply because you’ve been convinced by diet culture that it’s the only way to slim down.
Except that it’s not.
In fact, it’s not even effective or sustainable over long stretches of time, because of the negative effects it tends to have on your physical, mental and emotional well-being.
And because the rules that restrictive diets often come with tend to be all-or-nothing, you’ll likely struggle to stick with them, leading you to feel demoralized and guilty.
7. Give yourself permission to eat what you want
Once you’ve let go of the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ labels, as well as the idea that restrictive dieting is the only way to lose weight, it’s time for the next step: Give yourself permission to eat whatever you want.
It may sound counterintuitive, but personally, just knowing that no food was off-limits is what helped me stop overeating at almost every meal — something that I did because of an irrational fear that I was never going to be able to eat something I really liked (and was ‘bad’), ever again.
Food neutrality makes space for food freedom.
8. Practice mindful eating
Having a positive, guilt-free experience with food is just as much a physical as it is a mental and emotional one.
This is where sensory-based practice like mindful eating can play an important role is making eating an enjoyable experience instead of a stressful one.
To start with, get to know the basics of mindful eating:
- Check in with your body before you eat: What does your physical hunger feel like? Are you really hungry, bored or stressed.
- Notice your food: What does it look and smell like? What’s in it, where did it come from, and how was it prepared?
- Notice your environment: Is it calm and quiet, or is it noisy and chaotic? Does it make you want to eat slowly or in a rush?
- Slow down: Chew slowly and pay attention to how your gut feels as it your belly fills up. Put your fork or spoon down in-between bites and really savor your food.
- Listen to your body: When you’re no longer hungry, put your utensils down and stop eating. Notice how your body feels after you eat.
9. Unfollow accounts that make you feel like crap
The great thing about social media is that when it’s done right, can inspire you and make you feel good.
But the thing is, the line between inspiring and demotivating are becoming increasingly blurred.
Before and after weight loss photos, influencers’ picture-perfect #eatclean meals, your favorite fitness celebs ultra low-calorie diet plans, and go-hard-or-go-home #fitspo quotes are meant to make you feel good about your own journey, but somehow end up falling short.
Rather than inspire you to be your best, they trigger your natural, human inclination to compare what you see to yourself and all the ways you’re not measuring up, resulting in guilt, self-loathing and more guilt.
Your best plan of action when it comes to your feel-bad social media feed? Unfollow and focus on what brings you the peace and positivity.
10. Use food mantras or affirmations
Before you brush this last step as new-age woo woo rubbish, consider this: You are what you think, and changing how you think about food and yourself is just like building a muscle — it takes self-belief, work, and plenty of repetition.
Think of affirmations as new beliefs that you want to replace the old, negative ones that have been chipping away at your self-esteem, with.
Some of my favorites are:
- My body is my home, and deserves to be treated like a temple.
- There are no good or bad foods — everything I eat nourishes my body or soul, or both.
- What I eat doesn’t dictate my self-worth. I do.
- Eating well is a life-long journey, not a 6-week diet plan.
- I trust my body to tell me what it needs and when.
- I exercise to get stronger, not to burn calories.
To start practicing affirming yourself every day, say the affirmations that are most important to you right after you wake up in the morning, and just before you go to bed at night.
Repeat each affirmation 10 times (or as many times as you need to) with purpose, intention and self-belief.
The more consistent you are with your affirmation practice, the more powerful they’ll be.
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I’ve worn multiple hats over the years: Emotional eating survivor, microbiologist, writer, Deputy Editor at SHAPE Malaysia, American Council On Exercise-certified personal trainer, Levels 1 and 2 Precision Nutrition-certified sports nutrition coach, and now, self-care advocate. As you might guess, I’m fascinated with food, movement and learning how to take better care of myself as I make my way through this crazy, chaotic world, and my mission is to help you do the same.