Diet and Nutrition

How Feeling Guilty About Your Food Makes It Toxic

You know, there are times when the only thing that makes sense is a rich chocolate brownie smothered in vanilla ice cream (and maybe a little swirl of chocolate syrup on top).

It makes everything right with the world, until it’s gone. Then, if you’re like most women, you get the dreaded guilt.

Ugh. I ate too much. I can feel it. How many calories was that anyway?

You berate yourself for your momentary weakness, and vow to stick to carrots and kale for the next few days.

We’ve all experienced it at one time or another, but we probably haven’t given it a name. Today’s diet and nutrition experts have stepped in to help us out. They call it “food guilt,” and while it may be perfectly normal once in awhile, there is an upward trend that could be dangerous for our health.

What is Food Guilt?

At it’s most basic, “food guilt” is a term describing that feeling of guilt that settles in after you’ve eaten something you realize you probably shouldn’t have. At this level, it’s nothing new. We’ve all over-indulged at times and then regretted it later, either because of the indigestion or the realization that we’ve just added on another pound or so.

As we become more and more obsessed with our appearance—a by-product of our visual, social media world—we have started to see food with different eyes, and the result can actually create more weight gain and related health issues. 

Usually we vow to eat healthier and forget about it within a few hours. But what if we don’t forget about it? What if we continue to feel guilty, but then the next time we’re faced with a dozen donuts or carton of ice cream, we can’t stop ourselves from giving in?

This is where food guilt can become dangerous, and according to nutrition experts, the dangerous form is becoming more prevalent today. As we become more and more obsessed with our appearance—a by-product of our visual, social media world—we have started to see food with different eyes, and the result can actually create more weight gain and related health issues.

How Food Guilt Can Become Dangerous

Louise Adams, a member of the Clinical College of the Australian Psychological Society, told ABC News that the number of people who feel guilty about their food choices is at epidemic levels.

“It’s not like the whole world has an eating disorder,” she stated, “but we’re definitely in the grips of a food guilt epidemic.” She blames the trend on a “tsunami” of diets promoted for their health benefits that put people in the mindset that they must choose “good” foods over “bad” ones.

“When I wasn’t micromanaging my food intake and timing, I agonized over my food choices and punished myself emotionally for giving in and indulging on those cookies. What’s worse, no matter how I looked on the outside, I became a stressed-out recluse with low self-esteem.” – Certified personal trainer Julian Hayes II

“There’s a choice of what we can feel guilty about depending on which guru we’re following,” she added.

Melissa Milne, author of The Naughty Diet, conducted a survey of 10,000 women for her book and found that 80 percent of them admitted to feeling guilty after eating a decadent restaurant meal. The same number said that when they felt food guilt, they avoided having sex with their mates after the meal.

“Food Guilt is one dirty little secret,” she writes. “No one talks about how icky they really feel after a rich meal or decadent dessert. No one wants to be crowned Miss Buzzkill of the table.”

Certified personal trainer Julian Hayes II says that in her quest to be fit, food-induced guilt took over her life. “When I wasn’t micromanaging my food intake and timing,” she writes, “I agonized over my food choices and punished myself emotionally for giving in and indulging on those cookies. What’s worse, no matter how I looked on the outside, I became a stressed-out recluse with low self-esteem.”

Indeed, psychologists say that food guilt, at it’s most severe, can actually lead to a full-blown eating disorder like bulimia or anorexia nervosa. One of the most common triggers for binge eating is guilt, and the same emotion can take over after the binge eating cycle, triggering purging or overexercising.

What’s at the Core of Food Guilt?

When researchers look into the causes of food guilt, they find this “moralizing” about food that has taken over our society. Our ancestors didn’t think of food as good or bad—it was just food. But as we battle a worldwide obesity epidemic and try to get healthier and slimmer, we have become food police, relegating certain items to the “okay” list and others to the “don’t you dare” list.

