Dealing with issues of food restriction and guilt

Cathryn Arndt

You hear it all the time. Likely, you’ve even said it: “I was bad today” or “I was good today.”

“Good” and “bad” — terms commonly used for moral and ethical issues — somehow have become everyday language in relation to food and eating. I hear this a lot myself, as I am a registered dietitian. Somehow I become an automatic “confession box” for the “wayward eater.”

Have you ever stopped to think about why we slap such hefty terms on ourselves and others? The language we use (“good,” “bad”) reveals the mindset that underpins our words. Those mindsets are guilt and restriction.

Quite often our word choices reveal what we actually think and fear. Vocabulary betrays our true motivations. Granted, sometimes it’s easy to adopt sloppy vocabulary from others around us, and we don’t really mean what our words imply. Unthinkingly, we say, “I was so good today” because we made a healthier-than-normal choice.

Often, however, we aren’t just being sloppy. We apply moral terms to our eating behaviors because we really feel guilty and awful about our food choices. We feel like criminal eaters. We then move on to “reform our ways” and begin to restrict ourselves.

The mindset with which we approach food matters. It matters because it has consequences. Feeling guilty and restricting our foods can lead to confusion and truly unhealthy ways of eating.

I wish I could say that food is just fuel, so we should just treat it that way. Unfortunately, it’s a little more complicated. While food is primarily fuel, humans bring to it an added complexity.

Food impacts us in many ways. It has social aspects and cultural significance. For some people, it has spiritual or religious meaning. Everyone has emotional memories around food and some people respond to their emotions with food.

Personally, I see food as community, fuel and medicine. That is why eating well, unfettered from any guilt or restriction, is uncommon and still more difficult to deal with.

The trouble is that the intensity of our guilt is out of proportion with the perceived “offense.” We condemn ourselves as moral offenders over issues that simply aren’t morally right or wrong. We confuse our emotions with what’s actually true: There are poor, better and best food choices we can make. None (I would argue) are “moral” issues. Still, imperfect eating, the disappointment of unmet goals, confusion or frustration as to what to eat or how to change, all stir up feelings that we haven’t done something “right.”

One way to address the guilt mindset is to work on the mindset motivators. Here are some tips and self-reflective questions you can use to address any guilt around eating.

n Save “good” and “bad” for ethical and moral issues, not takeout menus. Instead, seek to nourish, thrive and enjoy your food as community, fuel and medicine.

n Refuse to ride the guilt train. If you made a bad decision, if you ate out of a desire to avoid painful situations or emotions, then own it and move on. If you need to do better about your food choices, then take the responsibility of working on them. Remember: You are not a victim.

n Sometimes we can feel guilty even when our decision wasn’t a poor one. If every time you have a treat (say, a cookie), you feel like a guilty loser, just pause and ask yourself, “Why?” When drilling down for a reason, you may find there isn’t one at all, or – at best – a lousy one. Taking a pause to ask this question might be what you need to stop the guilt.

n Registered dietitian Ilana Muhlstein has a good catch phrase regarding those indulgences we tend to feel guilty about. Think about them as “treats and not cheats.” The word “cheats” makes it a “good” or “bad” issue once again. It layers on the guilt.

Also, the moment you make something a “cheat” you have relinquished responsibility and control. You also have lost the ability to legitimately enjoy the indulgence.

However, when something is a treat, it reminds you that you have the ability to say “no” or “yes.” It frees you to let go of guilt and enjoy it if that is what is best. If a treat doesn’t fit how you feel you need to eat for your best health, then feel free to not partake. If it does, then by all means enjoy it guilt-free!

n When presented with an eating opportunity you tend to feel guilty about, ask yourself, “Do I want this or am I just mindlessly eating this? Am I trying to reward myself?” If so, try picking something other than food. “Am I trying to relax?” There are a multitude of other ways to let your hair down. Pick go-tos other than food.

n Even if you are the person who “means nothing by it,” perhaps a change in the terminology around your food would benefit the younger ears around you. No dollar amount matches the valuable example you set. It’s priceless.

Perhaps it’s because I have daughters of my own that I think more about this. My youngest is 21 months old, and while she isn’t as verbal as her older sister was by that age, she still understands a lot. She can follow such directions as “Pick up your towel and put it in the bathroom“ or “Pick up the spilled food and put the cup on the counter, please.” It’s remarkable what my girls have learned, simply by watching others, especially their wordless behavior. Much more is taught by example than taught directly.

The same is true for the words you use about food. Be mindful of what the younger people around you learn from you. Do you really want your kids or grandkids to start making some of your own mistakes in thinking, judging themselves to be “good” or “bad” because they ate some ice cream?

n Do note that biological issues can increase cravings and struggles with food. I have lived inside of that struggle for most of my life. They can be an indicator of greater health issues that should be addressed.

(For me, it was a gut issue, an autoimmune disorder and a complex hormonal-metabolic syndrome). If you suspect other health factors at play in your cravings, seek help from the right healthcare specialists.

If you struggle with your mindset, words or eating behaviors around food, take care to work through them and not make them contagious to others around you.

It’s OK to be honest about the struggle (it does no one any good to pretend), but be careful not to celebrate it. Sometimes we can almost celebrate the dysfunction in our lives. We talk about it as often as our hobbies or favorite Netflix shows, almost leading others to believe we’re extra-noble for having the struggle.

We have discussed the basic ideas of changing the guilt mindset around food. Next month we’ll discuss the issue of the restriction mindset and how we can eat and live without depriving ourselves of delicious foods that nourish and satisfy.

Cathryn Arndt is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) and owns a nutrition counseling business called The Pantry Lab LLC. She lives in Lebanon, Oregon with her husband and daughters. Find her at or visit her Facebook page by searching under “Dietitian Cathryn.”