• Food can be a great source of pleasure, but what if eating makes us feel guilty or ashamed?

  • When foods are 'good' and 'bad', we can become highly self-critical

  • Nutritionist Pixie Turner's new book No Need to Diet wants you to change your relationship to food

If I asked you to eat a bar of chocolate, how would you feel afterwards? Happy and content? Or guilty and ashamed? These feelings of guilt and shame are so common now that we think it’s totally fine and normal to feel this way. Now I’d agree it’s almost ‘normal’ now, but that doesn’t make it ok. I truly believe that everyone deserves to eat without fear or guilt or shame plaguing their thoughts.

These negative feelings tend to come because we feel we’ve eaten a ‘bad’ food. The way we describe food is mimicked in the way we feel about ourselves. After all, the phrase ‘you are what you eat’ is so common, and to a certain extent it’s right: the food we eat becomes our bones, our muscles, our skin… our whole body. But that’s where it ends. Food does not have the ability to transfer moral value to our bodies. In other words: eating a ‘bad’ food doesn’t make you a ‘bad’ person, nor does eating a ‘good’ food make you a ‘good’ person. Yet we unconsciously believe this quite strongly. Otherwise, why would food illicit such a powerful emotional response?

Having negative associations with foods can lead to feelings of anxiety or guilt at having eaten them, as well as thoughts of how to compensate for this behaviour: skipping the next meal, eating a lot less the next day, doing an extra workout, or even purging. These are not healthy food behaviours.

Why we need to ditch shame around food

Guilt and shame are not effective motivators to change behaviour, at least not long-term, and the side effects are particularly damaging for our mental health. There was an interesting study where people were asked if they associated chocolate cake more with guilt or celebration. Those who associated chocolate cake with guilt were not healthier or more motivated than those who associated it with celebration. In fact, they felt less in control around food and said they were more likely to overeat. Guilt and shame lead to feelings of helplessness and lack of control, as well as self-criticism, all of which can encourage poor self-esteem and low mood.

Honestly, no food should ever make you feel guilty. Because all food is guilt-free.

But, of course, humans don’t exist in isolation. We’re surrounded by people, even sometimes when we eat. A simple negative comment or judgement from someone while we’re eating can be very powerful. There’s no simple solution to this, other than to reassure you that you don’t owe anyone an explanation for what you choose to eat, and that no one has the right to judge you. Politely telling someone where they can shove their comment tends to work well in my experience, as does a blank stare and “don’t say that”. When others don’t have that power over you to control how you’re allowed to feel about eating certain foods, it’s incredibly freeing.

How to free yourself from food guilt

Convincing others is one thing, but convincing yourself is probably harder. Making sure you’re relaxed before eating something that normally causes you guilt and anxiety is incredibly important, as it allows for a more enjoyable eating experience. While you’re eating, focus on the flavour, and tune out any thoughts about what others are thinking or about the moral value of the food. Focus on flavour and texture. Afterwards, make a note of what exactly was enjoyable about eating that food – this creates a positive association with that food that can be reinforced in the future with repetition. Over time it really does get easier.

It’s also important to note that we call have a responsibility to be mindful of our language when around others, as our words can affect them too. Loudly proclaiming “oh god I’m being so bad today by eating this cake” may not only decrease your enjoyment of the cake, but also affects the person sitting at the next table, who, up until that point, might have been really looking forward to that cake. If someone near you is more vulnerable to these kinds of comments you could be negatively affecting their mental health.

As I said at the start, everyone deserves to enjoy food, but for some that’s far easier said than done. If it’s something you’re really struggling with then finding a professional support, such as a psychotherapist, nutritionist or dietitian with experience in this area can be just what you need.

Further reading

Why we feel shame and how to let it go

Helping your child develop a healthy relationship with food

The psychological costs of body shame and self-objectification

7 thinking traps that hinder a good relationship with food