No more guilty pleasures – part one

One issue most people raise with me is the sense of guilt they feel for eating ‘sometimes food’* or even ‘everyday food’ such as carbohydrates or full fat dairy. Many people see dietitians as the ‘food police’ and are therefore shocked when I question their sense of guilt because of eating, say, a piece of cake or a packet of chips. It’s really disappointing that our dieting culture is robbing people of the joy of eating. It saddens me that we are saturated in a culture that places moral judgements upon food – judgements which are both futile and damaging.

Why do people insist on placing these judgments and values upon food? There is a growing trend at the moment (which has also been around for quite some time) to place virtues on food. Fad diets such as ‘clean eating’ are categorising food into a moral hierarchy. In fact all diets place food into a moral hierarchy; as they state which foods are good or can be consumed and which foods are bad and must be avoided at all cost. This gives people a false sense of moral superiority as they follow their strict dieting rules.

The moral dialogue around food is so ingrained in our society that most people don’t see the issue with it. But what are the negative impacts of moral judgements on food. I imagine that you would feel worthless, guilty, shameful and unclean. All of which should not be associated with eating and nourishing your body. As stated in a previous blog, the body has strong biological and psychological drives which will always overrule any dieting rules you attempt to put in place. In fact, you will always become preoccupied with the foods you are trying to avoid. And when your body is deprived emotionally and physically, it will increase its hunger drive to the point where you will end up breaking your rules. Therefore it is inevitable that you will break this moral hierarchy and when it happens you will most likely give in and overeat or binge on the forbidden foods. This highlights the fact that diets and moral judgements on food lead toward and an unhealthy relationship with food and your body.

Diets and moral judgements on food change the natural and nourishing relationship we should have with food into a destructive and damaging relationship. Rules and moral judgements don’t allow us to enjoy food. Taking the joy out of eating leaves people feeling unsatisfied and craving delicious “forbidden” food. Ellyn Satter (2008, p3) puts it perfectly “Today’s consumers experience a fundamental contradiction between wants and shoulds with respect to food selection. If you are typical, you feel deprived if you eat the foods you should and guilty if you eat the foods you want.” Food rules and moral judgements will actually drive overeating patterns. The truth, but sad fact is that when people who follow diet rules finally eat the “forbidden” food, they can’t even enjoy it due to the moral judgement, shame and guilt weighing over their mind.

As far as I can see, eating any food isn’t a crime, and therefore it doesn’t warrant guilt. Furthermore, if we really want to think about ethical issues surrounding food consumption, we should be discussing things like food wastage, the amount of plastic used in food packaging, redistributing food to the poor, sustainable food production, and the need to sell (rather than waste) produce that is ‘imperfect’. It seems our society has turned the moral issues around food upside down and lost sight of the real ethical issues which we should be thinking about.

Okay, so I hope this has got you thinking about your attitudes, beliefs and rules around food and eating. For many of you, it is an automatic habit to say “I shouldn’t have eaten that….”, or “Why did I eat that, I was meant to be good today!” If you are interested in starting to develop a healthy relationship with food, I have a few challenges for you. I wonder whether you can start to pay attention to the dialog in your mind about food, appetite and weight. As you notice the different thoughts, don’t beat yourself up or judge them, just notice them. Then you might like to start asking yourself a few questions:

  • Is this a neutral or positive statement about food?
  • Does this place limits on what, where, when, how I eat?
  • Does this help me connect with my appetite?
  • Does this help me enjoy food and feel satisfied?

As this is a big topic to discuss, I’ve had to divide my blog post in two. So in the next blog, we will continue to challenge the moral judgements on food and I will begin to give you some practical advice to help you begin developing a healthier relationship with food and your body.

*Sometimes food: are foods that you each for enjoyment but they are not necessarily providing your body with essential nutrients.