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How to Let Go of the Guilt With Eating (Without Food Becoming a Free-for-All)

September 12, 2023

Self-Paced Course: Non-Diet Academy


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A Certified Eating Disorders Registered Dietitian (CEDRD) with a master's degree in dietetics & nutrition. My passion is helping you find peace with food - and within yourself.

Meet Katy

Let’s talk about how to let go of the guilt with your eating – without throwing in the towel and without it becoming a free-for-all.

A lot of people reach their breaking point with their eating where they think, “Screw it. I’m done. I’m just going to eat whatever I want.” That’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m not talking about giving up. 

I’m talking about changing your mindset towards how you think about food so that you don’t have to feel guilty anymore. This is going to be far from a free-for-all with food. In fact, it’s going to allow you to be more intentional with food, without creating that type of deprivation that sets you up to inhale an entire box of cereal in one sitting. 

When we are able to un-learn the rules and judgments that diet culture has taught us, and to look at food in a way that is more neutral and factual, it allows us to consider what our bodies truly want and need.

And when you don’t feel guilty about eating a bagel or some pasta, and when you don’t beat yourself up for not eating as many veggies or salads as you feel like you should, you’ll be able to be more in touch with your body’s signals. You might find that some foods feel differently than others in terms of how they digest or your energy level after you eat them. When we can remove all that noise in our minds that happens when we are feeling guilty about what we ate, then we can be more in tune with what our bodies are telling us. It’s really cool. 

What You Might Be Afraid Of

Imagine that one day you are standing in your kitchen getting ready to grab a snack, and you kind of want some chocolate, but you already had a cookie earlier, and you feel like you probably should have some cottage cheese or an apple with PB instead, and you stand there for 10 minutes going back and forth trying to decide which snack you’re going to let yourself have. Finally you think, “Screw it, I’m done feeling guilty about food. I’m going to eat what I want and stop overthinking it.” Then you grab the chocolate chips out of the pantry and sit down in front of the TV and demolish the whole thing while watching Netflix. 

Afterwards your stomach kind of hurts, and you think,”Is this how it’s supposed to go? I decide to stop letting myself feel guilty for what I eat and I keep eating bags of chocolate chips and Doritos for the rest of my life? Am I just supposed to give up on my health?” 

This is what a lot of people are afraid of. They’re afraid that if they stop depriving themselves and stop labeling food as good and bad they’ll just eat themselves into oblivion. 

I’d like to share a quote from Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch from the Intuitive Eating Workbook: 

“A substantial body of research shows that dieting is not sustainable and leads to a host of problems…As a result, people are weary of dieting, and yet terrified of eating.”

Doesn’t that sum it up perfectly? We get that dieting doesn’t work. But we’re also terrified to just let ourselves eat. Let’s sit with that for a moment.

You know what’s interesting? We weren’t always afraid to eat. When you were a baby in a cute little onesie, you weren’t afraid of eating. Heck no. You’d cry and demand to eat until someone fed you. And when you were a little kid you might have been kind of picky, but you probably weren’t afraid to eat. 

When did the fear of eating and the guilt about eating kick in? It was taught to us. We learned it from the messages we were given by adults in our lives, things kids around us said, and things we heard from the world around us. Nobody was trying to mess up our relationship with food, but it had that impact. 

If your parents told you that you couldn’t have dessert until you ate your veggies, then you learned that veggies are good and dessert is something that must be earned. You would have also subconsciously started to understand that eating dessert before eating your meat or veggies meant you did something bad or wrong.

If your pediatrician told you that you needed to drink less soda and eat fewer snacks and exercise more, you would have internalized the idea that soda and snacks are bad, and exercise is something you “should” do basically as a form of punishment for these bad things you’ve been eating and drinking.

Then enter your first diet. Now you’re being introduced to a set of rules about eating. There’s a protocol to follow, and foods that are allowed and not allowed. You feel that you are “being good” when you follow these rules, and that you’re “being bad” when you don’t. 

When you look at it this way it’s easy to understand why we feel so guilty about the food we eat.

And it’s easy to see why we are also afraid to NOT think this way – because we were taught that we can’t be trusted. That’s why you needed the diet in the first place. You needed something external to follow – a plan, a list, a meal plan, maybe even the special pre-made meals and shakes. You need these things to tell you how to eat, because the implication was that you can’t be trusted to make these decisions yourself. Diet culture makes us think that we can’t trust ourselves, our instincts or our bodies.

