Why Do I Feel Guilty After Eating? Smash Food Guilt!

This blog article is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical advice.

Do you feel guilty after eating but aren’t sure why?

Want to feel at peace about food instead of being plagued by guilt and shame?

Experiencing food guilt is more common than most people think. You’re not alone. And you don’t have to stay stuck in the guilt-shame spiral. You can eat for good health and enjoy food – without guilt! 

In this article, we’ll talk about the main reasons why eating certain foods brings on guilty feelings. Then I’ll share five ways to stop food guilt once and for all and move towards food freedom.

Let’s start.

What Is Food Guilt?

Food guilt is the feeling of shame or regret you feel after eating foods you believe are off-limits, unhealthy, or “bad.” These feelings are often accompanied by negative self-talk, like:

  • I shouldn’t have eaten that – I’m going to have to pay for it later.
  • Why did I eat that? I have no willpower!
  • I cheated again. I’m disgusting.
  • Why can’t I meet my calorie goal? I’m such a failure!
  • Eating all that sugar is going to give me diabetes.

Where does food guilt come from?

Food guilt can com from a variety to places, but most often stems from:

  • Media and cultural messages of fatphobia
  • Unrealistic expectations of thinness
  • Family influences
  • Past trauma
  • Food insecurity
  • Perfectionism
  • Eating a fear food
  • Disordered eating or an eating disorder

Cultural Messaging

“A moment on the lips, forever on the hips.”

“Nothing tastes as good as thin feels.”

“It’s as simple as calories in, calories out.”

When phrases like these are as common as glitter at a Taylor Swift concert, we’ve got culture problems.

Besides being untrue, statements like these encourage black and white thinking that keeps us trying to control every morsel that goes in our mouths. The more we try to control our eating, the more out of control we feel when we have a “cheat meal.” Hello food guilt!

Of course language is just one way cultural messaging surrounds us, promoting the unattainable thin “ideal.” Social media, health classes, public health campaigns, TV and movies all perpetuate these unrealistic standards. We can’t escape it and it magnifies food guilt.

Unrealistic Expectations of Thinness

This idea that “losing weight and attaining this standard is preferable and easy to achieve“ is simply false AND increases shame and guilt about eating. 

Weight, body shape and body size are determined by numerous factors, not just our food and exercise choices. Our weight may have more to do with our genes, zip code, income, education level and salary than our love of Ben & Jerry’s.

Despite how unrealistic being thin may be for many of us, most people believe they need to diet to be healthy, accepted, worthy, or beautiful. This futile pursuit of thinness destroys self-esteem and can increase health risks . Most people end up feeling food guilt after eating “too many” calories, macros, or carbs, or whatever foods are “forbidden” by diet rules.

Family Influence 

It’s important to acknowledge that family influence and trauma can have a significant impact on our relationship with food and our feelings of guilt after eating. Today’s Almond Moms are not terribly different from the 80s moms who stockpiled Snackwells and sent their kids to fat camps. 

Family dynamics and past experiences can shape our beliefs and attitudes towards food and our bodies, which can contribute to feelings of guilt and shame after eating. 

Trauma and Food Insecurity

Trauma, especially related to food, can be particularly damaging and can result in disordered eating patterns and negative emotions related to food. For example, someone who experienced food scarcity or abuse may feel guilty after eating due to past associations with food as a source of trauma.

Please understand that these feelings of guilt and shame are not your fault and are not a reflection of your worth as a person. They are a result of complex and deeply ingrained patterns of thought and behavior that have developed over time.

It can be helpful to seek support from a therapist or counselor who specializes in disordered eating and trauma. Talking about these experiences and working through them in a safe and supportive environment can help to alleviate feelings of guilt and shame and to develop a healthier relationship with food.

Perfectionism

People who have a perfectionist mindset may feel guilty after eating because they view eating as a reflection of their willpower or discipline. If they stray from their meal plan or make food choices that don’t reflect healthy eating, they feel guilty.

But eating imbalanced meals or less nutritious foods are not signs of failure. They are a normal part of eating. Not every meal will be balanced because there is no perfect diet. In fact, the more we strive for perfection in our eating, the more disordered our behaviors may be. See my post on Orthorexia for more information.

Fear Foods and Eating Disorders

Some individuals feel extreme anxiety, guilt or fear eating certain foods and feel like these foods have to be off limits. They avoid certain foods out of fear of gaining weight or of negative health consequences. Others fear eating certain foods because they think they won’t be able to stop eating them.

Having fear foods may be a part of an eating disorder or disordered eating. If you experience extreme feelings of guilt, anxiety, or fear about foods, please consult a registered dietitian or therapist that can help you seek treatment.

Photo of an ice cream sundae, a common fear food

Why Is Feeling Guilty After Eating a Problem?

Guilt and shame are negative emotions that don’t lead to positive outcomes, especially where your relationship with food is concerned. They can lead to coping behaviors such as restrictive eating, excessive exercise, purging or self-harm. These maladaptive behaviors worsen mental health and physical health.

