All foods contain nutrients that are essential to fueling our bodies day in and day out. However, some foods contain more valuable nutrients than others! Learning how to assemble meals that help your body perform at its peak can help take the element of shame off the table during mealtime.
Food As Fuel
Have you ever felt guilty about putting gas into your car? It’s likely you have not. Your car needs fuel to drive down the road and certain fuels are better for certain cars than others. It’s the same with our bodies; we need food to fuel our active lives, and certain foods can help us run better than others. Food however, evokes a much larger spectrum of emotions than automobile gasoline.
We’ve all been there: you followed your diet all week. Your will-power has withstood “temptations” of pizza, soda, and ice cream. But then, on Saturday, in a moment of weakness, you eat a “bad food”. Then the feelings set in: guilt, shame, self-disgust. “Ugh! Why do I keep doing this?”
Emotions and Eating
Can you name a time when these negative thoughts were helpful? Many people think that the guilt or shame around certain food choices or body size will motivate healthier behaviors. The research shows the opposite effect. When we feel badly about ourselves because of our weight, we are more likely to overeat, avoid exercising, and less likely to work on our healthy eating behaviors. This shame can also increase risk of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and disordered eating (1,2).
Each person’s weight depends on a lot of different factors: our genes, our environment, and our overall well-being. Weight is not an indicator of our character or value (1).
Seeing Food and Ourselves Differently
Food becomes whatever we treat it as. If we call it a “temptation”, then we feel guilty if we eat it. For example, if we tell ourselves that we are “bad” if we eat a cupcake, then a cupcake becomes “bad” and we see ourselves as “bad” if we eat it. If we tell ourselves we “deserve” food if we exercise, then we start to see ourselves as “unworthy” if we don’t exercise, and withholding food from ourselves feels like a punishment for whatever circumstance kept us from being active.
On the other hand, if we use food as a tool and as a type of fuel that keeps us healthy and strong, then we can free up our energy to live our lives the way we want. A cupcake becomes just a cupcake, and a chicken salad becomes just a chicken salad. One of them has few nutrients and may leave us hungry and the other has many nutrients and will keep us full longer. Each choice has a different outcome, but neither has any power to make us feel ashamed. Rather than food controlling us, we control food and keep it within the balance of our lifestyle.
Taking Shame off the Table
Almost everyone has a lot on their plate. One thing we can take off is food-shame. Learning to do this takes time and practice. Start with the terminology you use to refer to your food and your choices. Instead of saying, “cupcakes are bad but chicken salads are good”, try “cupcakes only give me energy for a short time, but salads keep me energized through the afternoon”. Instead of saying, “I’m an overeater” try, “I am working on eating portion sizes that don’t make me feel uncomfortably full”. Instead of saying, “I can’t have that”, try, “I’m choosing to have this instead”.
Rephrasing the way we talk about food and food choices has the potential to lead to better feelings around meal and snack times. By practicing more constructive attitudes towards our food behaviors, we can give ourselves the chance to relax when we eat, and we empower ourselves to choose the foods that help us cruise towards our goals.
- Dennett, C. The health impact of weight stigma. Today’s Dietitian. Jan 2018;20(1):24-28.
- Puhl RM, Moss-Racusin CA, Schwartz MB. Internalization of weight bias: implications for binge eating and emotional well-being. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2007;15(1):19-23.