Let’s talk about food guilt.
As you may already know if you took my free Be a Body Rebel mini-course (tomorrow is the last day to enroll!), I am not ok with food guilt.
Not only is it a huge waste of your time and attention to obsess over what you put in your mouth, but the guilt that tends to accompany food for a lot of people has a way of sucking all the pleasure and joy out of eating (and having a body, tbh).
The thing about the emotion of guilt is that it’s supposed to signal when you’ve done something wrong, and need to set it right. If you thoughtlessly hurt someone’s feelings for example, you might feel a bit guilty and feel a need to apologize. Guilt is actually really useful in that way!
But guilt about food comes from the idea that eating is wrong, and that when you’ve eaten you’ve made a mistake and must set it right.
For each person, the specific rules about which type or quantity of food counts as “wrong,” and which counts as “right” will vary, but guilt typically only arises when the person feels that what they ate was wrong or bad, and that they must make some kind of amends.
The amends vary from person to person too, from going for a workout to “burn it off,” to trying to eat less tomorrow, to simply sitting with the discomfort of guilt as “penance” for one’s “sins.”
Since the details of what causes food guilt is unique to each individual (some feel guilt about sugar, others about fat, some about calories, others about portion size or meal timing), I’m gonna focus here on the overarching pattern which leads to nearly every single moment of food guilt for everyone.
That pattern is: the fear of fatness.
Ninety nine percent of the time, feeling guilty for eating something is code for worrying that the food will either cause the person to gain weight, or to ruin their weight-loss goal.
So where does this fear and loathing of fatness come from?
The answer is: everywhere.
The health, wellness, and fitness industries are obsessed with the notion that being fat is the scariest and worst thing a person can be. Because of this fear of fatness, the “ideal weight” for a healthy person is often supposed to be whatever is just barely above the level in which they are dangerously unwell and falling apart.
Meaning, our fatphobic society would seem to have us believe we should all be striving to carry the lowest possible body fat percentage that we can, without suffering health risks.
Our fatphobic society would have us believe that thinner and leaner is better, healthier, and more attractive riiiiight up until the point where we lose our periods, suffer mental health breakdowns, and our organs start slowly shutting down. (Then it’s supposedly an eating disorder lollll.)
Think about how the goal of most “healthy lifestyle” diets is to eat juuuust less than that amount. The goal seems to always be getting a tiny bit leaner (or maintaining one’s weight at the very least) without gaining even one ounce of fat, ever.
The problem with that goal is that eating below the level of calories required to run a body makes people feel like complete shit– low energy, mood swings, nausea, fatigue, weakness, dizziness, etc.
So in order to make this goal functional, a person has to engage in endless calculations and trades and tricks and methods just to try to shuffle around your energy intake and output in a way that leaves you feeling the least like shit.
For one person, keto or paleo or low carb might make them feel less like shit when barely eating enough to run their body. For someone else, it might be protein focused, or plant based, or intermittent fasting. In order to avoid blood sugar crashes, headaches, fatigue, mood swings, irritability, and brain fog, a person who is eating barely enough food will likely need special supplements, shakes, bars, and other food hacks throughout the day.
Even for someone who isn’t dieting, for someone who is just trying to maintain their weight and “not get fat,” there is this incredibly narrow window of calories which the world has convinced us is “optimal,” just above the level of falling apart all the time.
Given that none of us ever really exactly know how much food we need to thrive each day, there is often a constant hovering sense that we’ve overstepped, fucked up, overshot, or otherwise made a mistake in this precarious calculation.
Enter food guilt.
Note that I’m not talking about just the goal of crazy crash diets here.
I’m talking about regular people who think they are promoting and practicing health and wellness, who are actually promoting and practicing habits intended to make a person as lean as humanly possible without tipping over into dangerous consequences to their organs, mood, energy, hormones, or mental health.
This mindset teaches us that the goal of eating should only ever be to just barely eat enough to function, and not one bite more. The window of eating “right” when viewed this way is so narrow– that you need carbs for energy but not too much, you need fats to stay alive but not too much.
Which means that for a lot of people, food guilt is something they experience every single day.
Trying to figure out the perfect formula, to stay inside that narrow golden window of eating “right” is beyond stressful and confusing. Feeling physically shitty if you undereat, and emotionally shitty if you overeat, you’re stuck between a rock and hard place in which food itself can start to feel dirty and wrong.
This is all the result of fatphobia. If we were truly ok culturally with a wide range of body shape and size diversity, the goal of being as lean as possible wouldn’t exist, and the panic of trying to nail this “golden window” wouldn’t either.
If you’re someone who experiences food guilt on a regular basis, I encourage you to explore your relationship to what is an “ideal” way of eating, and also to explore your personal relationship to fatness.
If your “ideal” is to eat just below or just barely at the level of calories required to function (as it is for so many people who have been influenced by fear of fatness and diet culture), consider what effect that has on your life.
How does this “ideal” affect your stress and anxiety levels around food?
How does fear of fatness affect your self-care and behaviors?
How does it affect your mood and energy and ability to thrive?
And what do you want to do with that information?