Food Guilt and Mental Health

Feeling guilty after eating can have significant negative effects on your mental health. Guilt can contribute to feelings of shame, anxiety, and depression, which can take a toll on your overall wellbeing.

Research has shown that food guilt is associated with disordered eating behaviors and negative body image.

Food guilt contributes to a cycle of binge eating and restriction . Getting trapped in the binge restrict cycle keeps us stuck in rigid patterns, rather than allowing us to make peace with food and enjoy it. 

Additionally, guilty eating can interfere with our ability to enjoy food and social experiences, and can impact our relationship with our body and self-image. It can cause us to focus on weight, size, and shape instead of our overall health and wellbeing, leading to further anxiety and distress.

Food Guilt and Physical Health

Feeling guilty after eating can have negative effects on your physical health, too. 

The stress and anxiety of guilty feelings can have a negative impact on our digestive and cardiovascular systems. Stress can disrupt the delicate balance of our digestive system and lead to symptoms like slowed stomach emptying, diarrhea or constipation, and abdominal pain.

Restrictive eating patterns can lead to malnutrition, which can negatively impact our immune system, energy levels, and overall physical function. Additionally, disordered eating can harm the digestive system, the teeth and gums, and lead to electrolyte imbalances, which can cause serious health problems. 

In short, feelings of guilt after eating can harm our physical health by causing stress and anxiety, promoting disordered eating patterns, and compromising our nutritional status. To maintain a healthy body and mind, it’s important to approach our relationship with food from a place of compassion and understanding, and to seek support when needed.

How To Stop Feeling Guilty After Eating

Overcoming guilty eating requires compassion, patience, and a shift in perspective.

Here are 5 strategies that can help you overcome feelings of guilt about eating:

  • Practice self-compassion
  • Challenge negative thoughts
  • Connect with your body’s hunger and fullness cues
  • Focus on health and pleasure, not perfection
  • Seek support

Practice self-compassion: 

Instead of berating yourself for what you eat, try to approach your relationship with food from a place of kindness and understanding. Remind yourself that you are doing your best to support your health and that eating is one of life’s true pleasures. There is no perfect way to eat.

Challenge negative thoughts: 

When you have negative thoughts about eating that make you feel guilty, try to challenge these thoughts. 

First, take a moment to identify the underlying thoughts and beliefs that are driving these emotions. 

Then ask yourself if these beliefs are based in fact or if they’re just a reflection of diet culture. When in doubt, ask your registered dietitian about whether your beliefs are fact or fiction. 

Finally, try to reframe these thoughts in a more positive and empowering way. See the photo for an example.

Image of empty orange dinner plate with text over lay that says "Guilty thought: I shouldn't have eating that: and Compassionate reframe: There's no perfect way to eat."

Connect with your body’s hunger and fullness cues: 

Intuitive eating encourages us to tune into our body’s hunger, fullness, and satisfaction signals to guide our eating choices. This can help to reduce feelings of guilt by taking the focus off of external food rules and placing it on our internal needs and desires.

Practicing mindful eating can be helpful here, too. Note how hungry you are to being with. Then, pay attention to the smells, tastes, and textures of the food to make sure you’re really enjoying it. Note how the food makes you feel. Do you like it? Half way through your meal, do you still want more of it, or are you getting full? 

If you find it difficult to sense your hunger, fullness, or satisfaction cues, a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor can help you build trust in your body again.

Focus on health and pleasure, not perfection: 

All foods can fit into a healthy eating pattern.

Instead of striving for perfection, focus on making choices that support your physical and mental health and bring pleasure and enjoyment to your life. Remember that food is meant to nourish our bodies and minds, not to control or punish us. 

Pay attention to your thoughts and feelings while eating, and try to focus on the sensory experience of the food. This can help you become more aware of your fullness cues, and can also help you appreciate the taste and experience of eating without judgment.

Seek support: 

If feelings of guilt about eating persist or become overwhelming, consider seeking the support of a therapist or registered dietitian. Talking about your experiences and learning coping strategies can be incredibly helpful in overcoming feelings of guilt and shame.

Remember, overcoming feelings of guilt related to eating may take time and patience. With the right support and strategies, you can develop a healthier relationship with food and your body.

Parting Words on Feeling Guilty After Eating

If you feel guilty after eating, please know – it’s not your fault. Diet culture contributes to the guilt by perpetuating the idea that certain foods are “bad” and that eating for pleasure should be punished. 

By promoting restrictive eating and diet “rules,” our culture creates a negative association with food that amplifies guilt and shame. A family history of dieting or food trauma, perfectionism and fat phobia can magnify negative feelings.

To overcome food guilt, it’s important to challenge and reject the harmful messages of diet culture. Embrace a compassionate approach that values health, pleasure, and satisfaction like Intuitive Eating. And finally, lean on the support of a dietitian if needed.