The New Eating Disorder You Might Not Realize You Have: Food Guilt

We’ve all been there. Doubting ourselves after that third chocolate chip cookie, feeling anxious after eating a few too many chicken fingers at late night, or falling victim to the excessive guilt associated with “bad” foods. What happened to the good old days when we were kids – munching on cookies, macaroni and cheese, pizza, and pasta without a care in the world? We ate what we wanted, in moderation as regulated by our parents, and stopped eating when we were full.

Unfortunately, we’ve become obsessed with body image and the path to achieve the American ideal of perfection. Restrictive diets might seem reasonable at first, but upon closer inspection, these diets create “good” and “bad” foods leading to the psychological phenomenon known as food guilt. This food guilt phenomenon is extremely apparent on college campuses where collegiettes are trying to discover the balance between diet, exercise and weight maintenance all while enjoying the best four years of our lives.

What is Food Guilt?

While food guilt is natural in small doses, you might be surprised to learn that it can be classified as a psychological disorder as soon as it starts interfering with daily, routine activities. In its most severe form, food guilt is associated with disordered eating, ranging from binge eating to purging. However, it is important to note that food guilt exists on a less severe level as well.

To a certain extent, food guilt is completely normal. We all over-indulge a bit too much every now and then, whether that means eating too much ice cream or enjoying that third, or even fourth, slice of pizza. Over-indulging happens and that is okay. However, if every single meal is a battle with excessive guilt, shame and potential regret, then this might be something more serious. Evelyn Tribole, co-author of Intuitive Eating, can pinpoint where this overwhelming guilt begins: Not being at peace with food. She explains, “If you tell yourself that you can’t or shouldn’t have a particular food, it can lead to intense feelings of deprivation that build into uncontrollable cravings and, often, bingeing. When you finally ‘give-in” to your forbidden food, eating will be experienced with such intensity, it usually results in ‘Last Supper’ overeating and overwhelming guilt.”

Sheila Tucker, a dietician at Boston College, says that it is important to recognize and deal with the beginning stages of food guilt before it turns into something more serious, like disordered eating. She explains, “Disordered eating can be a way that some people cope with emotional feelings when they cannot directly deal with those feelings. Whether or not food guilt itself as a single factor could lead to disordered eating would depend on why the food guilt exists in the first place and the person’s overall emotional health.”

Origins of Food Guilt

So where did this food guilt trend come from? According to nutrition therapist Lynn Penrose, it is a construct of our society and a direct result of the media’s influence. This might be hard to admit, but magazines, television shows, movies, books, and celebrities influence us whether we like it or not. Instead of promoting moderation and occasional healthy indulgence, the media has led us to believe that indulgence is a bad thing. Diets are built around this idea of avoiding indulgence all together, labeling foods as either “good” or “bad.” We are conditioned to avoid all of the “bad” foods and feel ashamed when we give in to the temptation.

Tucker explains, “labeling food ‘good’ and ‘bad’ or ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ appeals to the all-or-nothing mentality that many folks have regarding food and health. This philosophy makes people feel badly if they think they made a ‘bad’ choice – as in wrong or right. Student clients will say things like ‘I am so bad, I ate XYZ’. Food choices don’t make you a bad person – but that is how many people, especially women, talk to themselves.”

Some wise collegiettes have already figured this out for themselves. Kathleen Kalinksy, a sophomore at James Madison University, explains, “I have found that if I want a dessert, I don’t tell myself that it is bad because it’s really not as long as it’s all in moderation.”