Food and Guilt

Brownie Ice Cream Sandiwches

In our Healthy & Whole series, we’ve been talking about barriers to embracing healthy eating: no time, fear, and lack of inspiration. Now, we’d like to tackle some more personal barriers, starting with guilt. 

Guilt and food are so intertwined in American culture, it’s hard to know where one ends and the other begins. How often have you heard a conversation about food that starts with, “I really shouldn’t have eaten that [brownie, cookie, ice cream, french fries]! I’ll go to the gym tomorrow to make up for it.”

My examination of guilt in my life started around the time that Alex and I decided to be more thoughtful and intentional our eating habits. I began to realize how long I had lived out of a paradigm of guilt — for example, I ate out of an obligation to eat what I thought was “healthy”. I started counting calories, and then became guilt-ridden when I ate more than my daily allotment. I would turn to comfort food when I felt emotional, feel guilty, and then eat more to make myself feel better.

Outside of eating, I also lived out of guilt in decision-making. I would become paralyzed from making a decision because I was already guilty that I would make the wrong choice. I did certain things because I felt it was my “duty”, just to avoid the guilty feeling afterwards. I would try very hard in relationships, and then be guilty that I wasn’t measuring up as a good friend, daughter, or spouse.

Once Alex and I began to realize how much guilt can become a burden in both food and daily life, we decided to take a stance on guilt and start removing it from our vocabulary.

We intentionally try not to talk about guilty pleasures. Instead, we focus on freedom. Since we’re free to make our food choices, there’s no need to live out of guilt. We eat whole foods not because we should, but because we love them. There’s room for the occasional splurge because there are no rules.

Believe me, it’s taken me years and years to get here. Food and guilt used to have strong control over me. But little by little, I’ve been learning how to embrace eating with a new-found freedom – the freedom to wholeheartedly enjoy delicious, whole foods, the freedom to embrace splurges in moderation, and the freedom to give myself grace and truly love myself and the choices I make.

How about you? Have you struggled with food and guilt? Do you see certain foods as “good” or “bad”, and does this hold you back from embracing a healthy way of eating?

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About the Authors

Sonja Overhiser

Cookbook Author and writer

Sonja Overhiser is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best healthy cookbooks of 2018. She’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the food blog A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Sonja seeks to inspire adventurous eating to make the world a better place one bite at a time.

Alex Overhiser

Cookbook Author and photographer

Alex Overhiser is an acclaimed food photographer and author based in Indianapolis. He’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the recipe website A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Alex is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best vegetarian cookbooks by Epicurious.

34 Comments

  • Reply
    Neen
    May 24, 2013 at 5:24 am

    So very true. We shouldn’t bring emotion into our eating decisions. And you’re right that since we do make a choice, guilt shouldn’t be a factor.

    Great post!

    • Reply
      Sonja
      May 26, 2013 at 9:49 am

      Thank you! Of course it’s easier said than done, but learning there was a choice behind guilt was transformative for me in my decision making, both food and un-food related. Thanks for writing!

  • Reply
    Belinda @themoonblushbaker
    May 24, 2013 at 10:03 am

    I love this post of yours. Emotions and food are so often confused in the western world, where as if you travel to European or Asian countries food is not synonymous with good or bad but celebration and Privilege.
    One day I hope all people take this view.

    • Reply
      Sonja
      May 26, 2013 at 9:44 am

      Thank you! Yes, it is amazing how complicated food and emotions have become in our culture. Looking to European and Asian philosophies on food has been helpful when examining our own!

  • Reply
    Jennifer
    May 24, 2013 at 11:34 am

    Wise words- thank you

  • Reply
    Tiffany
    May 24, 2013 at 2:14 pm

    This is great! I think there are really two kinds of guilt we face — guilt to ourselves (“I did something that I am ashamed of/not happy with/feel I shouldn’t do”) and guilt to others (“I don’t want others to know I did this/ate this because they will think this bad thing about me”). I think both are equally destructive. Thank you for talking about this and the FREEDOM we have to do what we want — but hopefully make wise choices.

