Food does not only serve to fulfill our bodies’ physiological requirements.
There’s often quite a bit of emotion involved with eating.
When we sit down with our partners, our kids, our parents, or our friends, food can represent something so much more than calories, protein, carbs, or fat.
We celebrate over it.
We bond over it.
For many of us, however, food doesn’t always represent such pleasant occasions.
It can bring a host of negative emotions.
It can bring embarrassment.
It can bring frustration.
It can bring stress.
It can bring guilt.
That last one – guilt – is perhaps the most pervasive of these emotions, and is often at the root of all the others.
Why do we feel this guilt?
More importantly, what can we do about it?
This guilt often comes after moments indulgence.
After we eat foods that we’ve determined are “bad”.
After we eat foods that we’ve told ourselves we weren’t going to eat.
After we eat more food than know – or think – that we “should”.
This feeling of guilt is especially present in those times during which we feel as though we’ve lost control.
Some of us try to atone for this feeling of guilt by compensating in some way.
We go to the gym to “undo the damage”.
We purchase detoxes and cleanses.
We adopt overly restrictive – by quality or quantity – diets.
Sure, these efforts might work to address guilt in the short term.
We might feel as though we’ve accounted in some way for what’s happened.
Do these efforts really accomplish anything, however, in the long run?
Do they address the underlying reason for the guilt?
They only treat the symptoms.
The real root of the guilt comes from something deeper – something that no workout, detox, cleanse, or diet can fix.
Let’s unpack this for a minute.
We know that we didn’t commit a crime.
We know that we didn’t infringe on the rights of others.
We know that we haven’t wronged or harmed a loved one.
This feeling isn’t about how we’ve affected other people.
It’s about how we’ve affected ourselves.
We’ve broken a promise to ourselves.
We feel out of control of our own actions.
We feel weak.
We feel as though we’re not living up to the standards we’ve set for ourselves.
We might even feel as though we’re not living up to some external standard of how we think we “should” eat, look, or weigh.
We’ve placed all of our self-worth in some number on a scale or clothes tag.
While these feelings are very real, are they necessary?
For starters, you owe nothing to anybody but yourself.
Nobody who judges your worth based on what you eat, how much you weigh, or how much fat you carry on your body is worth a second of your thoughts.
Are these the kinds of people you want in your life?
Of course not.
Much of the time, nobody is even paying attention to these kinds of things.
Nobody else is paying attention to what you’re eating.
Nobody else is paying attention to the size of your clothes.
Nobody else is paying attention to the shape or size of your body.
This judgement from others is nearly always only in our heads.
In the event that there actually are people in your life who judge you in these ways, you might consider how to cut them out.
Life is way too short to spend it with people such as this.
If you can’t cut them out, stand up for yourself, and work on cultivating the intrinsic sense of self-worth that makes you impervious to the judgement of others
The process of eliminating sources of unnecessary judgment goes for your inner dialogue as well.
Find things you love about yourself completely unrelated to your shape or size.
I assure you, there’s plenty to love if you look for it, openly and honestly.
That’s where you need start.
Start with building that sense of self-worth.
It won’t be found in a number on a scale.
If you continue to place your self-worth in your weight or appearance, you’ll never love yourself enough to make lasting change.
The self-love comes before the physical change, not the other way around.
You don’t change your body so that you can love yourself.
You love yourself enough so that you can change your body.
If anything, take this guilt as a signal.
Take it as a neutral signal that you want change.
You want something different.
You deserve something different.
It’s no reason to beat yourself up.
You’ve got competing wants and desires.
Sure, you might want to look and feel a certain way.
However, you’ve got other desires tied to food that are at odds with health and fitness goals.
You’re wired to seek out fat, sugar, and salt, which have until recently been relatively hard to come by – especially in combination.
Not only that, but we’re conditioned to give food meanings completely unrelated to its nutritive value.
Perhaps you were always given sweets when you felt down as a kid, such that you now associate such foods with comfort or pleasure.
Perhaps you always had certain foods with your family growing up, or friends from years past, such that you now associate such foods with good times.
Even those of us with the most serious of health goals struggle to reconcile these competing drives – the drive to be physically healthy and the drive to experience pleasure or comfort.
You’ve done nothing wrong when you’ve chosen the latter.
You’ve simply chosen one need or desire over another.
Forgive yourself just as you’d forgive anybody else in this situation.
You wouldn’t hold this against somebody else who you love, so why hold it against yourself?
You don’t have to like what you’ve done.
You don’t have to accept what you’ve done.
You don’t have to give up and say, “this is just what I do.”
However, you by no means have to feel guilty or beat yourself up.
There are more forces than mere willpower or discipline at play here.
So, what do you do?
The next time you feel guilty about what you’ve eaten, ask yourself, “Why? What have I done that I’m not happy about?”
Once you’ve identified what it is that you’ve done, ask yourself, “Why?” again.
Figure out exactly why it is that your decision has made you feel how it has.
Next, ask yourself what situation, people, thoughts, or emotions led to the incident.
What were you doing in the moments leading up to your deviation?
How were you feeling?
What thoughts were going through your head?
What were you telling yourself?
Address those other factors.
Were you stressed?
Were you lonely?
Were you tired?
How might you address these feelings other than with food?
You can only white-knuckle it through these situations for so long before you inevitably give in.
No amount of guilt will whatever is going on in your life that’s leading to these feelings.
At some point, you’ve got to do the work of figuring out why you end up in these situations.
Then take action.
There’s no judgment here.
There’s no shame.
There’s no guilt.
There’s only information.
This is just like any skill that you’re going to have to practice.
You won’t nail this right of the bat.
You will continue to deviate.
But over time, as you build this mindfulness, you’ll deviate less and less.
On those occasions that you do act in ways that you’d rather not, you’ll respond with exploration and introspection, rather than guilt.
You’re going to falter.
Just get back to it.
Respond with love, not guilt.
You’ve got this.