I Shouldn’t Have Eaten That (Food Guilt)

In the health and fitness community, probably one of the most disturbing and damaging trends I see is the prevalence of food guilt. Food guilt is the sinking feeling of failure, regret and helplessness which follows the act of ‘indulging’ in something you enjoy but which is not on your usual plan – you ate the chocolate which you aren’t allowed and now you feel bad for it. Food guilt can be crippling and can have a lasting effect on the psychological wellbeing of dieters.

Those experiencing food guilt are, however, looking at this whole thing from the wrong angle, and without considering these next three points, they may never be free from the shame of looking at the bottom of an ice cream tub and wishing they’d never opened it.

1 – Food is not bad or good

OK, this first point is by far the easiest to address. Food is not bad nor good, it has no moral compass and eating something generally considered unhealthy doesn’t have any negative reflection on you as a person any more than eating something healthy makes you some kind of messiah.

If you have a specific intolerance or allergy to something then you should avoid it, but outside of that specific situation, there is no reason to completely avoid anything. And if you are ALLOWED to do something, why would you feel guilty for doing it?

Instead of using these moral terms, think of it this way: some foods in some contexts may help you reach a goal which you have, and some foods, again context depending, may take you a little further from that goal. Not only is this OK on occasion (more on it in a second) but labelling something as objectively ‘good’ or ‘bad’ only gives a false dichotomy which leads down the path of guilt and shame. The context is key, and this leads me to my second point…


2 – Nutrition is supposed to be about happiness.

There are a great many reasons that someone may choose to start to take more notice of their nutrition. They may desire weight loss or weight gain, health improvements, sporting performance increases, loads of things.

But it always boils down to happiness.

Look at these goals; looking better, feeling better, living longer, sleeping better, breathing more easily, avoiding disease, competing in competitions, meeting new people, living a life which is free of the restrictions placed upon us by a body which is unable to move – is this not ultimately about happiness?

So why, in our pursuit of happiness, have we forgotten about the simple happiness brought to us by food?

Food is a pleasure, food is experience, texture, taste, colour, aroma, mouthfeel, the company with whom you eat, the conversations over which your meal is eaten, the burst of ‘happy hormones’ released when we bite into something we crave. We eat to celebrate and mourn and fall in love.

To feel guilty for enjoying something which makes us happy, because we are pursuing happiness, straight up makes no sense.

Of course, we need balance, and there is often some sacrifice of immediate gratification needed in order to yield a greater reward at a later date – cake may make you happy for a while, but a daily cake which results in you eating too many calories is going to leave you unhealthy and unhappy. I don’t dispute that – but the here and now cannot always be ignored and the future should not always be the focus.

If you are consistently thinking about your goal, always making the right choices, making progress and GETTING SOMEWHERE, but then occasionally accept a minor setback because enjoying a meal out with your friends is more important to your happiness than reaching your goals 3-4 days earlier – then this should not be a source of guilt.

Circling back to it being OK to accept setbacks…


3 – Body composition takes a long time to alter

You cannot get lean in a week. You just can’t. Not only that, but there are some things often brushed off as ‘excuses’ or ‘a lack of dedication’ that actually do matter, for example:

  • You aren’t a professional and you have a life outside of the gym.
  • You aren’t a robot and you have wants, desires and – dare I say it – flaws
  • You have a job, maybe a family, and all kinds of other things which bring you joy but also stress

And all of this means that the chances of you actually reaching some hypothetical and idealised state whereby you can be ‘perfect’ for months at a time is somewhere around 3 tenths of bugger all.

Realistic, habit-based changes don’t involve perfection, they involve slow and steady, gradual alterations to what you are doing now – swap a croissant for some eggs, swap coke for diet, swap the lift for the stairs. They also involve working with what you have and knowing that, because you’re not a pro, you can and should chill a little. If your child’s birthday cake looks good, dammit – have some of it with them. If your friends invite you out for a drink and you’ve skipped the last few – go!

Balance and enjoyment should be a part of your plan, and if you’re feeling guilty because you are trying to force perfection but life keeps getting in the way, then stop trying to get a square peg in a round hole. Maybe swap that beer with friends for a spirit and diet mixer, and go home after three drinks, skipping the pizza shop as you go – it’s not perfect, but it’ll work, and you’ll enjoy it, too. And if you choose to have a blowout?

Well, this is going to take time anyway. Fat loss is about creating sustainable habits, and if it’s not sustainable for you to abstain from a thing you like, don’t try to. You’re an adult, and you are allowed to say “hey, I know that eating/drinking this will slow my fat loss down a little, but I lost 2lbs per week for the last 4 weeks and don’t mind if I maintain or gain a little this week because it’s a special occasion and it’s going to be fun”. Get back on plan the next day, no harm, no foul.

Ultimately if you’re not in the shape you want to be this time next year, it won’t be because of what you did this week. It’ll be because of the sum of the average of your actions between now and then, and so long as that average is leaning towards progress, what do you have to be guilty about?

"All in or all out" Rachael is a vibrant, no-bullshit-talking Scottish nutrition geek and coach helping women to lose weight without giving up their confidence OR their favourite foods.

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