So the fear is that if we don’t think of food as healthy and unhealthy, and if we let ourselves off the hook with food and ditch the guilt that it will become a free-for-all. We equate it with throwing in the towel.

I’m here to tell you that’s not the case, and that’s not what I’m suggesting here. I’m suggesting that the guilt is making you stressed out and miserable, and it’s actually causing you to eat in ways that don’t align with what your body needs…and that if you are willing to work on unlearning all of these toxic messages, and relearning how to trust your body and to think of food neutrally, and scientifically, then you can still be intentional about your nutrition without feeling guilty for eating the things you enjoy. 

What is “Normal Eating?”

If we were sitting at a coffee shop sipping on lattes (without feeling guilty of course), and you told me, “Katy, I just want to eat normally and stop stressing out about food so much,” and I asked you, “What would normal eating look like for you?” – how would you define it? 

It’s surprisingly hard to articulate. It feels like one of those things that you’d know it when you saw it, but it’s hard to describe it. Luckily, a dietitian named Ellyn Satter wrote a definition that encapsulates it so well. Here’s what she says:

Normal eating is…

  • going to the table hungry, and eating until you’re satisfied. 
  • Being able to choose food you enjoy, and to eat it and truly get enough of it – not just stop eating because you think you should
  • Being able to give some thought to your food selection so you get nutritious food, but not being so weary and restrictive that you miss out on enjoyable food
  • Giving yourself permission to eat because you are happy, sad or bored, or just because it feels good.
  • Mostly 3 meals a day – or 4 or 5 – or it can be choosing to munch along the way.
  • Leaving cookies on the plate because you know you will let yourself have cookies again tomorrow, or eating more now because they taste so great!
  • Overeating at times, and feeling stuffed and uncomfortable…and undereating at times and wishing you had more
  • Trusting your body to make up for your mistakes in eating
  • Takes up some of your time and attention, but keeps its place as only one important area of your life.
  • In short, normal eating is flexible, it varies in response to your hunger, your schedule, your food and your feelings.

I’m going to give you some homework right now: I want you to journal about this. Reflect on what jumped out at you in this definition, what surprised you, what confuses you, and what scares you. If you feel like this opens your eyes to the fact that your eating really isn’t normal right now, and that your relationship with food needs some work, that’s ok! You are SO not alone. And honestly, it makes you a perfect candidate for Non-Diet Academy, because these are the exact things we work on inside the course. 

True food freedom means being able to unapologetically say yes to food without feeling guilty, AND it means being able to say no to food without feeling deprived.

4 Skills That Will Help You Let Go of the Guilt With Eating

Skill #1) Learn to read your hunger – different types of hunger

Connecting with hunger means connecting with the different types of hunger that our bodies communicate to us. The most obvious answer is physical hunger – that feeling in your stomach, or your throat, or that gnawing sensation that tells you that your body needs fuel. Often this type of hunger starts more mentally, where you might have a harder time concentrating, or you find yourself thinking about food. And your stomach might be feeling empty and ready to receive food. The longer the physical hunger goes on, the louder and more physical it gets.

The other day I was in the middle of trying to finish something for work, and I realized I was getting hungry and I needed to eat, but I really wanted to finish what I was doing. So I kept working, and my hunger kept getting louder and louder where my stomach was starting to feel a little nauseous and my brain was just zapped, and I realized that I had pushed it too far and I needed to listen to what my body was telling me. So I stopped and got something to eat, and guess what? I felt so much better afterwards. It’s funny how that works.

Another type of hunger is head hunger, or mouth hunger. This is the desire to eat something because it sounds good or would taste good, but not because you’re physically hungry. A lot of times this is an indicator of having unmet needs outside of food, and your desire to eat is a desire to bring yourself pleasure from how good the food tastes, or to distract from whatever else you would be feeling if you weren’t eating. Maybe you’re stressed out or there’s an uncomfortable emotion bubbling to the surface, and the desire to eat is like a knee-jerk impulse to push that emotion back down out of your conscious awareness. The tricky part about this is that it can happen so subconsciously that sometimes we don’t even realize we’re doing it because we’ve been pushing our emotions away for so long that we aren’t aware when they’re trying to come to the forefront where we can feel them and deal with them.

