women laying down with hands covering face

Why do I feel guilty after eating?

You know that feeling of guilt after eating an off-limits food?

That guilty anxious feeling where you know you did something wrong and messed up your diet again?

Or maybe you’re no longer dieting, but can’t seem to shake feeling guilty after eating? 

This article explores food guilt, why it happens, how it develops, and what we can do about it so that we can start eating without guilt.

What is food guilt?

Food guilt is simply any time that you feel guilty about the food you ate. And that guilty feeling can impact you anytime after, whether you just got done eating, ate it yesterday, or had the food a week ago. 

Typically food guilt comes up after eating foods that you might view as off limits, not in your meal plan, or just “bad” for you. 

You might also experience food guilt for not eating enough of a food, such as feeling guilty for not eating the recommended amount of vegetables.

Where does food guilt come from?

Food guilt comes from how you were taught by your culture to think about food, exercise, and health. Everything you saw in magazines, movies, tv shows, health classes, and the people around you formed your opinions about food. 

How you add these viewpoints and messages into your life, whether you planned to use these ideas or not, forms your relationship with food. Really most of the beliefs we have about food and health we don’t choose for ourselves. And these beliefs are what create how we feel after we eat.

If you view a food as being “bad for you” then you’re more likely to feel guilty and bad for eating that food. Or if you think you “have to” eat a vegetable at every meal, you may feel guilty if you end up not eating a veggie with a meal. 

Is it normal to feel guilty after eating food?

Yes and no. Really the answer to if it’s normal to feel guilty after eating depends on how you define normal.

I would say from my personal experience and my experiences from talking to other people, it’s normal in the sense that it’s common. In our culture, people regularly feel guilty after eating. 

Research has long established that people who diet are more likely to think of food as guilt or guilt-free compared to people who don’t diet. 

But no, I don’t think it should be normal for us to feel guilty about the food that we eat because food doesn’t have to be that complicated.

Food just is.

Food is an integral part of our life and we need it for survival.

Yes, we tend to tie experiences with food, such as baking cookies around the holidays or whatever your traditions are around food. It’s normal to have some emotional connections to different foods based on the experiences that we have.

But I don’t think we should have a standard that it’s normal to feel guilty about the food we eat or don’t eat.

Is food guilt helpful?

Some people might have the impression that feeling guilt or shame around food is helpful. That those negative emotions will provide motivation to help control eating habits. It might seem like feeling guilty after eating a “bad” food would inspire you to eat “healthier” foods to avoid that guilty feeling. 

But it doesn’t work that way. 

A 2015 study found that those who associated chocolate cake with guilt reported:

  • Unhealthier eating habits
  • Lower sense of control over healthy eating when stressed
  • Not experiencing a positive attitude toward healthy eating

When you place a high importance on the foods you eat then it becomes a bigger deal. Instead of eating being a simple way to fuel your body and create satisfaction, it turns into another way to judge your life. 

It just adds unnecessary stress and negative emotions into your life because you don’t need food guilt to motivate yourself to take care of your body. In fact, food guilt may be interfering with your efforts to live healthy and feel your best.

Understanding your relationship with food

Before diving into tips to stop feeling guilty after eating, it’s helpful to understand what’s creating your relationship with food. Because if you want to stop food guilt, you need to change your relationship with food.

So understanding your relationship with food is an important first step to reducing food guilt. 

And a big part of understanding your relationship with food is looking at how diet culture influences the way you look at food. 

Diet culture and food guilt

I don’t know about you, but I grew up my whole life, hearing messages about women needing to eat less. Celebrating people for not eating to the point where they almost pass out simply to fit into a dress. 

Or portraying eating junk food as a way to handle a breakup. All of these references that I saw in movies and TV shows. 

At that time I didn’t realize all this, plus seeing the people around me, was forming my relationship with food.

I want to share an example of diet culture and food guilt from my own life to give some insight into some of my own experience with how my relationship with food has changed over the years. 

I was lucky enough to grow up in a household where dieting wasn’t super prominent. We had a wide variety of food, with lots of fruits and vegetables plus a lot of desserts, chips, and all of these foods that would be viewed as bad.

And when I was younger, I had no issue with these foods. I never really thought about the. The food was just there and I ate them sometimes, but really just ate a variety of food. 

Then one day a friend came over and said “I would weigh like 500 pounds if I had this chip cabinet in my house.” And after that joke, I started to think maybe it wasn’t normal to have these foods around all the time. And maybe I needed to be careful about having them.

