It's the holidays. The table is decorated beautifully. On it, your favorite all-you-can-eat holiday staples: turkey, gravy, candied yams, apple pie, stuffing, the list goes on. Excitement turns to dread as you wonder, how do I indulge without feeling bad about what I'm about to eat?
This feeling of dread is known as food guilt or food shame, and it's common, especially around the holidays. The root of this shame comes from popular narratives around appearance and self-worth, pushed mainly by the media and America's culture on dieting.
"We exist in a diet culture that is constantly sending us messages on what we should and shouldn't eat," explains Katherine Metzelaar, MSN, RDN, CD, a dietitian and certified intuitive eating counselor. "This makes eating confusing and sets us up to feel like there is a 'right' and 'wrong' way to eat."
Food guilt, though common, can be avoidable during this holiday season and all year long. We asked a certified dietitian and nurse practitioner to discuss the harms of food guilt. Reframing negative narratives in the media and focusing on your health, not on how your body looks, can help you overcome food guilt.
The Harms of Food Guilt
Food guilt is the guilty or shameful feeling you get after eating. It is the dreaded feeling that causes you to feel like you have done something wrong, leading you to wish you could go back in time and not eat what you've just eaten.
"I liken it to the feeling when you were younger of breaking the rules and knowing that you were going to get in trouble," Metzelaar says.
Food guilt during the holidays can cause anxiety, sadness, and depression. It is rooted in a number of things like:
- Fear of weight gain
- Societal pressure
- Self-inflicted pressure
- Disordered eating
- Fear-based messaging from the media
Around the holidays, magazines and the media discourage indulging in the foods you love, which, ironically, often leads to overeating. Metzelaar explains that this messaging creates a "last supper mentality."
When you say things like 'I shouldn't be eating this,' 'I can only have two pieces,' 'This is so bad for me,' or 'I am going to stop after one bite,' you are signaling to your brain that what you are about to do is not only bad but that the food is scarce.
"And in this way, for most people, the advice to avoid overeating quite literally leads to overeating," Metzelaar says.
When in a state of shame, Metzelaar continues, we are actually more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors that help us cope with the waves of negative feelings that we have about ourselves.
Food guilt can also be harmful to your mental health. When not addressed appropriately, it can evolve into food shame, which can lead to:
- Food restrictions
- Eating disorders
"Food guilt ('I've done something wrong') turns into food shame ('I am wrong') very quickly, and shame is an awful feeling to experience as a human," Metzelaar says.
Reframing Negative Narratives in the Media
Fear-based messaging from the media can make us feel guilty about being overweight or not exercising enough. The messaging targets and encourages us to join a gym, take yoga lessons, or buy expensive equipment, says Ann Kriebel-Gasparro, a family and gerontological nurse practitioner.
"Americans spend millions of dollars each year on such products," Kriebel-Gasparro says. "Some work, some do not."
Avoiding or reframing these narratives can be challenging but is achievable. Overeating is normal and a natural part of the eating experience.
"There is no harm in giving yourself permission to eat foods that are abundant during the holiday time," Metzelaar says. "The stress of restricting food and working hard to avoid overeating will always be more harmful than any food you could eat during the holiday time."
Metzelaar and Kriebel-Gasparro advise on ways to reframe or avoid negative narratives in the media:
- Avoid articles and "advice" that instill fear in you during the holidays.
- Seek advice from a health professional, not a magazine.
- Be gentle with yourself as you navigate the endless messaging of needing to control your food intake.
- Remember that dieting and restricting your food intake will almost always lead to eating more than you had intended.
The Myth of Overindulging
The language used for eating can significantly impact the relationship you have with food. For instance, there is no such thing as overindulging.
"If you feel like you are doing something wrong, it is hard to fully enjoy the food, be present with the food, and take time to be with your family and friends, which is the whole point of the holidays," Metzelaar says.
By debunking the myth of overindulging, you can achieve freedom from diet culture. There is currently also no universal definition for what "overeating" is. As a dietitian specializing in helping people heal from eating disorders, Metzelaar explains that it's essential to pay attention to how you feel toward your relationship with food.
"I would be concerned as a clinician if food is taking up a lot of headspace, if there is anxiety around food, and if binge eating was becoming a common occurrence," Metzelaar says. "I would also be concerned if someone is feeling like they can't take breaks from exercising, are hiding food, and are going long periods without eating."
Similarly to indulging mindfully, there are movements happening to reframe our relationship with food, including food freedom and body neutrality.
