Posted on February 6th, 2018
Contrary to Hippocrates, food is many things. It’s vital energy, sustenance, medicine, joy, comfort and coming together. However, it is also increasingly bound up with more sinister emotions – worry, stress and guilt to name an unwelcome few.
Eating is no longer simply eating. It is a complex process of negotiating decisions and justifying choices. A battle field of organic, GMO, fair trade, vegan, gluten free, dairy free, MSG, trans fat, palm oil, salt, additives, chemicals, emulsifiers, artificial sweeteners, bloating, wind, constipation and the most tiresome of all, will it make me fat?
I’m not suggesting all of these should be lumped in the same bag. Indeed, with the exception of certain cases, we shouldn’t turn a blind eye on some of the injustices implicit in the global food industry. Yet, at the same time we must also ask ourselves, is this guilt actually leading to positive changes, or is it having a more menacing impact, causing us more grief than it’s actually worth?
Food psychologist Paul Rozin argues that the impact of worry and stress around eating can have a more profound effect on health that the food itself. In other words, Rozin is suggesting the way we approach food mentally is more important for health that the sum of nutrients in the food itself .
Take the French Paradox for example. The French are notorious for their love of bread, wine and cheese, yet ironically have some of the lowest rates of cardiovascular disease in Europe. On the contrary, diet culture and diet foods are widespread in the USA and UK, but in these countries general health outcomes are poor and obesity more prevalent. I don’t think I need any more excuses for an everyday sit down lunch with wine.
So why the worry?
I believe there are three broad reasons for the guilt that’s become ubiquitous in our eating practices. The first is guilt associated with how food will affect our body shape and size, the second is more to do with nutrition and health and the third is other ethical issues around food such as sustainability, animal welfare and social justice.
“Will it make me fat” guilt?
I am most closely acquainted with this guilt, it breaks my heart that most young girls, and increasingly boys are. It’s the kind of guilt that robs all eating experiences from joy, so that a meaningful and beautiful moment is squashed by worry and penance. Our society is to blame for this guilt. The idealisation of female beauty throughout history has led us to aspire towards something that isn’t obtainable, and to feel pretty hopeless in our efforts. Plus, the onslaught of diet books, diet foods, diet trends and DIET CULTURE makes us feel like we must forever be on a diet, often dressed up as eating “healthy” or being “good” to prevent “letting ourselves go”. I am sure we have all experienced this type of guilt before.
“Will it give make me sick” guilt?
With the rise of wellness I believe these anxieties have become increasingly commonplace. With chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes and heart disease frequently splashed across the headlines certain foods are villainised or we become stricken with worry over pesticides, cooking styles and our blood sugar levels. Again, the simplicity of eating is taken away and genuine fears can lead to restriction, avoiding social occasions and disordered eating.
“Will it harm the planet” guilt?
I’m not saying this kind of guilt, is wholly negative. Our planet is precious and we could all do a bit more to respect it. This theme also includes other ethical and moral questions tied up in food like free trade and the impacts of the food we eat on people and places all around the world.
I have stressed before that not all of us are in a position whereby we can afford to let these things really get to us. One must have the luxury of money, education, accessibility and also mental and physical health to be able to adapt their diet in these ways, and it is wrong to assume those who don’t are either ignorant or lazy.
It’s impossible to be perfect! Accept that the best you can do is all you can do, but also crucially that sometimes you have to put yourself first. I know this can be especially difficult for those with eating disorders and this has become even more difficult with the rising trend of veganism, but it is important that your health comes first and there are plenty of things we can do for the planet outside of being vegan too.
So what next?
Studies talk about guilt being adaptive of maladaptive. Adaptive guilt is the kind that guides our behaviours in a healthy way. It’s the kind of guilt we can manage and work with. For example, people who feel strongly about animal cruelty may adapt to this through engaging in a vegan diet, buying vegan make up and not buying clothes made from animals – it’s very much part of a lifestyle. So long as the diet isn’t restrictive and works in the context of the individuals life – great!
The concept of adaptive guilt is constantly used by diet culture and even government health campaigns. It plays on emotions with the aim of changing behaviours, but it frequently backfires the result of which is maladaptive guilt.
