How to deal with food guilt and shame

How many times have you punished yourself before or after you ate something?

“I shouldn’t have….”

“If I eat this I…”

“Should I compensate after eating a..”

Do I need to continue?

One of the most common issues I work with: feeling guilt and shame around food. Did you know 80% of women and 70% of men suffer from food guilt? It onlytakes going out to dinner to hear your company or people at the next table confessing their food guilt.

Let’s differentiate the two:

Guilt = I feel bad about what I’ve eaten or I shouldn’t have had that. Shame = I’m a bad person/unloveable/unworthy/not good enough.

Guilt is feeling bad about something we’ve done, shame is feeling like a bad person- it’s the fear of disconnection or being perceived as being unworthy (or any negative core beliefs).

Suffering from a severe eating disorder, I experienced terrible guilt and shame, which came from all carbs. These for me were top of the list of my banned, bad foods. I became so obsessed that I would think even a few mouthfuls and I would blow up like a whale! If I were to (in my mind) weaken and have some rice or cereal, that inner critic of mine would go into over-drive, shouting at me, telling me how weak and useless I am. That feeling of guilt became so strong, in the end I would just try and avoid carbs all together!

That inner voice that beats you up before you eat and makes you feel guilty afterward is your worst enemy. It’s woven so deeply into your mind that it becomes a natural response. Mine was so strong and so loud it drowned out any other voice of reason.

So, as an example. You dish up a delicious pasta dish for dinner and as you finish the last tasty bite, the inner critic voice in your mind starts to scream: “pasta is so bad”, “I should have chosen a salad or healthy soup, how can I make up for this?”.

Many people struggle with feelings of guilt or shame after eating something they labelled as bad. Labelling food as good or bad prevents you from actually enjoying it. These feelings of guilt easily result in self-loathing, shame and hopelessness. To get rid of the feelings of losing control and guilt you feel the urge to compensate them using destructive behaviours and self-imposed rules and restrictions.

Even though this isn’t a formal eating disorder, this ‘food guilt’ behaviour is still an example of disordered eating.

I remember how the feelings of guilt and failure pushed me into punishing behaviours like compulsive exercising, making myself sick, restriction or anything that could help me to get rid of that feeling. In recovery, I discovered those feelings weren’t really related to food. They were related to the inability to love and accept myself and the presence of my – nagging and pesky – inner critic that was constantly telling me that I wasn’t good enough.

The lists of “good” and “bad” food or feelings of guilt after eating were just the way to deal with that. If you feel guilty or bad after eating a burger or chocolate it’s easy to feel bad about yourself too and what you ate starts to define the way you feel about yourself. Understanding your behaviours is an important aspect of finding a health relationship with food.

What is actually going on when you are experiencing food guilt and shame?

If you are stuck in an, “I feel guilt when I eat X” cycle.  Here’s one thing that could be going on.

When stuck in a diet mentality, you deprive yourself of foods you enjoy.  This means food deprivation is high, but guilt is low.  

What happens when you deprive yourself of certain foods

The little part of you that houses your guilt gets to stay cool, calm and collected when you are restricting yourself from foods that you deem “bad”.  Everything in your world seems right.  Everything except the fact that you are hungry and not satisfied by the carb-less kale salads you are eating.  

BUT guilt is low, which probably feels nice and gives you a sense of control over your life.  

Eventually you get to a point where you can’t deprive yourself anymore and you let go of deprivation (aka you let yourself eat what your body is craving).  Extreme desire for/restriction of a certain food leads to extreme eating.  The more you restrain yourself around a food, the more off limits that food becomes and the more you will typically overeat when you finally allow yourself to have the food.

At this point, deprivation is low and guilt is high.  

This is also the point you vow to never eat “X” again.  Then the seesaw between guilt and deprivation starts again.  All the while you asking yourself why you have no willpower around food.  

I wanna say that willpower is not the issue here.  The issue is actually the deprivation!

