The fact that eating can be emotional is no big revelation. After all, there's a reason people say they prefer their mom's lumpy mashed potatoes to more upscale versions. But the feelings food gives us aren't all warm and fuzzy. In fact, according to Leah Szalai, a doctoral candidate researching health communications, a full 11 percent of the meals and snacks we consume result in something much darker—namely, feelings of guilt.
"We're so used to thinking of food choices in terms of right and wrong, that feeling guilty after eating feels normal—but it's not," says Szalai, who's studied food guilt extensively.
Part of the problem is that food is pretty black and white. "There are gray zones, but generally, we know that chocolate cake isn't as healthy as an apple," says Catherine Sabiston, an associate professor of kinesiology and physical education at the University of Toronto. Then there's the fact that what we eat is, for the most part, completely within our control. "We make a conscious decision to eat. So if we choose to eat that chocolate cake, there really is a sense of comparison—we know we maybe shouldn't be eating this, and we are," says Sabiston. (Read about one woman's fight with orthorexia.)
What's more, your conscience doesn't just kick in after you down a few too many slices of pizza or a half a tray of brownies. Women often feel remorseful over imagined "bad" meals. Take, for example, this recent study from Cornell University. Researchers found that when women and men eat together, women tend to feel as though they overate—even when they didn't. (Men, on the other hand, do eat 93 percent more pizza and 86 percent more salad when they were in women's company.)
"We've forgotten how to take the time to stop and appreciate how food makes us feel," elaborates Holley Grainger, R.D.N. "Whether or not something is organic, non-GMO, clean, low or high calorie, gluten-free, contains sugar, etc. and the moral ties people associate with these classifications leave us feeling restricted, guilty, and like a failure if we should (gasp) enjoy something made, for instance, with butter," she says. (Psst. Butter's not all bad. Check out how this woman lost 20 pounds eating it.) "Unfortunately, instead of making food a friend that welcomes us in and nurtures us, conventional, sugar-laden or not, it often becomes the enemy—and the main qualifier for whether or not we deem ourselves to be a good or bad person."
That line of thinking is risky, says Sabiston, because it ties what and how you eat to your sense of self. "So rather than thinking about eating as a behavior that you have control over, eating becomes about you as a person," she says. If you eat something healthy, you're "good." If you indulge in something less so, you're "bad."
Unfortunately, a lot of the messaging you receive about food choice is out of your control. But there are small changes you can make to the way you think and talk about food that will help you abolish this kind of harmful guilt once and for all.
Watch Your Language. The way you talk about food, and yourself in relation to food, is part of the issue, says Szalai. Tune into your word choice and try to avoid calling foods "good" or "bad," or variations thereof. For example, consider the difference between, "I should get a salad, but I'm going to be bad and go for the burrito," and, "The salad might be less caloric, but I know a burrito will feed my soul right now." (These 8 burrito bowls will blow your mind.)
Focus on the Positive. All food has benefits. Sure, a slice of chocolate cake is objectively not as nutritious as an apple. But rather than using that as a reason to beat yourself up, Sabiston suggests focusing on the benefits you got from eating that cake that you may have missed out on had you reached for produce. Maybe the cake was comforting, or you ate it as part of a social ritual (i.e., at your BFF's birthday party). It's mental health food, if you will.
Avoid "Compensatory Behaviors." Meaning, don't try to soothe your feelings of guilt by hopping on the treadmill or elliptical for an hour. We've all done it, and in the moment, it can even feel motivating. But in the long-term, that can create a negative cycle. The lows you feel after breaking your diet get lower, and the behavior you use to compensate for the "bad behavior" might get more extreme, says Sabiston. Just acknowledge that you don't feel great about what you ate, remind yourself that you don't always eat like this, and move on, she suggests.
Allow for Wiggle Room. Another point for building cheat days into your regular diet. Planning to eat more indulgent foods removes some of the stigma from doing so, says Grainger. But avoid being overly strict, because chances are you'll eventually break your plan, eating dessert after lunch instead of after dinner—or both. Having a vaguer plan—or even just aiming for a general 80/20 diet (just like Selena Gomez!)—can keep the guilt at bay.