    • Reply
      Sonja
      May 26, 2013 at 9:41 am

      Yes! Guilt is so complicated. I love your thoughts on the different types, and couldn’t agree more.

  • Reply
    Gail
    May 24, 2013 at 2:25 pm

    This post hits home with me, probably most of us. I’m so tired of guilt. Freedom sounds so good. I’m slowly working my way there. Eating, just food in general is so distorted in this country. It’s sad. Food should be enjoyment, celebration. Thank you for your work to bring us good recipes, but more importantly, thank you for posts like this. You are more of an encouragement than you could realize.

    • Reply
      Sonja
      May 26, 2013 at 9:40 am

      Thank you for your kind words! This is so encouraging. The ability to embrace food as enjoyment and celebration is a tricky thing to learn in our culture – thank you for verbalizing that and striving for freedom!

  • Reply
    Eileen
    May 24, 2013 at 2:55 pm

    YES. Screw guilt; eat food. I am somehow the rare western female with no body issues w regard to food–I don’t know how that happened, but I’m happy it did! I guess the whole diet/body industry just always seemed like bullshit to me. Real food, on the other hand, is excellent.

    • Reply
      Sonja
      May 26, 2013 at 9:33 am

      You go, girl! That is awesome and encouraging. Thanks for your ability to see truth in a world that can many times distort it.

  • Reply
    Kristine
    May 24, 2013 at 6:12 pm

    Great topic, and very timely for me. I can especially relate to the part about hesitating to make a decision because of pre-emptive guilt. We have choice in food selection, and I guess also in whether or not to feel guilty. It makes perfect sense, but not until I saw it in black and white. Bravo to you.

    • Reply
      Sonja
      May 26, 2013 at 9:31 am

      Yes! It was a breakthrough for me when I realized I could choose my guilt instead of thinking it was caused by other things or people. So glad this way timely for you! Thanks for writing.

  • Reply
    Brittany
    May 25, 2013 at 12:38 pm

    Great point, Sonja! I’m enjoying reading your posts!

    • Reply
      Sonja
      May 26, 2013 at 9:25 am

      Thanks, Brittany!

  • Reply
    Haley @ Cheap Recipe Blog
    May 25, 2013 at 2:15 pm

    It’s hard to avoid food guilt, but it’s really all about balance for me. I usually try to eat healthy meals, and then indulge in a snack in the afternoon. I could do better, but I could also do worse :)

    • Reply
      Sonja
      May 26, 2013 at 9:24 am

      Agreed, balance is truly the key! I used to try to be “perfect” all day, but that wasn’t sustainable. Glad you’ve found what works for you!

  • Reply
    PBL
    May 26, 2013 at 7:47 am

    Food guilt is a very tricky and serious subject. I’m recovering from an eating disorder, so food for me was plagued with guilt, deprivation, and punishment following “splurges”. I hesitate to even discuss food at length anymore because it really is just a necessary component of life like air and water; yet, it shouldn’t be given more lime light than it’s due. An overemphasis on “healthy” can truly become an obsession. I appreciate the balanced perspective you offer and pray it will help others who may be slipping into the all too common category of distorted food views.

    • Reply
      Sonja
      May 26, 2013 at 9:21 am

      Thank you so much for this comment and for sharing your story. As wonderful as it is to celebrate food and eating, it is a slippery slope into distorted food views, as you mentioned. I too have struggled with giving food more importance than it deserved, and it is only out of a more balanced perspective that I am able to enjoy it in a healthy way. Prayers to you on your recovery.

  • Reply
    angela @ another bite please
    May 28, 2013 at 7:34 pm

    what a great article..and great reminder on how to “feel” about food. I try to do things in moderation…I love what you write, “and the freedom to give myself grace and truly love myself and the choices I make” you stated how I feel about food and eating just perfectly. again thanks for sharing!

