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Overcoming Food Guilt And Shame

This Year's Theme for National Eating Disorders Awareness Week is "Come As You Are"

The intention behind this is to include anyone struggling with food and body issues because everyone's story matters and their experience is worth sharing. Eating difficulties can impact anyone no matter what they look like, what their background is, or how much they weigh. We all deserve to live a life free from chronic dieting, food obsession, and body fixation. This brings me to one of the most common issues I work with: feeling guilt and shame around food. Did you know 80% of women and 70% of men suffer from food guilt? (Harris, 2015) It only takes going out to dinner to hear your company or people at the next table confessing their food guilt.

Guilt vs. Shame

Let’s differentiate the two:

Guilt = I feel bad about what I’ve eaten or I shouldn’t have had that
Shame = I’m a bad person/unloveable/unworthy/not good enough

Guilt is feeling bad about something we’ve done. Shame is feeling like a bad person– it’s the fear of disconnection or being perceived as being unworthy (or insert any negative core beliefs).

If you want to learn more, Brene Brown is the Queen on the topic of shame and I recommend reading any of her books and TED Talks.

Improve Your Relationship with Food

Unless we ate someone’s leftovers without asking, punched the cashier, poisoned or stole food we could afford, guilt has no place when it comes to eating. Do we feel guilty for breathing, sleeping, thirst or any other basic human function? Probably not, we have to do these things to survive. However, it’s understandable why we feel this way with food. We have been conditioned most of our lives to believe there’s good and bad, healthy and unhealthy, clean and dirty foods (and bodies). The concepts change and sometimes foods switch between this dichotomy (eggs, butter, fat, and carbs for example) but it all has the same effect. We begin to develop food rules which lead to food guilt and food fears.

Remember: We feel guilty when we feel like we broke a rule. So ask yourself:

What rule did I just break?
Where did I learn this rule?
Would I suggest a child or grandparent follow this rule?
Does following this rule help me get closer to food peace?
What are my current values and does following this rule align with them?
Can I create space to neutralize this? Can I accept that it’s neither good nor bad, that it’s just food, eating past comfortable fullness, a midnight snack, etc?

Practice Compassion

It’s ok to feel this way. We’re unlearning years of diet mentality while living in a culture obsessed with thinness disguised as “health”. This is really hard!

What else would you say to a child or loved one struggling with this?
What would your 99-year-old self appreciate about your current body?

Talk to your therapist, registered dietitian, or a trusted friend. Shame breeds in silence and speaking about it to your support system can help pull us out of that shame storm. It’s ok to need help, we’re social beings wired for connection and our relationships bring meaning to our lives. Think about how many times we needed someone else to learn something new. We certainly didn’t learn to speak, read, or drive alone.

We make an average of 226.7 food decisions a day according to Warsink and Sobal (2007), so it makes sense why navigating this can feel impossible. Often times the eating issues developed as a way to cope with anxiety, depression, trauma, relationship issues, life transitions, and other difficult experiences so it isn’t easy to “just eat”, “let go of the guilt” or “stop bingeing”. The food behaviors may be serving a purpose that can’t just go away by will alone. We have to address the underlying issues and develop more skills to use. Keep in mind that food is rather benign when you consider the range of options we have to regulate emotions. Sometimes food is one of our only choices and it’s ok to emotionally eat- it can be part of “normal” eating and doesn’t need to be villainized.

We often need to also address our own internalized fatphobia and redefine body image to be able to work through this process. This can include concepts like: Body Neutrality, Body Respect, Body Trust, Body Appreciation, and Body Kindness. Positive body image has more to do with respecting, appreciating, and accepting our body rather than liking how it looks. Developing the belief that our body is not our worth and we are more than just a body can be keys to recovery. It’s possible that our body may get bigger but so is our life.

If you or someone you know is struggling with food or body image issues, you deserve support. As a therapist, I have never met with a client and thought, “Geez, this isn’t bad enough". If you are thinking about going to therapy or visiting a dietitian, it’s probably a good time to go. There’s no need to wait until it’s a 10 out of 10 problem. If you want to learn more about disordered eating, body image, intuitive eating, and Health At Every Size, come find me on instagram @MollyBCounseling

Molly Bahr, Licensed Mental Health Counselor