Updated 26 July 2012

Stop feeling guilty about food

So many people are plagued by feelings of guilt about food and eating. Why is it like that? How can you stop being so anxious about everything you eat? DietDoc investigates.

So many people have guilty feelings about food. "Should I eat this?" "Should I be eating now?" "Why can't I get my weight right? These are questions that plague millions of people.

Food and nutrition is a topic about which millions of people agonise. People feel guilty about eating as such, about overeating, about eating certain foods, about their weight and about their inability to lose weight. You name it: in the field of nutrition and there will be someone feeling guilty about every aspect.

Why all this guilt?
I am not really sure why people should feel so guilty about many aspects of food and related subjects such as weight control. But I do think that the media have much to answer for. We are constantly being bombarded by media messages that tell us it is bad and sinful to eat certain foods and woe betide anyone who actually enjoys eating - they are doomed to suffer the torments of overweight and disease.

Yes, overeating and overindulgence can cause you to gain weight and eating foods that are high in fat on a regular basis will have negative health implications, but whatever happened to enjoying a meal or eating healthy foods with relish?

There was recently a query from a forum user on eating muesli. This user confessed that she has a BMI of 18, which is just still within the normal range, but teetering on the brink of underweight, and here she is worrying that muesli may be fattening and 'a bad choice'.

Muesli is an excellent food brimming with healthy nutrients such as dietary fibre, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and monounsaturated fats. Eaten together with fat-free milk or yoghurt it is one of the most nutritious breakfast foods at our disposal. And yet here is a person who is very nearly underweight, who is agonising about muesli being fattening and a poor choice!

Other users write in total desperation that they just cannot lose another gram and when I work out their BMI, they are in the anorexic range. One reader complained that her body fat percentage was too high, when it hovered around 14%. According to experts like Prof Tim Noakes, only elite female athletes manage to reduce their body fat percentage to 14%. All other women with a normal weight are supposed to have a body fat percentage of about 24%.

Consequences of guilt
For those of you who are desperate about eating in general, about eating certain foods and about wanting to lose weight, when your ribs are already sticking out, please remember that your guilt can lead you down the path of eating disorders and it can also lead to nutritional deficiencies.

For example, many women think that they should not use any milk or dairy products, because they contain so much fat. Well, if you stop drinking milk and eating yoghurt and cottage cheese, you are depriving yourself of the very best sources of calcium and may be laying the foundations for future osteoporosis.

If you worry and stress yourself excessively about eating and certain foods, you will actually activate your adrenal cortex, which produces hormones such as cortisol, which make you receptive to infections and viruses and cause water retention – things you certainly don't need in your life.

If you have serious hang-ups about food and eating, you need expert assistance to get you out of the vicious cycle of guilt. Consider consulting a clinical psychologist to banish the underlying fears and imprinted guilt.

Various types of therapy may be beneficial, particularly if your fears of food and weight gain are based on childhood conditioning. If your father always made disparaging remarks about your looks, or your mother always urged you to 'watch your figure', it's not difficult to imagine that this could lead to a lifelong aversion to eating or desperate attempts to control your weight.

If you are eating a totally unbalanced diet, for example, a diet that contains so few calories that it would not keep a bird alive, but you are scared to have even an extra mouthful of food, because it could make you fat, then consult a clinical dietician to help you get back to eating normally again.

If you are not dangerously underweight and hovering on the brink of anorexia, and you have guilt feelings is you dare to eat more than your strictly imposed regimen allows you, then take a few sensible steps to free yourself.

Firstly you need to acknowledge that you feel guilty about eating and certain foods. Examine this fear and these feelings and then do something about them. If you are underweight, then try eating larger portions of the foods you usually eat and add some healthy options which will not upset your weight, e.g. fresh fruit, lean meat or fish, fat-free yoghurt or milk, whole grains or any other healthy food that you can think of.

If you can eat normally and tell yourself that this is not a sin, that you won't balloon if you have a slice of wholewheat bread with peanut butter, and that your body needs a variety of foods, then you will be taking the first steps to dietary freedom.

It really is worthwhile to rid yourself of guilt about food and eating. If you can get to the point where you eat a well balanced diet which may even contain some treats like chips or chocolate (which will not harm you if eaten in moderation), then you will be able to rid yourself of these feelings that have enslaved you for so long. Do something proactive about your food guilt today.

(Dr I. V. van Heerden)


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