At its best, food can bring a sense of joy, connection, and satisfaction while it’s fueling your body. But for many people who experience food guilt or shame, it can trigger negative emotions instead.
In a society steeped in diet culture, such destructive feelings about food are pervasive, and not just among people with eating disorders, Laura Moretti Reece, M.S., R.D., clinical nutrition specialist with the female athlete program at Boston Children’s Hospital, tells SELF. Unchecked guilt and shame about eating can seriously mess with your relationship with food, not to mention your mental health and well-being.
Recognizing these emotions—and where they come from—is vital, and there are things you can try to do to reduce their hold on you. But first it’s helpful to understand what these feelings mean and what may be driving them before thinking about what you can do to change your internal narrative.
What do we mean by “food guilt and shame”?
While guilt and shame are related, they’re not identical, Judi-Lee Webb, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and certified eating disorders specialist at Psychological Solutions of Atlanta, tells SELF. Guilt is the feeling of having done something wrong (say, straying from a food rule you set for yourself). Shame, meanwhile, is deeper and more personal, a sense that you’re flawed as a person (for example, because you can’t live up to expectations around eating, weight, or body shape).
“Guilt is more of a negative evaluation of a behavior—I did something wrong—whereas shame is more of, I am wrong,” Dr. Webb says. “It’s this intense feeling of inadequacy and worthlessness, and it’s not a healthy thing for folks to have.”
These emotions can arise from internal beliefs or values. Some people are naturally more rigid and hard on themselves, often from an early age, Dr. Webb says. Many people with an eating disorder or disordered-eating behaviors describe a negative or critical internal voice fueling negative thoughts, Melissa Streno, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist, certified mental performance consultant, and adjunct professor in the sport and performance psychology program at the University of Denver, tells SELF.
But often that internal dialogue is only amplifying what’s communicated externally. Social media spreads value-laden messages about “healthy” eating, and combines them with highly edited images of bodies portrayed as ideal, Jason Nagata, M.D., an eating disorder expert and assistant professor of pediatrics in the division of adolescent and young adult medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, tells SELF.
Families can also spread these messages too, where comments about body shape and size often start in toddlerhood, says Dr. Webb. Popular diets and even nutrition experts can exacerbate this by labeling certain foods as “good” or “bad.” According to Reece, these kinds of dynamics can set you up for guilt.
While some people seem easily able to brush off these messages, others are more likely to internalize them, Dr. Streno says. Those who are predisposed toward perfectionism, compulsion, or people-pleasing may begin to feel they’ll never live up to society’s unrealistic expectations. (This can be especially true for those dealing with external messaging that they’re not good enough in multiple ways.) As a result, some turn to disordered eating—whether it’s restricting, purging, or other measures—to cope with these uncomfortable emotions or quiet that critical inner voice, Dr. Streno says. One 2019 study published in Eating and Weight Disorders—Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity found internal and external shame contributed to binge eating disorder in men and women; meanwhile, a 2018 research review in Psychology and Psychotherapy found shame was a regular feature of both anorexia and bulimia.
In other cases, guilt or shame can contribute to anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or other mental health or mood-related disorders, Dr. Nagata says. Guilt and shame can also isolate you from friends and family, as well as from cultural and family traditions around food, Dr. Webb points out. (For instance, she grew up in Jamaica, eating rice and peas with most dinners; Americans’ demonization of carbs created some dissonance when she moved here.)
What’s more, these emotions can disconnect you from your own internal cues about what your body wants and needs, Dr. Streno says. Relearning how to trust those signals is key. In some cases, depending on the severity of the emotions and the behaviors they trigger, you may need a professional to help you unpack that (more on that later). But if you feel healthy enough to experiment on your own, there are things you can do to tune in to your own authentic voice and work to reduce your food guilt and shame.
1. Spot your “should”s and “shouldn’t”s.
Start paying attention to how often your inner dialogue includes the word should. “I always talk to patients about avoiding that word, because as soon as you say ‘I should,’ or ‘I shouldn’t,’ if you do the opposite, you feel guilt,” says Reece, who calls herself an intuitive eating dietitian.
Tallying your “should”s is a good first step, Dr. Streno agrees. Then you can practice taking a pause to question where the thought comes from and what function it serves. For instance, does the idea that you “shouldn’t” eat a particular food arise from a social media post or a restrictive diet, rather than an assessment of what your own body needs?
From there, you can try flipping your language—and, eventually, maybe even your behavior. Ideally, instead of “I shouldn’t eat this ice cream,” you’d say, “I want this ice cream, and I’m going to have it,” if that’s what your body’s authentically craving. You might not be up to that every time, and that’s okay, Dr. Streno says. But with practice, you can better tune in to those thoughts, then experiment with different responses.
2. Make a list of difficult foods you can try to experiment with eating.
Therapists often treat fears and phobias (ongoing fear about certain things that is intense enough to qualify as a type of anxiety disorder) with exposure therapy—helping people confront their issues in a safe, stepwise manner. If your guilt and shame stem from value judgments around food, you can take a similar approach to deprogramming them, Reece suggests.
