Restore a positive attitude toward eating, your body and your health by looking at your emotional relationship to food.

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On Nutrition

Quick, you’ve just eaten a cupcake … what thoughts are running through your head? “Wow, that was really delicious!” or “Why did I eat that? I’m so bad!”

By definition, guilt is an emotion you experience when you feel you have violated a moral standard. It’s true that some foods help move you toward better health, while other foods do not. That’s an objective fact, with no moral implications. It’s one thing to feel guilty because you intentionally ran over someone with your car or you cheated on a test. It’s quite another to feel guilty because you ate a cookie. Eating a cookie doesn’t make you “bad.” Eating broccoli doesn’t make you “good.”

Do you tend to think of certain foods as “guilt-free,” while others are “guilty pleasures”? If you’re inclined to feel food guilt, anything could be a trigger, from ordering salad dressing on your salad instead of on the side to saying “yes” to cake at the office birthday celebration to going on an all-out eating binge.

Theoretically, guilt has the potential to catalyze us into positive action, helping us stay on track with our nutrition goals, but more often than not it paralyzes us. This is especially true when guilt is accompanied by shame, as it often is. Research shows that harsh self-criticism about food or body contributes to disordered eating patterns and poor body image, whereas self-compassion has the opposite effect. A recent New Zealand study found that people who associate chocolate cake with guilt instead of celebration were more likely to have unhealthier eating behaviors and less intention to eat healthy in the future.

What happens when you feel guilty about eating something that you’ve decided isn’t healthy? You feel bad about yourself. Let’s face it, guilt is not an emotion that makes you feel good. If you tend to be rigid with your diet, guilt may make you more restrictive with your food to compensate for your perceived lapse. If you tend to eat for emotional reasons — as many people do — guilt may make you feel even worse, leading you to reach for more food in an attempt to self-soothe, leading to more guilt. It’s a cycle that feeds upon itself. Guilt over a perceived food transgression can also simply lead to a “heck with it all” attitude because the damage has already been done.

No one food makes you healthy or unhealthy. It’s about how the multiple food choices you make every day add up. If you regularly eat in a way that is not supporting your health goals, despite your best intentions, there’s likely a reason. Let’s say that you’re having a hard time stopping snacking in the evening between dinner and bedtime — when you’re not even hungry. Instead of succumbing to guilt, try being curious. Ask yourself, “What’s really going on?”

Are you bored or tired? Are you stressed or angry? Are you sad or lonely? All of those feelings are legitimate and worthy of attention, but food is at best a Band-Aid for what’s really eating you.

It can be hard to let go of food guilt. But it’s far worse to beat yourself up after eating a cookie than it is to eat that cookie, savor every morsel, and think, “Yum.” That kind of mindset may even help you be satisfied with one cookie rather than feeling like you want to devour a whole dozen.