We all understand that eating certain foods can move us toward better health, while eating other food may not. But food is also a pleasure that should be enjoyed and when we do indulge it should be an experience that brings us joy.
If we are racked with guilt every time we eat something we deem ‘unhealthy’, the effect on our mental health could far outweigh the calorie count, says Arthur Ramoroka, Corporate Nutritionist at Tiger Brands.
We have all experienced those moments when we have indulged in a slice of cake, chocolate bar or treat of a similar sort when we know we shouldn’t have. Especially when it comes to occasions or festive periods. As humans, food is one of our greatest pleasures, but it can also be our greatest nemesis when it comes to self-imposed boundaries. And often this nemesis comes in the form of guilt.
By definition, guilt is an emotion experienced when we feel we have violated some kind of moral code. The way we should look, and the food we should be eating in order to look that way based on social media and unattainable beauty standards set by celebrities and influencers, can potentially define this moral code and become the cornerstone for the food boundaries we set up for ourselves.
Essentially we call the food police – on ourselves. We need to learn how to untangle our thinking and vocabulary around the perceptions that certain foods are bad for us, and that we have cheated if we ate something delicious for the sake of taste rather than nutrition.
Food is fuel for the body and plays a vital part of filling our tank so that we’re able to operate at our best. But operating at our best also means that our wellness tank needs to be filled just as often. When making a plan to eat a healthy and nutritious diet, boundaries are essential to keep us on track, but when these boundaries become guilt because we have crossed them, this guilt can paralyse us and completely set any kind of wellness journey off track. This is especially true when guilt is accompanied by shame, as it often is.
Research shows that harsh self-criticism when we eat a treat or judge our bodies can contribute to disordered eating patterns and poor body image. Self-compassion has the opposite effect. It’s quite simple – when we feel guilty about eating something that we’ve decided isn’t healthy, we feel bad about ourselves. If we eat for emotional reasons—as many people do—guilt may make us feel even worse, leading us to reach for more food in an attempt to self-soothe, leading to more guilt. It is a cycle that feeds upon itself. And it’s not doing our mental wellness any good.
The only way to get past this cycle is to find balance. No one food makes us healthy or unhealthy, therefore we shouldn’t let the guilt associated with what we eat dictate our behaviour afterwards. It is about how the multiple food choices we make every day add up in the grand scheme of a healthy and balanced lifestyle. A balanced, varied, nutritious diet allows for both pleasure and health—a rigid, restrictive diet does not. So how do we find this healthy balance? By being mindful of what we are eating while we are eating it.
It is time to let go of the diets and the restrictions and embrace a more wholesome approach
to eating. This means allowing ourselves to eat every single kind of food, as long as it makes up part of a balanced, portion-appropriate meal that includes all the macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins and fat) from various food groups.
To eat mindfully we must start by paying attention to what we are eating without distractions like eating in front of the TV, eating on the run in the car or over the kitchen counter. We must take the time to feel the crunch and texture, to savour the act of eating and focus on how it tastes.
If we want a piece of cake then we must allow ourselves to have it but when we do, eat slowly, really savour it and enjoy every bite. Mindful eating allows us to enjoy food without the guilt – and without the guilt we are more likely to go back and start making healthier choices again.
It can be hard to let go of food guilt. It is inherently ingrained into our mindsets because of the world around us. But it is far worse to beat ourselves up after eating a slice of cake than it is to eat that cake mindfully, savour each bite, and think, “Yum.”
As long as we are having treats occasionally and they aren’t replacing healthy meals, let’s just learn to enjoy them. If we can’t change how we feel about the food we are eating, the odds are that we are going to wolf down many meals with a side order of guilt.