You know a phrase I say that I hate? “If I eat x, I definitely HAVE to go to the gym.” Honestly, few phrases irk me more than expressing guilt for eating something. You know what else this phrase does, aside from letting everyone know you eat responsibly and care about your figure? It makes you feel like you cannot eat sweets or carbs without feeling guilty. This is wrong and I’d like to proffer the suggestion that we, as a society, let go of food guilt. Kelsey Damassa, of Boston College, writing for HerCampus, wrote an article entitled “The New Eating Disorder You Might Not Realize You Have: Food Guilt.” The article chronicles what food guilt is, address the origins of food guilt, and offers solutions for combating food guilt. It’s a good read, and I suggest you read it once you finish reading this post.
What I’d like to talk about is more how I’ve seen food guilt manifest in my own life, how I’ve recognized it, how I’ve exacerbated the guilt, and how I’ve been working to overcome guilt associated with eating a few extra sour gummy worms or cookies. To begin, I’d like to say I’ve always struggled with my body. I’ve never been overly thrilled with my body, and I’ve spent countless hours beating myself up over the way my body is. This is only natural given the unattainable standards of beauty we see daily. In college, I lost a bunch of weight really quickly (by cutting out gluten and dairy, both of which do not react well with my body). I felt good about my body for the first time. Then I got to law school and gained all the lost weight back and then some. Enter punishing thoughts and despair as my clothes started to fit tighter. But here’s the thing: intense stress makes you gain weight. I’m a stress eater, and when I’m stressed I crave sugar and carbs, which do not nourish my body.
Anyway, as I reached for a bag of M&Ms or ate the dinner rolls while out with friends, I could feel that voice, you know, the one that tells us we shouldn’t eat that or we’ll get fat, creeping back in. So, to combat my eating shifts, I started going to the gym. Then, in conversation, I would hear myself saying, “Oh, yeah, let’s eat ice cream, but we have to go to the gym tomorrow.” Why did I feel the need to say, out loud, that if I had ice cream I had to go to the gym? I know some people say they do this to remind themselves to be healthy, but I think it creates an uncomfortable, often uneasy feeling. Even if the “we have to go to the gym,” is meant as a personal reminder, think about how the other person perceives it. This essentially means that the other person can eat that and not go to the gym, but if they do that, they’re making a bad choice, being unhealthy, the list goes on. Watching what you eat, making healthy choices, and avoiding things that don’t nourish your body is all totally fine. However, when guilt seeps in every time you make a choice to eat a given food, that’s no longer healthy. Restricting your food or having a negative relationship with your food is a cause of eating disorders.
If you begin seeing food as the enemy — you know, thinking that cookie will make you fat or that the candy bar translates directly into minutes at the gym — you’re not helping yourself. I know this because I’m a veteran of food guilt. Every time I eat something “unhealthy,” I feel the guilt. I know I’ll have to put extra time in at the gym, I know it’ll go straight to my hips. BUT, the thing is, feeling guilty doesn’t stop me from enjoying a cookie in the moment. It’s the guilt that comes after that sucks. Still, one cookie is not going to change much. I’ve told some of my friends this many a time. “One cookie, piece of pie, a bag of popcorn, etc. isn’t going to kill you.” The issue is my response mirrors the all or nothing mentality that their “I have to go to the gym if I eat this” carries. The way to combat this is to let go of food guilt. Make decisions based on what makes you feel good, but if you want the cookie, eat the damn cookie, and let it go. That doesn’t mean you can’t go to the gym after, but it means you hold the power, not the cookie.
Body positivity is one of the hardest things to embrace. We all have things we wish were bigger, smaller, better, stronger, etc. However, you only have one body and it’s important to treat it well. Stop telling it that one cookie or dessert will always mean two hours on an elliptical. The best way to embrace body positivity is to aim for healthy, but refusing to let one indulgence give you so much guilt.
What are your experiences with food guilt and how have you combatted it?