In Episode 07: Food Guilt, Geof and Todd discuss what food guilt means to them, when they experience it, and how they and others have found that meal planning, accountability, identifying the difference between a snack and an indulgence, and pre-determining their weekly indulgences has helped them to avoid food guilt and allow them to enjoy foods that would otherwise make some people experience food guilt.

Food guilt occurs when you feel bad about eating something you know you shouldn’t have eaten or eating far more of something than you know you should have eaten.  If you are reading this post, you have felt and likely continue to feel food guilt at some point in time.  Geof and I use the term food guilt to describe these set of feelings but for some people a certain sense of shame can also go along with food guilt.  I have read about guilt and shame before and can’t seem to keep them straight.  As a brief refresher, shame is the general feeling of inadequacy whereas guilt is a specific sense of transgression.  It goes without saying that many of us feel food guilt and food shame at the same time but Geof and I will group shame and guilt together into “food guilt” when we are talking about it in our podcast and in this post.

Food guilt can be very transient (short-lived) or it can be a long-term pattern.  For example, recently I was meal planning before going grocery shopping and my wife and I were really out of food.  We didn’t even have condiment staples such as mustard or mayonnaise.  This generally occurs because we have missed our weekly grocery shopping trip and have stretched it out to 10-12 days between shopping trips.  If we’ve gone this long between shopping we are definitely out of snacks (for God’s sake, we’re out of condiments).  On this occasion my wife told me to “get a lot of snacks” because we were both craving some junk food.  While I was at the grocery store I decided to buy some Little Debbie Swiss Cake Rolls.  I haven’t purchased those in years and have fond memories of them.  My wife used to eat them as a kid (or so I thought) so I figured she’d love an unexpected treat as well.

Long story short, my wife doesn’t really like Swiss Cake Rolls (I can’t remember what her mom actually did pack in her lunch) so I ended up eating the majority, if not all of these rolls on my own.  And guess what?  I didn’t really enjoy them very much!  And knowing that they are high calorie, I felt a sense of food guilt.  I’m not bulimic, so once I ate those calories, there was no going back.  But I just felt bad about ingesting them when I could have spent those calories on something else (i.e. beer).

The long-term food guilt that I have experienced was at the end of my dissertation the Christmas of 2012.  My wife and I drove to Buffalo, NY, from Greenville, NC to visit her family before driving to Wisconsin to visit mine, and finally to Denver, CO, where my wife accepted a post-doctoral position.  I had left East Carolina University (ECU), data collected but dissertation unwritten.  My advisor and I weren’t getting along, my last committee meeting was an utter disaster, I was no longer being paid as part of my graduate school stipend, and I had no idea whether I’d be able to make a story out of all the discordant data that I had collected during my 4.5 years at ECU (there was a chance I wasn’t going to graduate).  Oh, and to make matters worse my shoulder was really messed up from doing lab work so I couldn’t exercise.  I was pretty miserable and depressed and during that holiday season, I said, fuck it, I’m eating as many cookies and drinking as many beers as I felt like.  The chains were off.  And of course, none of that made me happy.  I gained weight and remained miserable (I did successfully defend my dissertation in May of 2013).

The point of me telling you these stories is to show that I’m an “expert”, I’m a “professional” and yet there are plenty of transient and long-term times that I feel/felt food guilt.  While everyone’s experience(s) are different, we’ve all been there at some point.

How to Combat Food Guilt
This is my typical food day: I wake up and consume two+ cups of coffee and creamer.  I end the day with two alcoholic drinks (typically gin & tonics or IPAs) and during the day I eat a snack such as Doritos.  It is easy to look at this dietary pattern and say, “Wow, that’s a terrible diet!”  But you know what, it works for me.  Here’s why.  I’ve found through speaking with others, personal experience, and doing research that there are 3 rules that I have developed for making these seemingly terrible dietary patterns work for me and NOT have food guilt about it.

  1. Try to Eat One Indulgence/Week: an indulgence is a food/drink that contains more than 150 calories/serving. My indulgence is Doritos (although I also consume alcohol so I guess you could say I’m consuming at least two indulgences).  I don’t eat ice cream, cookies, candy or other baked goods on the weeks that I am eating Doritos.  I know ahead of time what my indulgence is going to be for the week and I do my best to stick to it.

