It seems to be a “catch 22”: the more you try to lose weight, the harder you try, then the more pressure you put on yourself, only to feel discouraged, not see results, and then potentially give up. What’s so unusual about that? However, when you’re trying to establish better eating habits to lose weight, you’ll be more successful if you have a healthy attitude towards food instead of guilt. Food guilt can drive you to feel helpless and out of control, which can make your weight loss efforts counterproductive.
“You should never feel guilty about eating any food,” says Rahaf Al Bochi, RD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and owner of Olive Tree Nutrition.” There is no such thing as ‘helpful’ food guilt. Food guilt of any kind is bad for your mental health and can trap you in a yo-yo dieting cycle.”
Here, take a look at the reasons behind food guilt, why it matters how you feel about food, and – most importantly – how to cultivate a positive mindset about food.
Guilt about food is common among people who often restrict what they eat.
“Over time, you can feel deprived, and restricted foods can constantly take over your mind,” says Al Bochi. This is likely to lead to “when you give in, you end up eating the foods you’re restricting. It usually ends with overeating and subsequent feelings of guilt. People who diet think they don’t have the willpower or they’ve failed, but in reality, it’s the diet that’s failed them. Overeating is a natural response to food restriction.”
Your attitude toward food matters: some studies have found that food guilt is stronger among people who think they’re over-eating, even if they’re not. Other studies have looked at the associations people have in their minds for indulgent foods like chocolate cake – do you think it’s celebratory? Does it make you feel guilty?” — found that people who associate chocolate cake with guilt in high-stress situations were more likely to have unhealthy eating habits, negative attitudes toward healthy eating, and lower levels of self-control related to food in stressful situations. These feelings of guilt may cause people to eat more than they want to in stressful situations.
If you suffer from food guilt, especially in high-stress situations, try these ideas to change your mindset about food, which may help you achieve your weight loss goals.
View food as neutral.
If you’re more likely to associate chocolate cake with guilt rather than celebration, then you may also believe that some foods (such as fruit and vegetables) are ‘good’ and others (such as chips and sweets) are ‘bad’. For some people, this goes back to childhood, and you may have learned this message from your parents, internalizing it before forming your own opinions. If you eat something you think you shouldn’t eat, labeling food this way can lead you to think negatively about yourself.
“When you eat ‘bad’ foods, you end up feeling guilty for eating them,” says Alboch.” In reality, food has no moral value. All food should be seen as neutral. Redefine what health means to you. Try to view food as neutral and give yourself full permission to enjoy all foods in moderation.”
Find Other Ways to Relieve Stress
Some people use food as a coping mechanism in times of stress, and they feel guilty when they eat too much in these situations.” Using food as a coping mechanism is problematic when it’s your only strategy for relieving stress,” says Al Bochi.” Having a list of non-food strategies to relieve stress in these situations is very helpful.” Consider calling a friend, going for a walk or journaling to help you calm down after something stressful or upsetting.
Decide in advance what your intentions are
Some research suggests that when you choose how to respond to a stressful food situation before you experience that moment, you are less likely to give in to temptation. This may reduce the likelihood that you’ll experience food guilt.
“Make a plan beforehand,” suggests study author Dr. Reline Kuijer, associate professor of psychology at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.”‘ ‘If I go to this party, I know there’s going to be cake. I’m only going to have one small piece of cake and I’m not going to go back for a second piece’. If you have a fairly detailed plan beforehand, it becomes easier because you’re making the decision in a calm environment, without the presence and temptation of cake.”