Start by making three lists: “green” foods you can eat without a problem, “yellow” foods that cause you some hesitation, and “red” foods that trigger more extreme negative emotions. At first, try small amounts of one yellow food at a time, noticing how you feel as you do. Ideally, as your confidence grows, you’ll be able to progress into red foods.
“Start working foods in slowly and you’ll realize you can eat these things in balance as part of your overall diet, and your health is not going to fall off a cliff,” Reece says.
To navigate any anxiety you feel as you do this, try deep breathing or repeating a mantra or affirmation centered around body positivity, Dr. Streno suggests. (Choose one that resonates for you, but examples can include “I am strong,” “I’m nourishing my body and mind,” or “I am gaining health.”) She also points out that some anxiety is normal when you make changes. “When we trust that anxiety can come along for these challenges, but not stop us, the anxious symptoms tend to lessen,” she says. “As one starts to engage in new behaviors or choices more consistently, this helps to build trust and deflates the power and control the anxiety once held.”
Of course, if at any time your anxiety becomes overwhelming, you can slow down, or try to ask a therapist or dietitian for assistance if this feels too big to tackle on your own.
3. Try to eat mindfully.
Guilt and shame disconnect you from your own natural cues, so to combat them, slow down and refocus. Before taking a bite, pause and take a few deep breaths, observing your emotions and hunger level. As you proceed, notice all your sensory experiences—including colors, textures, and flavors. You’ll not only notice when you’re full but, hopefully, also realize you can feel pleasure and satisfaction from eating too.
“When you focus on the experience of eating, you actually feel more pleasure and more satisfaction,” Dr. Nagata says. “It also allows you to make more conscious decisions,” which can be helpful if you tend to take impulsive actions around food that cause you regret later.
4. Unfollow or mute accounts on social media that can be triggering.
Studies suggest the more time young women spend on social media, the less satisfied they are with their own body. Mindless scrolling invites you to constantly compare your real life to others’ perfectly lit and possibly manipulated selfies, Dr. Nagata says. One solution is to set a time limit on apps like Instagram or TikTok, say, for 30 minutes a day—or at least, gradually reduce your use over time.
Dr. Streno also suggests a regular inventory of who you’re following. As you scroll through your feeds, pay attention to posts that trigger guilt, shame, and similar emotions. Common culprits include photos of perfectly balanced—and beautiful—meals, those advocating particular fad diets, and images of unrealistic or idealized bodies.
Dr. Streno suggests, “Ask yourself: This account, or this influencer, what am I getting from them? And is there somebody else that I could follow instead that would actually give me something that’s more aligned with where I’m trying to go genuinely or authentically?”
Unfollow (or at least mute) anyone who makes you feel bad. For alternative food-related content, search for registered dietitians with a nondiet or intuitive-eating approach, Reece recommends. Other keywords or hashtags that may turn up more helpful accounts include #nondiet, #allfoodsfit, and #mindfuleating.
5. Base your self-talk on what you’d tell a child or a good friend.
Practicing self-compassion can help alleviate guilt and shame, Dr. Webb says. But it’s not always easy to be kind to yourself. Sometimes disentangling becomes easier if you shift perspectives.
Consider what you’d tell a child or a good friend, Dr. Webb says. Would you guilt them into giving up a cupcake or tell them they’re worthless for failing to eat more vegetables? If you can’t imagine berating others for a given behavior, you might find it easier to forgive yourself.
Similarly, if specific comments from your past brought on a wave of guilt or shame, consider how these conversations could have gone differently. “What would you rather have heard from an adult or a loved one, from a parent or spouse?” Dr. Webb says. Maybe instead of “Are you really going to eat that?” you’d have preferred, “I love you and want you to feel happy and fulfilled.” Envision the type of love and support you would hope that they’d offer, and then extend it to yourself.
6. Talk to a pro.
While changing your self-talk can work in some cases, sometimes the voices of guilt and shame are too loud to quiet on your own. Certain red flags can warn you the guilt and shame you’re feeling about food might be progressing into disordered eating or an eating disorder. Professional help is critical if you’re having intrusive thoughts about food that interfere with your daily activities; using vomiting, laxatives, or other methods to lose weight; or if you have physical symptoms you think are related to not eating enough, such as dizziness or missed periods if you’re a person who menstruates, Dr. Nagata says.
But seeking help can be helpful even before it reaches that level. Talking to a therapist or registered dietitian can help you unpack the distress these food feelings cause you, even before they lead to symptoms that would qualify for a clinical diagnosis. “You don’t have to live like that,” Reece says. “We’re here and we don’t want you to wait.”
Just make sure you seek out someone experienced with disordered-eating and body-image issues. “It’s definitely a different approach than some other type of nutrition counseling,” Dr. Webb says. “It’s not a diet approach, but one that involves honoring all foods and knowing how to incorporate all foods into your life in a healthy way, unless you’re allergic to them.”
And if access to a therapist or dietitian is challenging for financial or systemic reasons, you still don’t have to go it alone. As SELF recently reported, the NEDA and Eating Disorder Hope websites list peer-to-peer and clinician-led support groups, while online services like BetterHelp and Talkspace may be more affordable one-on-one options.