    • Reply
      Sonja
      June 1, 2013 at 10:52 pm

      You are so welcome! Glad to hear you enjoy the philosophy of moderation as well – it’s taken us a while to get there, but it’s been so rewarding! Thanks for writing.

  • Reply
    Ashley
    May 30, 2013 at 10:24 am

    Such a beautiful post, Sonja! It’s a hard subject to talk about it but you did it in such a positive way. Well done! I love the “no rules” approach! xo

    • Reply
      Sonja
      June 1, 2013 at 10:49 pm

      Thank you, Ashley!

  • Reply
    Isabelle
    July 17, 2013 at 8:48 am

    I just discovered your blog, and I find it very inspirational! You are so right about food and guilt…. I wish they didn’t have such a strong control over me, I wish I were able to “embrace eating with a new-found freedom – the freedom to wholeheartedly enjoy delicious, whole foods, the freedom to embrace splurges in moderation, and the freedom to give myself grace and truly love myself and the choices I make” as you state so beautifully.
    Still a long way to go, but working on it every day……

    • Reply
      Sonja
      October 15, 2014 at 8:51 pm

      Thank you, Isabelle. It’s still daily work for me too! Thanks for writing :)

  • Reply
    ashley c
    November 8, 2013 at 10:41 am

    i love this series. i don’t think people talk about the emotional side of eating near enough. food and guilt is definitely something i struggle with, probably even more than i realize. i find it helpful to check in with myself when making food decisions, and if it’s coming from a place of guilt, release that guilt and step into the freedom of making that choice. thank you for bringing this to light and starting the conversation!

    • Reply
      Sonja
      October 15, 2014 at 8:53 pm

      You are so welcome! I agree, the emotional side of eating does have a bit of a taboo, which probably compounds the issues. Thanks for weighing in and sharing how you address guilt!

  • Reply
    cheyanne
    January 25, 2014 at 6:26 am

    Such a taboo subject. Thank you for addressing it. And so eloquently. I love your blog!

    • Reply
      Sonja
      October 15, 2014 at 8:53 pm

      Thank you, Cheyanne!

  • Reply
    Dena Norton
    March 25, 2014 at 10:01 am

    Simply and wisely put, Sonja! I’m so grateful to have been delivered from my guilt-laden history with food, and to now truly enjoy and celebrate food and health as a gift! It’s fun to hear from others like yourself who are discovering this liberating truth – it’s never too late, right?

    • Reply
      Sonja
      October 15, 2014 at 8:55 pm

      Exactly! It’s still somewhat of a daily struggle, but knowing there is freedom is half the battle. Great to hear from you, Dena, and I’m grateful for your positive food philosophy!

  • Reply
    Amy Leffingwell
    October 15, 2014 at 2:52 pm

    This was so inspirational to read. Thank you. In my early 20’s, I struggled with anorexia and have learned slowly how to love my body, grow as much of my own food as possible, and not make myself feel horrible for eating cheese or a brownie.

    • Reply
      Sonja
      October 15, 2014 at 8:57 pm

      Amy, thank you so much for sharing this. I know that it is not easy! It is so encouraging to hear about your growth into loving your body and growing your own food. That is amazing! Thank you for sharing this, and I wish you the best of luck in your continuing journey.

  • Reply
    Kathryn @ The Scratch Artist
    September 30, 2015 at 5:53 pm

    After seeing your latest post on Instagram I wanted to come over and read this. We are on the same page. I always protest against the framework of “guilty pleasures”. The phrase makes light of something that is a great source of pain, distress, and upset. If you notice when people say it (or similar) they tend to giggle or make a joke out of it. If they were really to tell the truth, I don’t think they find anything humorous in it. It is a pain and anxiety filled experience. I know because I have certainly been on that rollercoaster. I love your endeavor to share your philosophy with others and bring it more fully into your life.

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