What foods you choose to relegate to these two lists depends entirely on what diet you’re following, or what health expert you believe. Whereas a woman wanting to lose weight may view a steak with disdain, another woman beefing up her muscles may see it as a helpful partner in her efforts to reach her goals. A woman on a gluten-free diet would push away that whole-grain bread, whereas a woman battling heart disease may welcome the high-fiber choice.

Whether we admit it or not, most of us have been influenced by society to the point that we see foods as either good or bad. Paul Rozin, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, conducted a survey in which he asked respondents if they thought foods were either generally good or bad. Nearly half of the respondents did.

In another of his studies of food attitudes in four different cultures, the professor found that generally, the group associating food most with health and least with pleasure was the Americans, and the group most food-pleasure-oriented and least food-health-oriented were the French. More telling was that when he split the results between the genders, he found that women in all four countries showed a pattern of attitudes more like the Americans.

“I see people calling food ‘good’ or ‘bad’ every day,” registered dietician Abby Langer told Self Magazine. “It makes people feel like they are good or bad based on their food choices, but that’s not the case. It’s important to understand what this thinking really does.”

 

How Does Feeling Guilty Affect the Body?

Feeling guilty about what we’re eating is not just about our emotions. How we feel can actually affect how much we eat, and how our bodies metabolize that food.

One of the most common responses to food guilt, for example, is the “what the hell” attitude that leads to eating even more. When indulging in something we think we shouldn’t, we tend to feel like failures, so we give up and figure we may as well get all the enjoyment out of it we can. The result is often a higher calorie load than we would have eaten had we not felt guilty. 

On average, the women who reported one or more stressors during the previous 24 hours burned 104 fewer calories than non-stressed women in the seven hours after eating the high-fat meal. Scientists determined that this one difference along could result in an 11-pound weight gain in one year!

Another response actually takes place on a physiological level. According to Marc David, founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, how we feel about a certain food can affect how well we break it down, and how efficiently we burn the calories. He gives the example of eating an ice cream cone: feel good about it, and your digestion “will be stimulated and you’ll have a fuller metabolic breakdown of the ice cream while burning its calories more efficiently.”

Feel guilty about it, on the other hand, and the brain will sense the negative input and inhibit digestion, “which means you’ll be eating your ice cream but not fully metabolizing it.” The result could decrease calorie burn and induce the body to store more of that food as fat.

“You could eat the healthiest meal on the planet,” he adds, “but if you’re thinking toxic thoughts the digestion of your food goes down and your fat storage metabolism could go up.”

A 2014 study out of Ohio State University found evidence to back up this theory that emotions affect calorie burn. They questioned study participants before giving them a meal consisting of 930 calories and 60 grams of fat. They then measured their metabolic rate, blood sugar, triglycerides, insulin, and levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

On average, the women who reported one or more stressors during the previous 24 hours burned 104 fewer calories than non-stressed women in the seven hours after eating the high-fat meal. Scientists determined that this one difference along could result in an 11-pound weight gain in one year!

Guilt can be a type of emotional stressor, ramping up our cortisol levels before or after eating something we think of as “bad.” That means if we want to enjoy good health and enjoy our food, we have to change how we think about what we put on our plates.

5 Ways to Avoid Food Guilt

Most women fall victim to food guilt fairly frequently. Now that we know that food guilt can actually cause us to gain more, it becomes clear that we have to put an end to this unhealthy relationship with food.

Here are five tips to help you do that.