One of the misconceptions about intuitive eating is people sometimes think that if they want a particular food they should eat it immediately. That’s not intuitive eating – that’s impulsive eating. We can want a food and still tell ourselves no if it doesn’t make sense for us to eat that food right now, whether it be because we aren’t physically hungry or because we don’t have a convenient way to get that food in the moment. Part of intuitive eating is being able to give yourself the reassurance that you can have these foods in the near future, and for your body to trust that this is true because you’re not routinely depriving yourself. 

One other type of hunger that I’ll briefly touch on here is emotional hunger. This is a little different from head or mouth hunger in the sense that it’s more about the emotion that you’re trying to cope with, numb, soothe or avoid. Sometimes emotional eating is the most tried-and-true coping skill we have, and it’s not inherently bad, but we also want to develop other coping skills so we have options to choose from. 

Here’s the thing: We ALL eat emotionally sometimes. It’s not a terrible thing to do. But if you’re repeatedly doing it in a way that is either causing your body harm or causing you to not deal with your emotions in direct ways, then we want to be curious and explore it further. I have some other episodes on emotional eating, so go check those out if you want a deeper dive on that particular issue.

Skill #2) Trust your fullness

Part of trusting your fullness is being able to feel it in the first place. Remember that just like hunger gets stronger the longer we ignore it, so does fullness. If you notice that you’re starting to get full and you keep eating, you’re going to get fuller and fuller until you can’t eat anymore. Been there, done that, right? 

Think of it like the gas gauge on your car – the more fuel you put in the tank, the higher up the line gets that is telling you how full the tank is. Filling up your fuel tank, aka your stomach, is a similar thing, so try to pay attention as you are eating to notice the sensations of varying levels of fullness.

Most people can recognize the extreme forms of fullness where we’re maxed out and can’t eat anymore. We might feel stuffed and miserable, or even sick if we get too full. If you do this enough times, it starts to feel normal, and your brain starts to think that this is what you should be aiming for when you eat, which isn’t true. This represents being overly full.

We want to aim for a comfortable level of fullness. Here’s where the part about trusting it comes in:

If you’re someone who has a hard time feeling fullness until it’s at that higher level, or if you hardly ever feel fullness at all, then for you the task here is to learn to understand what satiety feels like. This is where you can stop after eating enough, without being at that high level of fullness. The trust part is where you can start to recognize that your body will tell you when it has had enough fuel to last you a few hours and you can stop eating now and trust you have had enough. The other part of the trust process here is that your body needs to trust that you absolutely will let yourself eat again whenever you get physically hungry, even if it’s an hour from now. As you’re playing around with varying levels of fullness, you’ll probably find that sometimes you didn’t eat enough, and you’ll get hungry again pretty quickly. That’s ok! It’s all part of the learning process. 

In order to trust your fullness, your body needs the reassurance that food will be available again when you need it. Otherwise, if your body is worried that you might not have food later, then its biological instinct is to eat as much as possible now. Which is also what happens with the restrict-binge cycle. 

Now, on the other hand, if you’re someone who struggles to let yourself eat enough, then you might find yourself getting full after just a little bit of food, before your body has had enough nourishment. This often happens as a result of restricting and being under fueled for a period of time. Basically what happens is your digestive system slows down because you’re not taking in enough calories, and your body isn’t going to waste energy doing unnecessary digestive tasks when there’s hardly any food moving through your system. So it slows down the muscle movements that push food through your digestive tract, it decreases the production of digestive enzymes and then food stays in your stomach longer and takes longer to break down. It’s called delayed gastric emptying. If this describes you, then you may need to eat smaller more frequent meals and snacks in order to get your body the nourishment it needs, and in doing so, your digestive system will heal itself and you’ll be able to tolerate more normal amounts of food. 

The key here is to not let your brain trick you into thinking that just because you got full quickly, that doesn’t necessarily mean you ate enough in this scenario. So you might either need to push yourself to take a few more bites, or plan to eat again sooner. This is also where I coach my clients to eat lower volume, more calorically dense foods that digest easily to help work with their body rather than against it.

Skill #3) Aim for satisfaction

Remember that these are skills that will help you let go of the guilt with eating. So what we’re doing here is aiming for satisfaction with the type of food, the amount of food, and even the experience of eating a food. 

Imagine that you’re enjoying a delicious taco on the patio of a cool Mexican restaurant with those string lights and Mexican decor and music. That would probably be a pretty satisfying eating experience. 

