Why do I feel guilty after eating?

 

Picture this: You’ve just finished eating dinner and now you have a taste for something sweet. After eating dessert, a thousand guilty thoughts suddenly swirl around in your mind, like:

 

“I know sugar is so BAD for me, why did I let myself eat that?”

“I always do this, I never have any self control, I’m so disgusting”

“I didn’t do enough today to earn that, now I’ll have to workout twice tomorrow”

“I just blew my whole diet, might as well eat more and start over tomorrow”

“I know better than to keep this crap in the house, what was I thinking”

“I bet Karen is judging me—she never eats dessert and she looks great”

 

Feeling guilty after eating can leave us feeling terrible about ourselves. Food guilt makes it hard to trust our body and leaves us second guessing our food choices. Sometimes the thoughts can become repetitive and obsessive, making every food choice feel complicated and exhausting.

Where does food guilt come from?

 

Having black and white food rules

 

Having rules about what foods you are or aren’t supposed to eat can make you feel guilty after eating.

 

Why it makes you feel guilty:

  • Food rules tend to be difficult to follow for a number of reasons, but mostly because the rules are always changing. Even diet culture is confused about what rules we should be abiding by (ex: don’t eat fruit because it has too much sugar, but also do fruit juice cleanses to “jumpstart weight loss”).
  • Food rules make eating too black and white. Eating is nuanced. No one food is all “good” just like no one food is all “bad.”
  • Food rules can make it seem like food has moral value—that eating “good” foods make us a good person and eating “bad” foods make us a bad person. This can make us feel guilty and ashamed for eating foods we really enjoy. In reality, food has no moral value.

Having a strong dieting mentality

 

Thinking you have to be on a diet to be in control of your eating, your weight, and your health can make you feel guilty after eating.

 

Why it makes you feel guilty:

  • Most people believe that “failing” a diet is a matter of personal willpower, which makes them feel guilty and ashamed. In reality, our bodies are biologically resistant to intentional weight loss and have fail-safe mechanisms to maintain a genetically pre-determined set point weight.
  • We feel guilty because we feel like “failing” a diet is our fault, when the truth is the diet failed us. 95% of diets fail, meaning 95% of dieters will gain back the weight they lost in 2-5 years.

You were exposed to food guilt at a young age

 

Growing up in a household where you or others had to follow strict rules around food can make you feel guilty after eating.

 

Why it makes you feel guilty:

  • Some of us grew up in households where our food and intake was closely monitored. Sometimes that meant being restricted from certain foods. Maybe those foods were only offered at “special” times, they had to be “earned” by eating “healthy” foods first, they were never purchased at the store, or they were kept in a locked cabinet. You may have been praised for eating “healthy” foods and/or scolded for eating the “unhealthy” foods.
  • Other times that meant food had to be finished if it was offered (“Clean plate club” members unite). If you grew up in a household with food pushers, you may have also been guilt-tripped for not eating what was being served or not getting seconds.
  • Some of us did not have food rules pushed on us directly, but rather watched a parent or a sibling go on diets and make derogatory comments about their own food choices (ex: “I’m so bad for eating this”).
  • We feel guilty after eating, even as adults, because we grew up with confusing food rules and did not have adults in our lives model what it was like to have a healthy relationship with food.

Fear of judgment from others

 

Fearing that others are judging you for the foods that you eat and that if you don’t meet their expectations you’re doing something wrong.

 

Why it makes you feel guilty:

  • Having internalized rules and associating morality with what foods we “should” and “should not” be eating, we assume others think and judge us for our food choices in the same ways.
  • Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking that others expect us to eat a certain way based on our body size. This is validated when people make comments about our food choices (ex: “Should you really be eating that?” “I thought you were trying to lose weight,” “Is that really healthy for you?” “If I looked like you I would eat whatever I wanted.”)
  • We feel guilty after eating because we feel judged, even if the comments aren’t said out loud.
  • The truth is, nobody’s opinion on your food choices matters but your own. Even if they are “concerned for your health,” this is not a good reason to make comments about your meals. The people who truly care about you will want to understand how hurtful these comments and judgment are and will be respectful of your boundaries.

How do I stop feeling guilty after eating?

 

1. Challenge food rules

 

Get curious about the rules that might be dictating your eating patterns. Do you have rules about when you eat? What you eat? Why you eat? For example, do you tell yourself that you can’t eat past 6pm, or that you can only eat protein and vegetables for dinner? Start writing down the rules as you notice them. Who told you this rule around food was necessary or important? Try challenging one rule at a time.

2. Give yourself radical permission to eat

 

There is no such thing as “good” food or “bad” food. Radical permission means giving yourself the freedom to choose foods to eat that fill and satisfy you, physically, mentally, and emotionally.

3. Stay mindful and present with what you’re eating

 

Mindfulness can help us stay curious about how the food we’re eating feels in our bodies. It helps us stay connected to our hunger, fullness, and satisfaction cues; it also helps us stay present with our emotions as we eat, making it easier to remind ourselves that we deserve to eat foods that nourish us physically and emotionally.

4. Set healthy boundaries with anyone who comments on your food

 

Whether those people are parents who are food pushers, spouses who are guilt-trippers, or friends who are chronic dieters—if their comments make it feel challenging to follow your food and body intuition when eating, we need to set boundaries with them. Consider having a heart-to-heart about how their comments make them feel, or try changing the subject next time their comments come up. It may also be appropriate to simply shut them down or remove yourself from the meal.

5. Let thoughts just be thoughts, not facts

 

Guilty thoughts about food can be difficult to sit with. But at the end of the day, thoughts are just thoughts, not facts. Working with a therapist to build skills to sit with difficult thoughts and emotions can you move through them with more ease and less discomfort.

When food guilt is actually an eating disorder

 

Intense, repetitive, and obsessive food guilt thoughts may be a sign that you are struggling with an eating disorder. If you think you might be struggling, read about how to tell if you have an eating disorder here.

 

If you are actively struggling with an eating disorder, our dietitians can help. Reach out today to get assessed for disordered eating and learn more about what types of treatment are available.

 

Learn more about eating disorders through the National Eating Disorders Association.

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Kristin Jenkins, MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. Kristin specializes in eating disorders and intuitive eating, and is an advocate for weight-inclusive care for all her clients.