  1. Rethink how you think about food. Watch your thoughts when you’re about to eat something. Odds are, you’ve automatically labeled it as good or bad. Start changing that thinking by restructuring your views. Think of food in terms of balance, instead. To enjoy a healthy diet and healthy life, you need to eat more fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins than sugary desserts and treats. Those sugar treats aren’t “bad,” they just belong at the edge of your balance beam. Thoroughly indulge with full pleasure. Just keep those indulgences to about 20 percent of your entire diet.
  2. Ramp up your pleasure. Remember that study that said Americans see food in terms of health? It’s time we enjoyed it a little bit more. No matter what you’re eating, slow down and savor each bite. Gain more pleasure from your food, and your body will likely be more efficient at using it. When you do decide to indulge, choose something you really like and enjoy it fully, no guilt!
  3. Move more and get enough sleep. We are all too sedentary these days, and it’s hurting our health and metabolism. We’re also knee-deep in a sleep deprivation epidemic. Moving more not only helps you burn more calories, but it can change your appetite, too. Scientists have found that sitting around inspires us to eat high-sugar, high-fat foods, whereas moving more inspires us to eat healthier items. Getting enough sleep also helps balance your hormones so you feel less hungry. So get to bed on time, and work more movement into every hour of your life and your appetite is likely to lead you naturally to healthier choices.
  4. Listen to your guilt. If you feel guilty after eating a certain food, try to learn from it. Why did you feel guilty? Is it because of some outdated belief that you could easily let go of? Or is it because you felt physically ill after eating the food? Ask yourself what you can learn from how you feel, and try to remember the lesson next time around.
  5. Love your body. Women are far too harsh with themselves. We blame ourselves for making the wrong choices. We seek out all our flaws. We ruminate over the weight we’ve gained. All those negative emotions work to further erode our overall health and well-being. Try to regroup and remember the good things about your body. Generate some positive feelings by being grateful for the health you do have, and allow that positive frame of mind to lead you to listen to your body more often. What does it really need? What food does your body really want? Or would it prefer a casual walk or a nap? If you can ease the stress and guilt and relax a little, what would your body tell you? As you learn to listen, you’ll make better choices and guilt will naturally disappear.

Sources

Kelsey Damassa, “The New Eating Disorder You Might Not Realize You Have: Food Guilt,” Her Campus, May 25, 2013, https://www.hercampus.com/health/new-eating-disorder-you-might-not-realize-you-have-food-guilt.

Melissa Milne, “5 Ways to Stop Food Guilt Now,” EatThis.com, http://www.eatthis.com/beat-food-guilt.

Julian Hayes II, “4 Ways to Banish Food Guilt for Good,” BodyBuilding.com, October17, 2014, https://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/4-ways-to-banish-food-guilt-for-good.html.

“Food guilt an epidemic of our times, clinical psychologist warns,” ABC, September 25, 2014, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-09-25/food-guilt-the-epidemic-of-our-times/5767356.

“Good food, bad food: The psychology of nutrition,” Psyche-Your-Mind.blogspot.com, October 17, 2011, http://psych-your-mind.blogspot.com/2011/10/good-food-bad-food-psychology-of.html.

P. Rozin, et al., “Attitudes to Food and the Role of Food in Life in the U.S.A., Japan, Flemish Belgium and France: Possible Implications for the Diet-Health Debate,” Appetite 1999; 33:163-180, https://web.sas.upenn.edu/rozin/files/2016/09/FoodAttFranceApp99-x9o75n.pdf.

Rozin P., et al., “Lay American conceptions of nutrition: dose insensitivity, categorical thinking, contagion, and the monotonic mind,” Health Psychol., November 1996; 15(6):438-47, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8973924.

Zahra Barnes, “Food Guilt is a Waste of Time—and It’s Sabotaging Your Weight-Loss Goals,” Self, October 14, 2016, https://www.self.com/story/food-guilt-weight-loss.

Marc David, “Mind Over Food,” Psychology of Eating, 2014, http://psychologyofeating.com/mind-over-food/.

Emily Caldwell, “Weighty Issue: Stress and High-Fat Meals Combine to Slow Metabolism in Women,” Ohio State University, July 14, 2014, https://news.osu.edu/news/2014/07/14/weighty-issue-stress-and-high-fat-meals-combine-to-slow-metabolism-in-women/.

“Expert Tips on Dealing with Guilt After a Bad Food Day,” SpinachandYoga.com, http://www.spinachandyoga.com/what-to-do-with-food-induced-guilt/.

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Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story is a novelist, health and wellness writer, and motivational speaker committed to helping people take control of their own health and well-being. She’s authored thousands of articles for a variety of health publications, and ghostwritten books for clients in the health and wellness industry. She is the founder of Writing and Wellness, a motivational site for writers and other creative artists. Find more at her website, or follow her on Twitter.

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