  2. Eat Your Calories as Part of Your Meals: by grouping your calories into your meals, you’re able to eat meals that are a little higher in fat or a little higher in carbohydrate. Many diets try to limit fat or carbohydrate to limit your calorie intake.  I’d prefer to eat tasty meals and reduce the number of “snacks” that I eat during the day.  Eating more fat and/or carbohydrate as part of your meals allows your meals to taste good and also you’ve satisfied that urge to eat something tasty as opposed to eating a meal that is lean and bland.

  3. Allow Yourself to Eat Unlimited Snacks: you might think that I am insane for saying that you can eat unlimited snacks but you have to be able to differentiate between snacks and indulgences. Indulgences are those foods that contain greater than 150 calories/serving.  Pretty much anything processed (i.e. think baked goods and chips) are going to be greater than 150 calories/serving.  These are pleasurable foods that you do not eat out of hunger but purely for pleasure.  Snacks are minimally processed foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, string cheese, yogurt, and hard boiled eggs.  To most people snacks cover everything outside of meals but this isn’t the right way to look at it.  Snacks are healthy, indulgences are not.

These three rules have provided me with a general template for helping me pre-determine what my indulgences for the week are going to be and helps me compartmentalize them into the “I don’t care how many calories I am going to consume from this food, I am going to enjoy it and not feel guilty about it”.  Now of course I don’t go overboard on this, for example, I eat 90/10 ground beef rather than the 80/20 or 85/15.  I typically do not eat 96/4 because that’s too lean for my taste buds.  I’ve found that when I eat more than my predetermined number of indulgences I feel food guilt, especially when those foods are of a low quality (i.e. baked goods from the grocery store, no offense).  I have more “rules” and tips in the eBook that I am hoping to get published this calendar year (2020) called Todd’s 12 Steps to Healthy Eating that can further outline how to eliminate food guilt.  The three steps I mentioned above can provide a good start for you and a template to work from but obviously aren’t an exhaustive strategy.

Another important means of eliminating food guilt is through accountability.  In my own household, my Dorito habit was a little out of control.  I could easily finish a family size bag of Doritos in two sittings.  This wasn’t only unacceptable to me, it was unacceptable to my wife as well.  No one should eat an entire bag of Doritos in two sittings.  To remedy this I did a few things.  I decided that I could only purchase one bag of Doritos per week.  Once it was gone, it was gone.  There was no running out to the grocery store or gas station for more.  This allowed me to spread out those calories over a longer period of time.  I also felt guilty around my wife eating a bag of Doritos that fast.  Just having her around and having a fear of her commenting on this behavior, helped me spread out this consumption.  I could have also poured the Doritos out into a bowl or separated them out into individual servings but the system I developed seems to be working for me.  As a final note, had I not been able to keep my “one bag of Doritos/week” habit in check (i.e. I broke down and bought more Doritos or indulged in other snacks) then it is time to go cold turkey and remove them from my life.  If I can’t control it, it doesn’t belong in my life.

Accountability can be a really helpful thing, but it can also be very harmful.  For example, during our podcast, Geof brought up that some people might tell you that you shouldn’t be eating a banana because it contains too much sugar.  This type of accountability happens far more than I would like to admit and results in far more damage than good.  Bananas contain “a lot” of carbohydrate as a percentage of calories because they contain little to no fat and little to no protein.  So, yes, bananas contain “a lot” of carbohydrates.  But bananas are only 105 calories!  You could eat a quarter pounder with cheese or five bananas for the same number of calories.  The quarter pounder will be far more satisfying but the point is that you will be tired of eating bananas before you can possibly eat enough of them to overdo it on calories.  You’ll become bored with eating snacks long before you consume too many calories.

A Comparison Between Losing Weight and Financial Stress
Geof and I are not trying to lose weight.  We are intentionally trying to prevent weight gain but we’re not trying to lose weight.  Losing weight takes far more effort than trying to prevent weight gain.  I’m not sure there is even a comparison here.  Losing weight requires you to go on a severely restricted calorie budget.  Every single food that you are thinking about consuming is an agonizing decision.  Do I eat it, do I not?  If I do eat it, how much of it can I eat?  Should I eat the low fat version or the full fat version?  We get stuck overanalyzing everything because our calorie budget is so small.  Should I consume whole milk, 2%, 1%, skim or none at all?  The calories in eight ounces of these choices are 150, 130, 110, 90, and 0 respectively.  So you might be agonizing over a measly 20 calories if thinking about switching between one milk category to the next.  Although every calorie counts, the amount of anxiety this decision causes just is not worth it.

