If you’ve ever found yourself unfairly berating yourself for what you have, or haven’t, eaten, you wouldn’t be alone. Food guilt is a common experience that builds up inside of us, gnawing away at our happiness and our self-esteem. And, at a time when we’re constantly faced with pressure and judgement surrounding both food itself and our body image, it’s easy to see where this may all be coming from.
As if we haven’t already got enough on our plates, food guilt can take over our daily lives, throwing us off course, even affecting our relationships with others. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Here, with the help of nutritionist Rachel Larkin, we explore tips for tackling food guilt, and beginning your journey to a better relationship with the things you eat.
“At a basic level, food is fuel for our bodies – but it’s not as black and white as that, because food plays a part in our social lives, and its preparation and consumption should be a pleasurable experience,” Rachel says. “Food guilt comes from being aware that certain foods are unhealthy – but a balanced diet has a place for unhealthy foods as well as healthy, just in the right proportions.”
You’ve heard it before, but ‘balanced’ really is the key element here, and a healthy diet will include foods across all the food groups, with nutritious meals, as well as your favourite treats.
As Rachel points out, the feelings you may be experiencing around food could be indications of bigger things going on in your life.
“Think about your self-esteem, confidence, and influences from other people,” she recommends. “For most of us, our relationship with food is based on our eating habits as children. This includes what we ate, what we were told about what we eat, and influence from the role models around us. If a parent or guardian was always dieting or labelling certain foods as ‘naughty’ or ‘bad’, then this is likely to have affected how you feel about those foods, even subconsciously.”
To get to the bottom of this, you may want to spend some time reflecting to yourself, or speaking to someone you trust, about your relationship with food, both conscious and unconscious – and this is something a mental health professional will be able to help you with, if you choose to explore it further.
“What were the events leading up to eating that food? Was there a particular trigger? How did you feel before you ate it? What action could you have taken instead, that would have had a better outcome?” Rachel asks.
When we find ourselves entering a thought spiral, it can quickly get out of hand. So, take back control. Next time you recognise feelings of food guilt cropping up, stop, consider the questions Rachel asks, and see what you can learn about yourself and your reaction.
“Food plays a part in our social lives, and its preparation and consumption should be pleasurable”
Mindfulness is a practice that can support us in all areas of our lives – and our relationship with food is no different.
“Eating more mindfully can reduce those impulsive times when you eat something without thinking,” explains Rachel. “Taking a moment before you eat to check in with yourself, to see what your body needs and wants, can help you become aware of what is influencing your choice of food at that time. It can then be easier to assess whether you are eating that food for the right reasons.”
“Starting a record of what you eat – focusing on how you feel before, during, and after – can help you spot patterns where those feelings of guilt and shame pop up,” Rachel advises. “Understanding the causes can help you know how to best support yourself, and change your habits.”
She points out that you may be able to uncover a relationship between food guilt and a host of lifestyle factors, including menstrual cycles, work deadlines, or anything else going on in your life that may be causing stress.
It’s important to recognise that this exercise is intended to help track patterns in your relationship with food, but if you find that the process becomes unhealthy or triggering for you, take a step back and consider speaking to a professional.
When we take the time to delve deeper into our thoughts and feelings, we may uncover surprising things. But, armed with this knowledge, we can begin to set our sights on a self-compassionate future.
Find out more about tackling food guilt by visiting nutritionist-resource.org.uk
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