Feeling Guilt After Eating? A Dietitian’s Perspective

fruits arranged in a sad face

In our culture, the language around food can range from raving about the newest foodie spot in town to break room conversations about your coworker’s latest diet. Unfortunately, many food conversations will often be tainted with judgments. For many, these types of conversations contribute feelings of guilt after eating. 

In the following article we will explore the following:

  • reasons many feel guilt after eating
  • how food guilt negatively impacts our lives
  • actionable steps for overcoming food guilt

Why do we feel guilt after eating?

Diet Culture Influence

Social Influence

In the age of social media we have access to everyone’s opinions 24/7. Opinions on food choices are not exempt from this. We are often inundated with the latest food trends, crazes, and fads without even asking for it.

With this constant influx of nutrition opinion, we can’t help but begin to compare our choices to others. Unfortunately, the unintended outcome of this often results in misunderstanding and ill informed judgment.

Good food versus Bad food Mentality

We also have a tendency as a society to discuss food choices using moral language. 

For example, “that cupcake I took from the break room was a bad idea” or “I should be good and get a salad for lunch.” However, pizza has never committed arson and cookies aren’t thefts!

The constant discussion of good and bad food choices is bound to leave an impact and when we find ourselves choosing the fried chicken sandwich over the kale superfood salad.

In that moment we remember the pedestal kale is placed on and the negative dialogue surrounding fried foods. This is where food guilt begins to take hold.

Sensationalized Nutrition Trends

Diet culture mentality continues to support this language and perpetuates misinformation about the foods we have access to. Throw in social media and celebrity endorsement and we are up against some giant influences! 

We lose sight of the truth and begin to blame food for things we relate to our own worth. When “everyone” seems to be dieting for the new year or your break room is filled with keto discussion, it feels like you can’t escape the judgment.

Disconnect with Our Internal Cues

What are hunger and fullness cues?

Our internal signals of hunger and fullness are controlled by hormones. These hormones are called ghrelin (prompts hunger) and leptin (prompts fullness). They send signals to our brain to let us know when it’s time to eat and when we are satisfied.

How are they regulated?

We are all born with the natural ability to notice and honor these signals. A part of our brain called the hypothalamus is in charge of hunger and fullness regulation

However, years of dieting, busy school/work schedules, and simply not listening to these cues can significantly diminish their strength. 

What happens when our cues are diminished?

When our cues lose strength we are less able to confidently make choices around when and how much to eat. Our bodies are great at adapting to our patterns and if it is often signaling hunger or fullness and not being listened to, our signal strength and frequency will diminish.

For example, if someone constantly skips breakfast, over time they will lose their morning hunger cues and become used to eating later in the day. Once they are able to return to eating in the mornings they will notice that they once again become hungry for breakfast.  

Food guilt can quickly manifest itself if we don’t trust our bodies to tell us when we’re hungry or stop us when we are full. 

In the above example, if we don’t usually get hungry for breakfast, but one weekend our friends invite us out to breakfast we may feel guilty after eating because we weren’t really hungry for the meal.

Uncertainty About our Individual Nutrition Needs

Lack of Nutrition Education

Our population is highly under-educated on the topic of nutrition. Many learn about how to eat from their parents, who learned how to eat from their parents, so on and so forth without any formal education. This has fostered the “I eat, therefore I am an expert” mentality.

Our society lacks formal nutrition education unless it is sought out by the individual (ie. elective courses in high school or choosing a nutrition career path in college). 

High Expectations Set by Social Media

We promote celebrities and influencers based on their physical appearances and ask “how do you do it?” All the while not acknowledging that they have personal chefs, trainers, their job is often based on their image, and they have the financial means to access any food at any time..

We fail to educate your average consumer on what it is our bodies need to make a balanced meal, how to create a thoughtful grocery list, and basic cooking skills. 

When we don’t know what to eat or we doubt ourselves, this can lead to feeling guilty about the choices we make compared to say food bloggers, celebrities, influencers, and athletes. 

What outcomes does this guilt lead to?

Eating Disorders and Disordered Eating

What causes eating disorders?

To put it simply, the constant negative narrative around food in our culture makes it difficult for anyone to really know “what is right” when choosing how to nourish ourselves. Then we add in a dash of unattainable body standards and we have a perfect recipe for an eating disorder.