Maladaptive guilt, rather than changing our behaviours causes us to feel more helpless and out of control than before. This can easily be applied to food, guilt can lead us to restrict and then over eat or even binge later in the day leaving us feeling hopeless. This guilt doesn’t change our behaviours in a way that’s manageable, sustainable or healthy! On the contrary, it exacerbates the problem and fucks up our relationship with food. It takes enjoyment out things that are supposed to be enjoyed and of course we blame ourselves for lacking any kind of control or willpower!
SO, now I’ve probably overloaded you with information I thought I’d share some of my top tips for dealing with food guilt that will hopefully help if you’re struggling. Before I get going, I just want to say that if you have an active eating disorder or are in recovery, the most important thing is getting proper help from a professional. Whilst some of these tips might be helpful, they are aimed at a more general audience and mustn’t be substituted for expert support.
In the words of Frozen – LET IT GOOOO!
If you’ve already eaten something, feeling guilty about it isn’t going to magically rewind time. Take a deep breath and let that shit go.
Ask yourself why guilt has crept in?
Get to the bottom of your guilt. By thinking rationally about it, you can start to see how it’s not worth your worry. For example, lets say you eat a sandwich and feel guilty. Ask yourself why! Probably because carbs have long been demonised and are wrongly associated with weight gain. Ask any nutritionist and they will tell you the importance of this vital macronutrient and that it’s not going to make you fat either. Your guilt is the result of nutribollocks and stupid magazines – do you want to act on that and let it get you down? Maybe you’re also anxious that the bread will make you sluggish and bloated? Question these preconceived ideas and where you got them from. Once you start really thinking about it, it should just make you angry.
Accept guilt is counter productive
I’ve told you about maladaptive guilt now so you can fully understand how counterproductive feeling guilty about eating is. We can’t adapt to the guilt by changing our behaviours because newsflash we have to eat to stay alive. And cutting out whole food groups or restricting isn’t healthy or sustainable. It can lead to disordered eating and compromised mental and physical health. I know it’s difficult at times but sometimes I find myself having to man up against my guilt, I can choose to feel guilty or I can move on. I know for certain people this can seem like too much, or it’s not always possible so don’t beat yourself up about it if you can’t, but if you can be strong, it’s worth it.
Sit with the guilt
Like all emotions, guilt is only temporary. You can choose to act on it and risk potentially harmful or irrational decisions, or you can just wait for it to pass. When I used to feel guilty about eating, I would shut my eyes and let that guilt flood my body. I would allow myself to feel it and sit with it for a short time. Once I had experienced it calmly in this way, I would visualise it drifting away from me, leaving my body until I was restored to calm. This was my own little meditation technique and I found it really worked for me. If it sounds a bit much just try any form of meditating, I find using an app helps. This helps to reduce anxieties and creates a little peace and calm amongst the panic.
Distract yourself whilst waiting for the guilt to pass. I always find it helps to pick an activity that ties in with a little self-compassion too. Take a walk in the fresh air and see if moving your body gently helps you to feel better (This is not to be used as a punishment or to work off your food). I also find having a hot bath, tidying my room or ringing a friend or relative can be a source of comfort and welcomed distraction.
Share the guilt
A problem shared is a problem halved. If some of the above strategies aren’t working don’t be afraid to confide in someone. I find that girls can egg each other on in these scenarios and really blow things out of proportion so I would recommend chatting to someone who’s a bit more mature, like a parent or even teacher who might be able to help. Sharing the problem is particularly important if guilt is creeping up more frequently and taking longer to go away. It can be very wearing so even speaking to your GP or a helpline such a Beat or Mind will prevent guilt from becoming too overbearing.
Why have we got to this point? Whereby the simple and joyous act of cooking and eating has become a conflict zone. You are allowed to get angry. Get angry at the fashion industry for promoting an unrealistic body image and making us feel lousy when we can’t achieve it. Get angry with diet culture that continues to make us feel shit for eating things that btw are actually essential for our normal metabolic functioning – like carbs!!! And get angry with anyone who tries to take away the pleasure in eating something you love. Life is too short for that.