Focus on Your Health, Not Your Body Image
A health-focused mindset, rather than an appearance- or a weight-focused mindset, helps reframe your relationship with food and dieting. When you can't take 'cheat days' or breaks from excess exercising, these are the red flags in your relationship with food and weight related to your self-worth.
Prioritizing your health, rather than focusing on how much you eat, will help you develop a better relationship with food and your body image. This can also alleviate preoccupation or anxiety about eating, especially around the holidays. Focus on behavioral goals by starting small. For example:
Food Freedom and Body Neutrality
There are movements taking place to reframe our relationship with food and combat negative messages around diet culture in America. Food freedom, started by Whole30, is when food isn't controlling you, but you feel in control of your food. This helps combat the fear-based messaging around weight gain.
Food freedom avoids diets, rules, and morals around what food you eat. This allows food to be a part of your life, but not in total control of your life. This freedom allows you to indulge during the holidays, and remain present with your loved ones, rather than fixating on the amount you're eating.
Body neutrality, first coined in 2015, aims to move away from the link between self-worth and physical appearance. The concept promotes accepting your body as is and being grateful for the functions it provides you.
This neutral perspective challenges the body positivity movement many might find exhausting because it emphasizes that you do not have to love your body every day. Still, you strive, instead, to approach your body from a neutral standpoint. Body neutrality steers us to look at our body as a vehicle that can run, lift, and do many incredible things, not just squeeze into a tight waistband.
An important factor of body neutrality and a healthy relationship with food is mindfulness. When you respect your body's functions and prioritize nutrition, rest, and movement, you are mindful of how you care for your body and how it rewards you with function, not how it looks or the numbers on the scale.
How to Overcome Food Guilt Year Round
You can overcome food guilt during the holidays and year round. With a bit of planning, food guilt can be manageable and even eliminated. Kriebel-Gasparro emphasizes eating mindfully throughout the holiday season.
"Rather than saying no to everything you like, say yes to small portions," Kriebel-Gasparro says.
Here are more suggestions on how to overcome food guilt:
- Be gentle with yourself as you navigate the endless messaging of needing to control your food intake.
- Food guilt and food morality have no place on your holiday plate.
- It's OK if you do feel shame or guilt after eating. Validate the struggles many feel during the holiday season. The holidays are a hard and stressful time with fear of food and weight gain being a significant stressor to many.
- Avoid articles and "advice" that instill fear in you during the holidays as they are not helpful. Often they make you feel like you will do something wrong even before the holiday begins.
- Make it a goal to eat with your family, and have a personal goal to enjoy your favorite foods.
- Dieting and restricting your food intake will almost always lead to you eating more than you had intended.
- You can trust your body to know what to do with the food you eat at holiday times.
The holidays are a time to gather with family and friends. Thinking about what and how much you're going to eat no longer needs to be your priority.
Eat what you love, and be mindful of the food you're eating, taking time to enjoy each bite. Keep food guilt at bay by taking a long walk after dinner, or getting a good night's rest to start a new day in the morning.
And remember, self-compassion is key as you navigate your relationship with food and body image throughout the holidays and year round.
Meet Our Contributors
Katherine Metzelaar, MSN, RDN, CD, is a dietitian and certified intuitive eating counselor who is passionate about inclusive healthcare for all bodies. She specializes in eating disorders, disordered eating, and body image healing, leading virtual body image support and learning groups for women. Metzelaar is the owner and founder of Bravespace Nutrition, a private group nutrition practice of nondiet registered dietitians who help individuals create peace with food and their body free from rules, diets, and perfectionism.
Ann Kriebel-Gasparro, DrNP, FNP-BC, GNP-BC, a faculty member in Walden University's master of science in nursing program, holds more than 26 years of nursing experience. She is dual credentialed as a family and gerontological nurse practitioner. In her clinical practice, Kriebel-Gasparro provides in-home healthcare for elderly patients. Kriebel-Gasparro is a current member of the Gerontological Advanced Practice Nurses Association and previously served on the Rare Disease Advisory Council for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania's Department of Health.
Megan Pietrucha, Psy.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist who currently practices in the Chicago area. She holds a bachelor's in psychology from Illinois Wesleyan University and a master's and doctorate in clinical psychology from the Illinois School of Professional Psychology at Argosy University. Her clinical interests include eating and body image, college student and student-athlete mental health, mood disorders, and health and wellness. Pietrucha has served as the training director for an APA-accredited internship program and has taught undergraduate and graduate courses in psychology.
Pietrucha is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education freelance review network. Learn more about our review partners.
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