In financial stress, you are making less money than you spend (or you were in that situation and created debt).  There are only so many hours you can work and your hourly rate (or salary) is only so much.  If we consider your money making capabilities relatively fixed, your only solution is to spend less money.  Every purchasing decision is an agonizing decision.  What is the lowest internet you can use, how do I reduce my rent, I haven’t purchased shoes in two years but need them, and on a more weekly basis, I really want to have a craft beer six pack but maybe I should try drinking Bud Light to save some money or reduce my drinking altogether.  What ends up happening is that making purchases that you should feel pleasurable about, you feel guilty about.  But you can’t restrict, restrict, restrict, or you’ll likely go crazy.

Both weight loss and financial stress isn’t going to be solved overnight and isn’t going to be solved in a month or two.  For example, let’s say you want to lose 100 pounds.  Even if you didn’t eat anything for two months (60 days) you’ll likely only be able to drop 50 pounds.  And getting out of debt is much the same. 

I’m not a financial expert so I will defer to the experts for financial advice.  But this is what I would say about weight loss.  Limit your calories as low as you can (i.e. 800 – 1000) for 4-6 weeks by eating a combination of tv dinners and meal replacement shakes and bars before transitioning back into eating more calories and real food.  Most dieters are restricting their calories and reducing their pleasure.  What ends up happening is that they end of cheating a little bit and feeling guilty about cheating.  At the same time their calorie levels are higher than they want them to be and so they are not losing as much weight as they would like to.  So you’re left with the double negative of not losing weight and not getting to eat the foods that your taste buds crave.  This is why I think it is prudent to pick a short period of time and go at it as hard as you can before easing up and allowing yourself to eat more indulgences and calories (without overdoing it) before picking another 4-6 week period and going hard again. 

Without talking to you more it is impossible for me to say how strict you should be with your diet and how strict you should be with your budget.  Even if you are crawling out of debt, you still need to treat yourself once in a while to keep your sanity (and live!).  It is going to be a long process and it seems best to compartmentalize when to go hard and when to ease up.  If you don’t do this you end up in a muddled middle ground where you’re not gaining or losing weight nor are you going into deeper debt or getting out of debt.  Both of these scenarios will likely cause you more stress and guilt than you need.

The Bottom Line
Most of us feel food guilt at least some of the time.  But the problem in my mind is that food guilt generally makes us feel bad but it doesn’t necessarily translate into behavior change.  That is, you feel bad but you don’t feel bad enough to fix the problem and thus you keep making the same mistake again and again and again and as a result feel shitty again and again and again.  You have to stop this vicious cycle because it is doing you so much harm.  You feel psychologically bad and your body also feels bad.

You can follow the three rules that I have outlined above (eat one indulgence per week, eat your calories as part of your meals, and allow yourself unlimited snacks) but also remember that these three rules should also be part of your overall meal planning.  In our podcast I talked about how meal planning is such a pain in the butt and I really don’t like doing it.  But I can definitely tell that my weeks just go so much better when I know what I am eating in advance and am not caught off guard or have to make quick food decisions.

For being an expert in meal planning and putting SOOO MUCH thought into how to make it as streamlined as possible, I still struggle with it.  It takes work.  It’s not automatic.  But if I can get my nutrition in place, the rest of my week is so much easier.  And if something comes up or goes wrong, I have the bandwidth, energy, and reserves to take on that challenge because I don’t have to waste additional time or resources on trying to decide what to eat.  That’s already been done and decided.  And as a perk of all this upfront effort, I get to have my proverbial cake (Doritos and beer) and eat it too without feeling guilty about it.  My hope is that you can develop a system that meets the needs of your taste buds without trading those taste sensations for a whopping plate of food guilt.  If you’d like more information about Todd’s 12 Steps to Healthy Eating and how you can incorporate some of these rules or if you need help in terms of exercise or bariatric nutrition, doesn’t hesitate to reach out to Geof and I.  Food guilt sucks.  It’s not helpful.  Let’s do our best to eliminate it.

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