Many people can seesaw between guilt and deprivation for YEARS.  However, by giving yourself permission to eat all foods, you give yourself permission to walk away from deprivation AND to therefore walk away from the guilt.  

How to overcome your food guilt

1. Journaling

When you feel the urge to act on a behaviour you use to get rid of the feeling of that guilt, start journaling.

· Write down what you feel and where you think it comes from.

· In what parts of your body do you feel it the most?

· If that feeling had a shape, colour, weight, intensity on a scale of 0-10 what would it be?

2. Question the guilt and shame

Remember: We feel guilty when we feel like we broke a rule.

So ask yourself:

  • What rule did I just break?

  • Where did I learn this rule?

  • Would I suggest a child or grandparent follow this rule?

  • Does following this rule help me get closer to food peace?

  • What are my current values and does following this rule align with them?

  • Can I create space to neutralize this - it’s neither good nor bad, it’s just ______ (food, eating past comfortable fullness, a midnight snack).

3. Practice self-compassion

Compassion: It’s ok to feel this way. We’re unlearning years of diet mentality while living in a culture obsessed with thinness disguised as “health”. This is really hard!

  • What else would you say to a child or loved one struggling with this? 

  • What would your 99-year-old self appreciate about your current body?

4. 3- me gifts

Another exercise that I found really useful is to write down 3 things you like about yourself.

I remember the first time I had to do that all I could think of was ‘This is stupid. There is nothing to like or love about me.’ But after a while, I noticed a shift and suddenly I was able to approach myself with kindness instead of judgment. This exercise is a simple way to distract your mind and by directing it towards something positive it helps you in learning to appreciate yourself.

5. Evacuate the Zone

Promptly exit the scene of the food crime. Seriously, even if it’s on a sun-drenched terrace overlooking Lake Como, and Clooney’s there, whispering in your ear about how Amal and he are going through a rough patch, and his breath is like sugar blossom tickling the nape of your neck…leave! There’s nothing but Guilt to be gained by lingering over the debris, calculating the caloric damage of all foods demolished. New location = new beginning.

6. Get Distracted

Once you’re in a new locale, do something new to distract yourself. Go for a stroll outside to walk off the Guilt. Get a manicure and your hands will be clean (not guilty!) Hit a bookshop or library and get lost in some fiction far, far away from the realms of Food Guilt. And if you want to sit at a coffee shop and write a love letter to George, do it. The most important thing is that you distract yourself and move on to something new. Otherwise, lingering Food Guilt will just set you back onto the denial/temptation/remorse dreadmill.

It’s ok- making food decisions is tough for everyone

We make an average of 226.7 food decisions a day, so it makes sense why navigating this can feel impossible. Often times the eating issues developed as a way to cope with anxiety, depression, trauma, relationship issues, life transitions, and other difficult experiences so it isn’t easy to “just eat”, “let go of the guilt” or “stop bingeing”.

The food behaviors may be serving a purpose that can’t just go away by will alone. We have to addressthe underlying issues and develop more skills to use. Keep in mind that food is rather benign when you consider the range of options we have to regulate emotions. Sometimes food is one of our only choices and it’s ok to emotionally eat- it can be part of “normal” eating and doesn’t need to be villainized.

Remember that change doesn’t happen overnight and it’s okay to feel guilty as long as you don’t judge yourself for it (or act on them).

Your worth doesn’t depend on food or diet rules.

Food is to nourish your body and feed your mind and soul, not for counting calories and compensation. It’s a waste of time and energy. So, the next time when the guilt pops up in your mind during or after eating, take a moment to step back and try to realize “Oh there is guilt, it’s going to make me feel bad, but you know what, I’m not.”

Do you wish you could build a better relationship with food?

Get in contact today- I want to hear from you and find out what you are going through. We are all fellow strugglers!

0432 445 320

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Hypnotherapy Sydney

Life Coaching Sydney

Eating Disorder Treatment Sydney

Call Hannah at Master your Mind on 0432 445 320