Let’s take a look at the definitions of 3 eating disorder diagnoses and see if we notice anything:

  • Bulimia nervosa is defined as an eating disorder in which a large quantity of food is consumed in a short period of time, often followed by feelings of guilt or shame that influence purging behaviors.
  • Binge eating disorder (BED) is defined as a severe, life-threatening, and treatable eating disorder characterized by recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food (often very quickly and to the point of discomfort); a feeling of a loss of control during the binge; experiencing shame, distress or guilt afterwards.
  • Anorexia nervosa is defined as “an emotional disorder characterized by an obsessive desire to lose weight by refusing to eat” 

Commonalities you see in these definitions include obsessive focus on weight and eating habits along with guilt and shame.

Inability to Participate

Isolation, Anxiety, and Loss of Interest or in Food Related Situations

So at this point you may be thinking “so what? I don’t have a diagnosed eating disorder, I am just being health conscious!” and while this may be true for now, as nutrition providers we have seen the ugly side of sitting with our guilt surrounding food.

We see people withdrawing from their friend groups and loved ones. We see fear in client’s eyes as the holiday season approaches. We see people who once loved cooking and creating in the kitchen, stop completely.

How can we challenge this guilt internally?

Dialectical Statements

One of our go to skills we teach clients is creating a dialectical statement. This skill comes from Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). 

The essence of this skill comes down to pairing up two seemingly opposing thoughts: one typically from our emotional response and the other a logical fact. 

For example:

Today in the breakroom at work they brought in donuts and I ended up having two over the course of my work day.

The emotional response may sound like: “wow, why did I need to eat 2 of those donuts, that was such a bad decision! I feel disgusting.”

Then, the logical fact may sound like: “I had two donuts over the course of my busy work day. I know they provided me with some simple carbs to fuel my brain and I don’t often treat myself to these types of sweets.”

To make a dialectical statement we would say: “I feel disgusted in myself for eating 2 donuts at work AND I know my body needs carbohydrates and fats to function, this is not a daily choice for me but is okay in moderation.

infrographic with colorful creatures explaining dialectical statement examples

Learn from Nutrition Professionals

The next thing we can do for ourselves to help push back against the guilt we feel after eating is to take the time to learn about nutrition from nutrition professionals.

So, who are nutrition professionals? Well, let’s start with who are NOT nutrition professionals: 

  • food bloggers without credentials
  • social media influencers without credentials
  • nutritionists
  • doctors
  • celebrities
  • athletes
  • your friend who lost weight following [insert diet trend here]
  • sales people at supplement stores

Nutrition professionals are individuals who have specifically gone to school for nutrition science, completed an accredited dietetics internship program, and maintain the proper credentialing.

The proper credentials to look for are Registered Dietitians (RD)/Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDN) and in some states licensing is required as well Licensed Dietitian (LD)/Licensed Dietitian Nutritionist (LDN).

How will my actions show that I am challenging food guilt?

Consistently Participate

Incorporating foods that leave us feeling guilty after eating can seem daunting, but one thing I know to be true is that avoidance will never solve this issue! For this reason we need to keep incorporating ALL foods, in the mental health world they would call this exposure therapy.

So what would it look like to rebel against food guilt:

  • Don’t cut out full food groups
  • Don’t avoid celebratory foods
  • Participate in food-related social events
  • Avoid deprivation as this can lead to higher cravings
  • Normalize a wide variety of food choices

If we truly believe that all foods can fit in moderation, then guilt will find no place to settle in.

Final Thoughts

Living in a society where image is everything and education on nutrition is lacking, we have created the perfect recipe for food judgments and food-related guilt. This oftentimes leads to ignoring our natural hunger/fullness cues which can have serious consequences. 

Fortunately, there are many things you can do to fight against this to heal your relationship with food. Consider creating dialectical statements for food judgements. 

Seek out professional help from a registered dietitian (bonus points if they are anti diet/eating disorder specialized). 

Finally, remember food has no moral value. It not only fuels us, it can also provide us with joy!

If you’re interested in learning more about nutrition from a dietitian or in learning new skills to reduce guilt after eating follow us on Instagram or Facebook or fill out our contact form on our website to be added to our newsletter to learn about upcoming offerings!

Stay well!

Jessi & Taylor

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