One of the most important concepts I learned in my Health At Every Size journey was that we restrict food on multiple levels.
Everyone knows that those of us who have dieted and struggled with disordered eating have physically restricted food. This is the entire definition of a diet, or any “lifestyle change” that involves eating.
Diets all work the same way: either you use willpower to actively resist food you encounter, or you use other forms of cognitive manipulation (e.g. avoidance of tempting foods) to achieve the same outcome.
This much I realized coming in. In fact, when I discovered Health At Every Size, I had given up on most types of physical restriction. I was pretty much eating whatever I damn well pleased.
What I didn’t clue into right away were the ways in which I was still restricting food emotionally.
Yes, I was mostly eating whatever I wanted. But how was I feeling emotionally while I did it?
Truthfully, a lot of the time I was wracked with guilt and shame.
While eating a cupcake, for instance, my mind would spew colorful commentary along the lines of:
“You’re a bad person. Healthy people don’t eat cupcakes.”
“You are going to regret this later.”
“Your husband doesn’t need a cupcake right now. Why should you?”
“You should be eating carrot sticks right now, not a pretty package of sugar and fat and white flour!”
You get the idea. If you’re still stuck in the mode of trying to lose weight, I’m willing to bet that you have similar thoughts while eating something “unhealthy” or against your “rules”.
These forms of “emotional restriction”, as some call it, are what hold us back even after we’ve started allowing ourselves to eat what we want. The truth is, unless we give up all shame and guilt about our food choices, we will never fully heal. As long as we are feeling guilty about any of our choices, we will continue to feel deeply uneasy around food. Guilt can also provoke many of us to binge as well.
It can be difficult to give up on the emotional habit of feeling guilty while eating certain foods, but it’s possible, and it can be a complete game-changer.
How to Avoid Feeling Guilty About Your Food Choices
1. Be aware
Bam! You’re reading this article. You are aware! It’s a critical first step.
2. Practice self-compassion
I mention this next not because self-compassion alone will help you avoid emotional restriction, but because learning not to feel guilty about food choices when you’ve been training yourself to do this for years is challenging.
Make no mistake, you can do it! But chances are, some guilt is going to slip in there now and then. Above all, be kind to yourself when this happens. Anyone who had been brought up in a culture obsessed with eating perfectly would struggle with this. So if some guilty thoughts creep in, just say, “Ok, that happened, but it’s understandable, and I’m moving on.”
3. Get over your fear of fatness
A lot of the time we feel guilty about foods that are going to make or keep us “fat”. These are foods that may be high in calories, high in fat, high in carbs, or high in sugar (which is also a carb, but is demonized enough on its own to make this list).
Ask yourself: why do I fear being fat? The reason, for most of us boils down to one of two things:
- We are taught that thinness is more aesthetically pleasing.
- We are taught that fatness is unhealthy.
One way to begin to counter (a) is to expose yourself to a more diverse set of bodies on a regular basis (instructions are here).
One way to counter (b) is to read the book Body Respect. (I’ll also cover more of that evidence in a future article.)
4. Don’t forget mental/emotional health
We also tend to feel guilty when we eat certain foods that we fear are bad for our health.
Thoughts may pop up for us along the lines of:
- “This food will increase my risk of diabetes.”
- “This food is going to clog my arteries.”
- “This food is going to increase my risk of getting cancer.”
We never pause to consider the health toll our guilt is taking on us. Guilt causes stress and impacts our mental health. And stress impacts our health in countless ways, from contributing to cardiovascular disease to contributing to depression.
5. Recognize that your body and brain are going to get what they want, one way or another
The fact is that we don’t actually have as much control over our food as we think we do. The truth is, all the physical and emotional restriction we do make our brains and bodies desperately want to make up what they’ve lost. A great many of us know that dieting behaviors like restriction cause us to end up bingeing. Seriously, they get what they want eventually; you may feel like you’re exercising control in the short-term, but you lose it in the long-term. This may sound terrifying, but that’s where we get to (6)…
6. Trust in your body to balance your intake
Our bodies are wise. Sooooo wise. We learn not to trust them in childhood, but the truth is that they know exactly what they want, and what they want ends up being what is good for them. Left to their own devices, and trusted, our bodies will ask for a wonderful mix of carbs, fats, proteins, micronutrients, and minerals. It can take a while after restricting for our bodies to find this equilibrium, but they do. So have trust in your amazing body to guide you in the right direction.
7. Be patient with yourself
Most of us have learned these habits over years and years of dieting. It takes time to undo these mental patterns. When in doubt, go back to (2) and have compassion for yourself.
Going guilt-free is a critical step to finding peace with food
Working on reducing guilt is imperative to stopping binge eating, “overeating”, and other forms of bounce-back eating caused by food restriction.
If you find yourself falling into these behaviors at some point in the future but you’re not physically restricting yourself from eating certain foods, ask yourself, “How am I feeling about these foods while I’m eating them? Or after I eat them?”.
If the answer is shameful, guilty, bad, or any negative descriptors, drop everything and return to this lesson.
You can do this!