Food Guilt, And The Moralization of Eating

Ascribing morality to food is an interesting modern phenomenon. Not only does doing so predispose people to “reprimand” themselves – or others perhaps – for “immoral” food choices, it also predisposes people to psychological complexes. We’ve all encountered a self loathing junk food indulger or a holier than thou fad dieter at least once in our lives.

You know what else is interesting? It seems as though there’s a new breed of holier than thou “anti” fad dieters – people who outspokenly shame others for going low carb or gluten free, for example.

Suffice to say, food guilt is a loaded subject, for a variety of reasons. And it’s something that I’ve personally dealt with in the past. Though it does seem that food guilt is a somewhat feminized issue in popular culture – which is ridiculous in it’s own right – men indeed can, and do, experience food guilt too.

Back when I went through the fad diet ringer, I, like many others have, demonized certain (usually delicious) foods and castigated myself when I’d inevitably eat them.

Not surprisingly, I eventually got utterly sick of this cycle, furiously and completely rejected health and fitness, and let myself go into the worst shape I’d ever been in in my life.

Since then, I lost that weight, achieved the leanest body composition of my life (not worth it by the way), and have more or less maintained that weight until now. And I’ve done all that while enjoying whatever foods I like, without any guilt.

I was able to do this, in part, because I finally realized something: Though food guilt is indeed a loaded subject, it actually has a fairly simple solution on a logical level. This post will explain that logic and thus show you, hopefully, how you too can eliminate food guilt.

To understand food guilt, we first need to actually define what it is, specifically. Let’s start literally, with the dictionary:

guilt; noun: the fact of having committed a specified or implied offense or crime.

To be “guilty” of a “food crime” means you’ve violated a specific rule about eating food. And therein lies the fundamental problem: There are no rules about what you can or can’t eat (save perhaps certain exotic foods that are actually illegal).

Yet feelings of guilt surrounding food are certainly still palpable, and this palpability lies in that “implied” part of the word’s definition. There’s a vague nebulousness of “implied” guilt that causes problems. We feel a twinge of “I shouldn’t be doing this” when we eat a cookie or a slice of cheese. We’re not *literally* guilty of breaking some explicit rule by eating cookies or cheese, of course, but we still feel as though, for some ill-defined reason, that we’re doing something wrong.

So where does this nebulous “implied” guilt come from?

Well, almost all of us have somewhat of an idea of what certain foods (allegedly) conduce a “bad” outcome that we don’t want. We also have somewhat of an idea of what certain foods (allegedly) conduce a “good” outcome that we do want – people can also experience the inverse, a sanctimonious high of sorts after eating a plate of steamed organic broccoli.

This typicality poses two significant problems:

  1. Often times a person’s guilt fueling beliefs about food are simply wrong.
  2. Often times those same beliefs being ill-defined, even if they’re more or less correct, are still wrong because they’re not directly pertinent to that person’s actual goals/ideals.

To explain these problems, and show you why they’re likely the faulty cause of erroneous food guilt, let’s consider a typical reader of this blog: A person who’s a little overweight, a little out of shape, and perhaps chronically frustrated from repeated attempts to force a “health and fitness lifestyle” that, no matter what, feels hopelessly incongruent to their own actual lifestyle.

Consider the typical primary food related belief that this run-of-the-mill person has – That “clean and natural” foods are “good,” while “dirty and unnatural” foods are “bad.”

To expound the first issue, “good” and “bad” are indeed in quotations because, when put to the actual veracity of science and logic, we realize that a food’s supposed naturalness doesn’t actually dictate in any way whether or not it’s actually good or bad for us.

Continuing, and to expound the second issue, what is “good” and “bad” to begin with? We need to be more specific as to what either actually means, which means actually defining, explicitly, what it is that you actually want to achieve health and fitness wise. If our hypothetical reader does this, they’d decide things like:

  • They want to lose fat and achieve a healthy and visibly decent BMI and body composition.
  • They want to improve their cardiovascular and strength fitness enough so that their daily affairs aren’t noticeably limited or impaired by their physical ability.
  • They want to maximize life expectancy and quality of life as much as they reasonably can.

Here’s what I’m getting at: When we think about how eating a cookie or a piece of cheese actually influences our specified goals/ideals, we’ll realize that neither actually influences them at all.

If you want to lose fat, you need ultimately restrict calories, and that can be potentially done effectively on any kind of diet with any kind of foods. It’s perfectly possible to create a calorie deficit and lose fat while eating cookies and cheese – the problem isn’t the actual foods themselves, it’s the amounts thereof.

But how much is too much? Ah – and we encounter the first problem yet again. If we falsely believe that any specific food is inherently fattening, we’ll feel guilty about eating it, in any amount, on any occasion.

Yet no foods are inherently fattening. Excessive calories are inherently fattening. Therefore, in regards to weight, as long as we keep calories reasonably in check, there’s no actual reason to feel guilty about eating any given food because it won’t actually negatively impact that specific goal/ideal.

Coming full circle, we see that eliminating food guilt is actually simple and easy to do (on a logical level at least):

First, we need to establish correct beliefs about food, and how it directly influences our specified health and fitness goals/ideas.

Second, we need to set clear ground rules to follow, such that they facilitate the fulfillment of said health and fitness goals/ideals.

This is yet another reason why I’m such a strong advocate of explicit systems, where the decided rules we follow are 100% clear and unambiguous. The elimination of decision fatigue is, effectively, the elimination of “guilt fatigue.” You follow the clearly set ground rules – which don’t have to be complicated by the way – and you’re thus clearly in non-violation of any rule based “food crimes” that you might feel guilty about.

All in all, eliminating food guilt comes down to three things, in summary:

  1. You need to actually define, specifically, what your goal/ideal outcome is health and fitness wise.
  2. You need to set clear rules, such as they’re reconciled with correct beliefs, that will facilitate that outcome.
  3. You simply need to follow those rules – if you’re not breaking any of them, then you clearly have nothing to feel guilty about, end of story.

But what are the right beliefs and rules? Well, that might take a little practice. Just remember: You can always try any given system and adjust it if it doesn’t work. That is to say, don’t frame failures as something to feel guilty over. Instead, frame them as learning experiences through which you’ll eventually figure out what works and what doesn’t. Trial and error is an unavoidably essential part of the systematic process, not a failure to feel guilty about.