Location: My house. Girls’ night. The scene: Cheese plate. Many bottles of wine. And a running commentary from all my friends: “I can’t stop eating this cheese.” “I can’t believe I’m still eating this cheese.” “I’ve been eating so much cheese this week. I’m so gross.” To me: “I’m so sorry I’m eating all your cheese.”
And then: “Do you have any more of this cheese?”
Of course, it’s not always cheese. Feel free to insert bread, pasta, cookies, chocolate, or chips into that scenario. In this age of clean eating, detox diets, and food phobias, there is an increasingly long list of foods that health-conscious women feel terrible about eating. If we eat them in private, we carry that shame around inside us, or maybe text a friend a picture of the crumb-covered aftermath. If we eat them in public, an apology accompanies every bite, as if we can indulge only through a kind of preemptive atonement. But why do we feel so guilty—or at least think we should feel guilty—about the simple act of eating food and daring to enjoy it?
Why we food shame
For me, for years, the foods that most inspired this kind of guilt were baked goods. Specifically, brownies. I love brownies, but I rarely let them in my house because when I did, the pan wouldn’t last more than a day. If I encountered them at a party, they could dominate my whole night: What should I eat before I let myself have a brownie? Can I have a second one? Maybe just this broken piece? Why is no one else at this party eating the brownies?
And underneath all those thoughts was another, even more insidious undercurrent: I was sure that I was so abnormally obsessed with the brownies because I was fat, possibly the fattest person in the room, and getting fatter with every bite. “As a culture, we’ve fully bought into this myth that if we eat the ‘right’ foods in the ‘right’ amounts, we will achieve the ideal body shape,” says Glenys Oyston, RDN, a Los Angeles–based dietitian and the founder of Dare to Not Diet. “We’re sure it’s just a matter of trying hard enough.”
The flip side is that eating any “wrong” food isn’t merely unhealthy—it’s considered a huge failure of willpower. When we categorize foods as good or bad, we’re really categorizing ourselves as good or bad, strong or weak, worthy or unworthy.
But our inability to resist forbidden foods isn’t a moral failing. It’s how we’re wired. “Our brains react really strongly to restriction,” notes Marci Evans, RDN, a dietitian in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who specializes in helping patients recovering from eating disorders. “The more we say ‘No, bad’ about a food, the more we can’t stop thinking about it.” And lately our catalogue of “bad” foods has been getting bigger and bigger—gluten! red meat! anything in a package!—until we’re apologizing for eating, period.
This kind of thinking happens even if your reasons to avoid certain foods ostensibly have more to do with health than weight. Stella is a 37-year-old elementary school teacher who tries not to eat cheese or ice cream because they can give her digestive trouble so embarrassing that she didn’t want to use her real name. But she also feels that if she’s worked out that day, the rules are different. “If I’ve gone for a run, I give myself permission to indulge in any and all foods,” she says. “Especially cheese.” Oyston calls this “healthism” and says it’s really just another manifestation of our diet mentality, in which feeling healthy depends on the activities or habits that we associate with being thin. In some instances, obsessing about whether you should restrict your intake of certain foods can be an early sign of a more severe disordered eating pattern. “Even if it never gets bad enough to be clinically diagnosable, it’s still a problem when your thoughts about food take up so much mental space that other parts of your life begin to suffer,” says Christy Harrison, RD, a dietitian and intuitive-eating counselor in Brooklyn, New York. Like when you think about brownies so much that you miss the actual fun other people are having at a party.
Breaking the habit
Most of us are not going to stop eating cheese or brownies—nor should we. Feeding your body what it wants and needs instead of restricting yourself is associated with lower rates of disordered eating, depression, and other mental health issues, says Harrison. The trick is to figure out how to end the apology cycle.
I became much more mindful of how I talked about food after my 3-year-old daughter told me that “cookies are yucky but carrots are good.” I want her to find pleasure in eating both—but she’ll never get there if she’s coming home to find me self-flagellating around the baked goods. So I stopped apologizing, criticizing, or justifying what I was eating. Completely.
One cool thing about apologizing less out loud is that over time, I’ve found my internal monologue has quieted down as well. The brownies are just brownies now; I can eat them, love them, and have fun at a party all at the same time.
A less cool thing is that I’m now much more aware when I hear other people food shaming themselves. Jenny McGlothlin is a pediatric feeding therapist in Dallas who may also be part unicorn, because she’s never dieted and doesn’t food shame. So I asked her how she handles those fraught moments. “I usually go for a blend of humor and good-natured support,” she says. “Like if a friend says she’s ‘being bad,’ I’ll say, ‘Well, you’re pretty awesome, so anything you choose to eat can’t be bad!’ ” I don’t mind telling you that except for when she was pregnant, McGlothlin has stayed the same size for her entire adult life. But in so many ways, that’s beside the point. Eating without guilt is just a lot more fun. And it makes for a much better girls’ night.
Intuitive eating 101
As you work to let go of food shame, you may also find yourself eating more intuitively, which means choosing foods in response to your body’s needs and wants. Here’s how to get started.
1. Avoid nutritional mandates. “We rely way too much on our brains to tell us how to eat,” says Evans. “Getting caught up in the number of calories or whether it’s a good or bad food can keep you stuck.” Instead, she says, check in with your body for information. “After you eat a meal or snack, ask, ‘How am I feeling physically?’ and ‘Would I like to feel this way again?’ ” she says. “Then listen with curiosity and without judgment.”
2. Honor your hunger. Even if that means you need to eat lunch at 11 a.m. or have a second or third helping. “Reliably eating until you feel satiated teaches your brain and body to trust each other, which will help you feel more relaxed and in charge of your eating,” explains Evans.
3. Let your weight work itself out. Once you stop food shaming, you may find yourself eating more and even, yes, gaining some weight. On the other hand, many people find they lose weight in this process, probably because guilt was leading them to overindulge in forbidden foods. Either way, “we usually see weight stabilize over time,” says Oyston.