Have you ever eaten something and thought “shouldn’t have eaten that”? Or, “I’m on a diet”, all whilst eating a bag of Doritos? This is known as food guilt, and it has a profound effect on our dietary behaviour and self-esteem.

What is food guilt?

Food and eating can be an enjoyable experience. You can feel elated sitting down to a nice dinner with your significant other (can’t relate), enjoy some birthday cake with your kids or simply relish a cup of tea and quiet in the morning. You can also experience guilt and shame for eating foods that you “shouldn’t”, overeating or making poor dietary choices.

Is it common?

Everyone feels guilty sometimes, and guilt can actually help some of us change our behaviour. Food guilt is incredibly common, and several studies have shown that most people experience mild food guilt on the reg[1][2]. It is also damn near impossible to avoid seeing food labelled as “good” or “bad”, on social media or in marketing. Foods are “guilty pleasures”, “syn-free” or “indulgent”. You only have to open Instagram to see “cheat meals” or “cheat days” that are nothing more than glorified binges. It is everywhere – and our society fosters a culture of food guilt.

However, this culture of “food morality” – assigning a moral value to food – has some sinister connotations with disordered eating patterns.

Food Guilt – Friend or Foe?

We feel differently about certain foods, based on the moral value we assign to them. People feel guilty about high-fat foods such as bacon, fried foods and other delicious baked goods[4]. Interestingly, sugar generated polarizing opinions. Chocolate, fizzy drinks and jellies all elicited guilt in one study. However, the sugar in fruit didn’t cause much guilt in participants[4]. Snacking has also been shown to generate guilt, or certain social-situations[1].

Guilt has been shown to help people change their behaviour. When it comes to food though, the science is less convincing. One study found that people who associated certain foods with guilt were less successful in their weight-loss goals and had less perceived control over eating[5]. Similarly, another study found that when we feel guilty we are more likely to reach for these “guilt-inducing” sugary foods[6].

So, you feel guilty for eating certain foods. When you feel guilty, you eat certain foods. What a horrendous vicious circle.

Food guilt encourages dichotomous thinking. Seeing foods as good or bad is linked with the development of a variety of eating disorders, such as binge-eating disorder and bulimia[3]. This is obviously not desirable. It must be noted here that feeling guilty about food on occasion does not mean you have an eating disorder. It means you are human. However, if you are concerned it runs a little deeper, don’t be afraid to reach out to a professional (GP or Bodywhys, not some Instagram PT).

If we are to take a step back here, and objectively look at situations that cause guilt – there appears to be no common theme, other than people feeling bad. Chocolate itself is not evil or inherently unhealthy. Similarly, kale is not Mother Theresa. I am of the opinion that it is not the food itself that causes you harm – it is your thought process around it. Eating a packet of crisps doesn’t cause binge eating. Thinking you’ve fucked your diet, and you’re going to die of a heart attack so you may as well keep going, most definitely does.

What can we do?

Food guilt is a tough ‘un, and one that is hard to dismantle. Challenging food guilt is one of the best things you can do for yourself and your relationship with food. You can start by learning a bit more about nutrition and food (what a convenient opportunity to plug myself ;)) Question your behaviours and your limiting beliefs. Is eating a spicebag really the worst thing you could do? (If you don’t get curry sauce, the answer is yes).

Life is too short to be a prisoner to food guilt. I am always curious to hear your experiences with food guilt – leave them below!

References

  1. Steenhuis, I. (2009) ‘Guilty or not? Feelings of guilt about food among college women’, Appetite, 52(2), pp. 531-534.
  2. Brennan, L., Klassen, K., Weng, E., Chin, S., Molenaar, A., Reid, M., Truby, H., McCaffrey, T.A. (2020) ‘A social marketing perspective of young adults’ concepts of eating for health: is it a question of morality?’, International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity, 17(44).
  3. Lethbridge, J., Watson, H.J., Egan, S.J., Street, H., Nathan, P.R. (2011) ‘The role of perfectionism, dichotomous thinking, shape and weight overvaluation, and conditional goal setting in eating disorders’, Eating Behaviours, 12(3), pp. 200-206.
  4. Yu, H., Chambers, E., Koppel, K. (2020) ‘Exploration of the food-related guilt concept’, Journal of Sensory Studies, 36, pp. 1-14.
  5. Kuijer, R.G., Boyce, J.A. (2014) ‘Chocolate cake. Guilt or celebration? Association with healthy eating attitudes, perceived behavioural control, intentions and weight-loss’, Appetite, 74(1), pp. 48-54.
  6. Lafebvre, S., Hasford, J., Wang, Z. (2019) ‘The effects of guilty and sadness on sugar consumption’, Journal of Business Research, 100, pp. 130-138.

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