Our relationship with food can be very complex, especially if we struggle with body image issues. Guilt and shame are two emotions sometimes linked to food that can result in negative eating habits. Although the two are similar, there are distinctions between them that are important to understand to develop a healthier relationship with food.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN GUILT AND SHAME
“Food guilt is a negative emotion where you feel bad for something you did or didn’t do related to a decision or behavior around food,” explains Rebecca Scritchfield, RDN, author of Body Kindness. “The emphasis is on the thing — ‘I did a bad thing,’” she adds.
For example, maybe you made a batch of cookies and then ate too many before bed while standing up in the kitchen instead of sitting down and savoring them. Perhaps you wished you had made a cup of tea, put two cookies on your plate and slowly eaten them at the table. That’s food guilt.
Food shame would be thinking: I suck. I shouldn’t have eaten cookies right before bed. I didn’t even sit down to enjoy them. I’m never going to reach my goals. “You feel an intense amount of guilt that’s a judgment about you as a ‘person’ because of something related to food,” Scritchfield explains.
Many of us experience food shame because of our appearance-driven diet culture. “We think we need rigidity to pursue this ideal appearance we have in our mind,” Scritchfield says. When we break the “rules” of a diet or other eating advice, we feel guilty and, in turn, criticize our worthiness.
WAYS TO DEVELOP A POSITIVE RELATIONSHIP WITH FOOD
Here are five ways to overcome food guilt and shame to cultivate a better relationship with food once and for all:
Because food is a huge part of our social lives, it’s not realistic to skip happy hours, birthdays, weddings and almost every event. If you catch yourself feeling guilt or shame, Scritchfield says to first come up with a compassionate response: “It’s OK that I ate in front of the TV after dinner.” Then reaffirm your commitment to your goals: “Tomorrow, it’s really important for me to not eat in front of the TV. After dinner, I’ll brush my teeth and go to bed.”
We have certain beliefs about food, but our beliefs aren’t always facts. Nurse practitioner Robyn Nohling, RD, suggests writing a list of your beliefs about food, your body and exercise, such as “pizza makes you fat” or “white carbs are bad.” Then dismantle all those beliefs.
“Where is that belief rooted — in fact or is it some arbitrary belief made up by diet culture?” Nohling asks. Take your thoughts to paper in this way and discover what is and isn’t true, working with a therapist or dietitian if you need help.
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“If you are truly healthy, you’re not stressing about what you are eating,” Nohling says. She recommends writing down the things that, at your core, you want to live by. Then when you second-guess your food choices and guilt or shame starts to creep in, recall your values. If ordering chicken parm because it’s what you want, then own it, even if your friend orders a salad because he’s “trying to be healthy.”
“Dieting isn’t helpful. Those external rules are what grows shame the most,” Scritchfield says. But she understands that going on your own is scary. Because of this, intuitive eating can be a powerful tool.
Scritchfield suggests three things to start this practice: 1. Most of the time, eat when you’re hungry. 2. Balance your plate. You can still have pizza night, but consider adding a salad for more veggies or making sure you have a protein. 3. Savor your meal. Eat off of a plate or bowl and notice the texture and tastes of each bite. (Hint: Turning off the TV helps.)
Try to shift your perspective when food guilt attempts to rob you of living your fullest life. “What are you going to remember a year, three years, five years, 10 years down the road?” Nohling asks. “You will never remember the food you didn’t eat or the number of calories you consumed or the run you did. But you will remember the experiences you had and the people you engaged with.”