Soon after I started paying attention to magazines and people’s comments that it’s bad to gain weight and tips to lose weight. 

I decided I should go on a diet to watch my weight and maybe get a little bit in better shape. 

During that diet, I stopped just eating when my body needed it and started prioritizing following the app I was using over my body. And I started feeling guilty anytime I didn’t follow the plan exactly or ate one of the foods I wasn’t “supposed” to. 

I only started to experience food guilt AFTER putting myself on my first diet. 

Now that’s my own personal experience of developing food guilt and how my relationship with food changed after that first diet. I know that may not be how you experience it. This is just one way that I happened to experience food guilt and some people I talked to experienced it in a similar way. But your relationship with food and food guilt may look completely different. 

How to stop feeling guilty after eating

And now onto the question of how to stop feeling guilty after eating. 

Unfortunately, there is no one simple step that will end food guilt immediately and keep it away forever. That’s just not how human emotions and minds work. 

It takes some time for the habit to go away because truly how we react around food is a habit. It’s something that we have learned to do and we have intentionally practice a new response to change that habit.

So if you want to stop feeling guilty after eating you need 3 different approaches

Step 1: Let yourself feel guilty

We can’t rush ourselves through things. 

Sometimes you just have to experience what you’re experiencing in your life. And in this case, it’s ok to feel guilty if you truly feel guilty. 

In this step, you just want to notice and pay attention to how you react to eating certain foods. Notice what gives you food guilt.

You may experience food guilt with things like:

  • Eating foods you view as unhealthy
  • Eating at certain times of day, such as late in the evening
  • Not eating enough vegetables or fruit
  • Eating a large portion 

As you keep exploring WHY you feel guilty after eating, you can start transitioning to step 2. 

Step 2: Questioning why you feel guilty after eating

This step is all about challenging your beliefs about food. 

Let’s use the example of feeling guilty after eating a piece of cake. 

Ask yourself questions like:

  • Why do I feel guilty about eating this piece of cake?
  • Is cake something I think I should never have?
  • When is it OK to have cake?
  • Why is it bad for me to eat this piece of cake?

Using questions like this, you can start to challenge the belief that’s causing you to feel guilty. And as you start to question the belief, you can start moving into step 3. 

Step 3: Practicing your new belief

You get to decide if you want to continue to believe the food rules you learned from diet culture. 

You can choose to practice new beliefs and reconnect (or connect for the first time) to your hunger fullness cues to guide food choices. 

In step 3 you’ll use the answers to the questions in step one. Let’s go with an example of someone feeling guilty for eating cake because they think “it’s bad for me.”

In the first part of step 3, they’ll want to choose a new belief to try. So, if they thought “cake is bad for me.” They’ll want to start by questioning if they want to think that.

I’ll always recommend working towards dropping the habit of labeling food “good” and “bad.” And instead try to think about food in the mindset of how that food impacts your body. 

So instead of thinking a blanket statement of cake is bad. They might think “I like having cake because it tastes good. If I eat too much cake my body doesn’t feel the best. I trust that I can listen to my body’s cues to satisfy both my taste and physical hunger cues (learn more about the different types of hunger cues in intuitive eating in this post). 

With repetition you will start to go to the new food belief and the belief causing you to feel guilty will fade until finally overcome food guilt.

Food Guilt vs Emotional Eating

As discussed above, food guilt is that feeling of guilt you get after eating something you think you shouldn’t. 

Guilt eating is a type of emotional eating. With guilty eating, you’re using food as a way to cope with emotions.

Learn more about emotional eating and working towards food neutrality one of these content pieces:

Frequently Asked Questions

How to stop feeling bad after eating something unhealthy?

If you want to stop feeling bad after eating an “unhealthy” food, you need to change your relationship with food. Nutrition is a gray area, not black and white. No food is 100% good or bad. 

If you feel guilty for eating a food you think is unhealthy, it’s just from how you’ve been taught to think about that food. If you change your relationship that food, you’ll overcome those feelings of guilt on your journey to finding food freedom.

Is feeling guilty after eating an eating disorder?

Feeling guilty after eating could be a sign of an eating disorder depending on how this is affecting you. Food guilt could also increase your risk of an eating disorder and disordered eating. If food guilt is interfering with your ability to function or struggling with an eating disorder, seek help from experts in an eating disorder treatment program.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top