And then the guilt seeped in. Slowly I learned that my appetite was shameful. That food was something to fear, not enjoy. That I had to earn my calories, burn off the fat, be careful of the sugar, weigh, measure and write down every bite. Food stopped being the simple pleasure I knew it as, instead it became the thing that could make me fat. And I learned young that fat was the worst thing I could be.
Our relationship with food has been royally fucked up. Every meal comes with a side order of shame. Every bite has to be calculated and considered. And you know what? It's exhausting. That constant voice telling you you've already eaten too much, you didn't even work out today, it's really not worth it for the calories. The cycles of dieting and binging. The nights laying awake going back over everything that passed your lips. The punishment the next day for the dessert you shouldn't have had. The regret. The fear. The guilt. Raise your hand if you're tired of it! (or just, y'know, think about raising your hand). Enough is enough. We deserve to eat without an internal war raging in our minds over every meal. It's time to beat food guilt. And this is how we're gonna do it:
1) Get Rid of 'Good' and 'Bad'
We all know what 'good' and 'bad' foods are. The good foods are usually green, fat free, and low calorie. The kind that you see in brightly coloured arrangements on Instagram sprinkled with the must have health food of the moment (seriously what even are chia seeds?). When we eat them we feel virtuous. We go to groups and sit in circles boasting about how 'good' we've been. We make promises about how 'good' we're going to be this week. We know that we're doing the right thing. Even if we can't stop thinking about cake.
Then come the bad foods. The ones we worry about people judging when we put them in our trolleys. The ones we secretly stash and binge on when the 'good' foods just aren't good enough. The ones that we start spending every waking moment fantasizing about 3 days into our latest diet. The ones we hate ourselves for eating.
We all know what those foods are. But we don't realise how much damage we're doing to ourselves by splitting food into those two categories. Because food isn't good or bad. Food is just food. When we talk about food in those two terms what we're really saying is that we are good or bad. We're believing that the amount of calories, fat, sugar, macros, carbs or anything else we consume is what makes us a better or worse person. We are judging ourselves morally by what we put in our mouths. And that's not okay. Cake is not sinful. Kale is not saintly. And we need to stop referring to them (and ourselves), like they have the power to define who we are as people.
The next time you start thinking about how 'bad' you were at the weekend or how 'good' you need to be, remind yourself that food has no moral value. You are more than what you choose to eat. And you are allowed to honour your appetite.
2) Lose the 'Make Up For It' Mentality
FOOD IS NOT SOMETHING THAT YOU CONSTANTLY HAVE TO EARN OR BURN OFF. You don't need to punish yourself for what you've eaten. You don't need to use exercise as a form of torture to undo 'mistakes'. And you sure as hell don't need to skip meals to make up for eating more than you think you should have. It is okay to eat more than usual some days. In fact, it's normal.
Our 'make up for it' food mentality is mirrored all around us in society. We go on cleanses that promise to undo the damage of our over indulgence.We see gyms as places to 'work off' our food, rather than build our strength or stamina. One of the most popular diet plans is based on fasting and feasting, encouraging us to eat whatever we want, as long as we make up for it by starving ourselves 2 days of the week. Nobody seems to realise that this mentality, taken further, is bulimia. Of course 4% of all American women end up binging and purging in their lifetime, they're only applying the lessons we're all taught about food.
Stop the bargaining. Stop the punishments. Listen to your body - if you've eaten a larger amount than usual and you're not hungry again for a while, that's fine. But don't ignore your appetite in an attempt to repent for your indulgences. Don't turn movement into a miserable form of self discipline. You don't need to make up for what you've eaten.
3) Cut Out the Communal Guilt-fests
Let me set the scene:
You're standing in line at your local coffee shop, trying to hold back your drool while you stare at all the freshly baked desserts you won't allow yourself to have. You hear the woman in front of you - "They look so good but they're so bad, I can't." Another chimes in "I know, I've been such a pig this week. Salad for me!". The women laugh knowingly, you laugh too. You know all too well.
Our collective food guilt and body loathing is one of the most common things we bond over as women. We spend hours talking to each other about our diets, bemoaning our flaws, rejecting each other's compliments and detailing all of the things we ate and how awful we are for eating them. In fact, it's almost expected. God forbid we say something positive about our bodies or enjoy our food without making some kind of apology for it. It is incredibly sad that our sense of female community is so bound up in shame and self hatred.
We have better things to talk about. We are more interesting than what's on our plates. We have more important things in our lives than what size we're wearing or what workout we have planned. And I hear you - those conversations make us feel less alone sometimes. But they don't make us feel any better, because they just reinforce our obsession. So change the conversation. Call out the toxic comments.
Earlier this week I was out with my friend Joeley at an event with sparkly pink glitter doughnuts laid out on the tables. When another woman told us that they were incredible but not worth the calories *knowing look of shared internal battle between desire and diet culture induced shame*, Joeley simply laughed and exclaimed 'what are calories?!' before taking another doughnut as we left the room. It was magical. And the doughnuts were delicious.
4) Break Up With Diets... For Good
If you've read this far then this one must be obvious by now. Everything we know about food guilt, we learned from diet culture. Before we started spending all of our time and energy worrying about weight loss and hating our bodies, food was simple. Our relationship with food got fucked up when all the rules about what we should eat, how much we should eat, and when we should eat it to be our best, thinnest selves came crashing in.
The diet industry relies on guilt. As long as you are dieting, you will never get rid of your food guilt.
5) Intuitive Eating for Every Body!
Intuitive eating is the key to food freedom. It's all about listening to your body, honouring your appetite and knowing that no foods are off limits. It allows you to get back in touch with your hunger cues, learning to recognise when you're truly hungry, when you're full, and what your body is really craving. So much of what we eat is prompted by outside cues - what we think we should eat - that we lose touch with our most basic instincts. Intuitive eating lets us find them again.
Basically, it teaches us how to eat normally again, without all the pressure of diet culture making us feel like monsters for getting hungry. And if you have no idea what eating normally even is anymore, this quote from Ellyn Satter explains it perfectly:
Normal eating is going to the table hungry and eating until you are satisfied. It is being able to choose food you like and eat it and truly get enough of it -not just stop eating because you think you should. Normal eating is being able to give some thought to your food selection so you get nutritious food, but not being so wary and restrictive that you miss out on enjoyable food. Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad or bored, or just because it feels good. Normal eating is mostly three meals a day, or four or five, or it can be choosing to munch along the way. It is leaving some cookies on the plate because you know you can have some again tomorrow, or it is eating more now because they taste so wonderful. Normal eating is overeating at times, feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. And it can be undereating at times and wishing you had more. Normal eating takes up some of your time and attention, but keeps its place as only one important area of your life.
You can search for intuitive eating books online, Health at Every Size is a great one.
Most importantly, we need to learn how to give ourselves a damn break. We need to stop basing our entire self worth on our daily calorie counts. We need to stop believing the lie that what we eat or how much we weigh have any impact on our value as human beings. We need to refuse to spend any more time tearing ourselves to pieces for not being able to live on chickpeas alone. We are allowed to eat. It's time for us to break free from food guilt. Because in the words of Marylin Wann, life is too short for self hatred, and celery sticks.
I'm gonna go order some pizza now.