My priority fitness goal use to be to lose weight. However, it seemed like a catch-22: the harder I tried and the more pressure I put on myself, the less I saw results. My expectations were often unrealistic and I ended up feeling discouraged, not seeing results and then eventually giving up.

One of the obstacles was the way I use to think: I suffered from “food guilt”. 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.  Food guilt made me feel helpless and out of control, which made my fitness efforts of losing weight – backfire.  I only noticed results when I started to cultivate a healthy attitude toward food, rather than a guilty conscience. 

Here, in this post, I will cover the reasons behind food guilt, why our perspective on food matters and — most important — how to foster a healthy attitude toward food.

when does food guilt occur?

Food guilt often occurs after we eat something we told  ourselves  we’re not suppose to eat. Feelings of deprivation soon follow and the very foods that we restrict ourselves from consume our thoughts. This soon leads to binge eating and subsequently feeling guilty. The truth is, it is not that I lack willpower – I am actually a very disciplined person, it is because the self-imposed diet was unrealistic. 

what works:

attitude matters

They say attitude determines everything  and often felt like I have overeaten.  Attitude toward food is important: Some research has found food guilt is strongest when we perceive we’ve overeaten, even if we haven’t. Other research has examined the associations people make in their minds for indulgent foods like ice cream —  I neither found it celebratory, it made me feel guilty. Research has shown that people in high-stress situations who associate foods like ice cream with guilty feelings are more likely to have unhealthy eating habits, negative attitudes toward healthy eating and lower levels of food-related self-control during stressful situations! These guilty feelings actually caused me to eat more than I would want to in higher-stress situations. I was sabotaging myself by way of my own thinking!

have a positive mindset with food

As someone who has experienced food guilt, I found that especially in high-stress situations, the following ideas helped change my mindset toward food, and certainly helped with my fitness goals:

view food as neutral

I stopped associating foods like chocolate cake with guilt and more with celebration. This meant that I also considered some foods (like fruits and vegetables) to be “good” and other foods (like chips and sweets) to be “bad.” This might seem harmless, but labeling foods this way can lead to negative thoughts about yourself, if you eat things you think you shouldn’t.

“When you eat ‘bad’ foods, you end up feeling guilty about eating them,” says Rahaf Al Bochi, RD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “In reality, food has no moral value. All foods should be viewed as neutral. Redefine what healthy means to you. Try to view foods as neutral and give yourself full permission to enjoy all foods in moderation.”

find other ways to relieve stress

I certainly use food as a coping mechanism when I’m stressed, and when I eat too much in those situations, I feel guilty about it. “Using food as a coping mechanism is problematic when it is your sole strategy to relieve stress,” Al Bochi says. “Having a list of non-food strategies to relieve stress can be very helpful in these situations.” Now, some of my coping mechanisms include doing some type of movement (like yoga or going for a walk) or  journaling to help yourself calm down after experiencing something stressful or upsetting.

plan ahead of time

Some research shows when you choose what to do in response to a stressful food situation before you experience that moment, you’ll be less likely to succumb to temptation! I certainly have found this to be a very successful approach to reducing my likelihood of experiencing food guilt.

“Make a plan beforehand,” suggests Reline Kuijer, PhD, study author and associate professor of psychology at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. “‘If I go to this party, I know there will be cake. I will take only a small piece of cake, and I won’t go back for seconds.’ I have found that whenever I have a fairly detailed plan beforehand, it becomes easier, because I’ve made the decisions in a calm environment without the food being present and tempting. 

final thoughts

There is nothing wrong with monitoring the foods that we eat, in fact, healthy eating is something we should all aspire to, however, having an obsession and preoccupation with food encourages black-and-white thinking about food can make us feel worse about ourselves. Eliminating food guilt will allow us to be healthy holistically – both physical and mental.