On the flip side, let’s say you hit the Taco Bell drive thru and scarf down a taco while simultaneously driving and listening to a conference call on your phone. This is a very different experience of eating the taco, right?

Satisfaction is the North Star of intuitive eating. All the other principles point to it. Food is more satisfying when we’re not stuck in the diet mentality, and when we are actually hungry when we are eating. Food is more satisfying when you’re not feeling guilty about what it is because in your mind it’s “unhealthy” or it breaks some food rule against eating carbs or not having food past 8pm. It’s really hard to have a satisfying eating experience when guilt is involved.

On the other hand, when we are connected to our bodies, and when we aren’t stuck in the diet mentality, it is so much easier for eating to be a satisfying experience that gives you both enjoyment from the food AND the nourishment that your body needs in order to be function well and have the energy you need to go live your life. 

So think about satisfaction as being not just about what you’re eating, but also about listening to your body, and about HOW you’re eating. Try to sit down and eat without distractions when possible. Put your food on a plate or in a dish rather than eating it out of the package. I’m not saying these things as dieting tricks to eat fewer calories – I’m saying this because it will literally make the food more satisfying, so that you don’t keep chasing satisfaction by eating more and more food that your body didn’t need, and so that you don’t stay deprived and miserable from not letting yourself have satisfying eating experiences.

Skill #4) Stop labeling food as healthy and unhealthy

This one might rub you the wrong way. It’s a big mental block for a lot of people. You might be thinking, “C’mon, Katy, there absolutely are foods that are healthy and unhealthy. You’re telling me that I should just eat pizza and donuts all day everyday?” 

I hear you. And no, I’m not telling you to eat pizza and donuts all day everyday. I’m also not telling you to eat kale salads and green smoothies all day everyday because that also wouldn’t be healthy. Nor would only eating grilled chicken and broccoli for every meal. 

Any time we are eating one type of food disproportionately to others, we are missing out on the macro- and micronutrients in other foods. If the only way you ever got your carbs is from sweet potatoes, sure that’s giving you carbohydrate, fiber and vitamin A…but you’d be missing out on the thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate and other nutrients in things like bread and cereal. 

Instead of thinking all/none or either/or we can think both/and. My #1 gentle nutrition tip is VARIETY. When we eat a variety of food we get a variety of nutrients, and we get a variety of tastes, textures and flavors which will help us be satisfied and not deprived.

So I’m going to throw down a challenge here for you to STOP labeling food as healthy and healthy. I would challenge you, how has labeling food this way helped you? If you’re listening to this podcast, and this episode in particular, I’m guessing that you are struggling in your relationship with food, and you’d like to feel at peace with it. If I told you that this was one of the keys to healing your relationship with food are you willing to do it? Think back to our Wellness Woo today about sugar. Does demonizing sugar help you to feel chill about it? Absolutely not. 

I went to college for 6 years studying nutrition, anatomy and physiology, medical nutrition therapy, biology, biochemistry and food science. I have an undergraduate degree in dietetics and a master’s degree in dietetics and nutrition. And here’s what I can tell you without a shred of doubt in my soul: THERE IS NO FOOD THAT IS INHERENTLY HEALTHY OR UNHEALTHY. CONTEXT IS WHAT MATTERS.

Does nutrition matter? Yes. Are there times we may need to have boundaries with certain foods? Yes. Are there times we might push ourselves to eat more of certain types of foods? Yes. 

But that doesn’t make any food universally healthy or unhealthy. I promise you that mindset of labeling the food is causing you far more harm than the foods themselves. And when you are able to view food factually and neutrally, you can look at what’s in it and whether it supports your body’s needs in that moment. Part of listening to our bodies is listening to our medical needs – whether that be blood sugar, cholesterol, blood pressure, digestive issues, or anything else impacted by nutrition. Listening to your body doesn’t ONLY mean hunger and fullness or eating whatever sounds good.

In my experience, it takes a lot of talking through this and asking questions to fully understand this concept. This is where coaching comes in. I am a coach that leads with kindness and compassion, but I’ll also go toe-to-toe with you if I am hearing distortions in your thinking about food. Because I care, and I’m not here to BS you. I want you to have peace and freedom with food AND to take care of your health. I’m not here to gaslight you and tell you to pretend that eating whatever you want, whenever you want is healthy because that’s not what we’re aiming for here. 

One of the biggest points inside of Non-Diet Academy in Module 2 where we go deep on your relationship with food specifically is where we talk about reframing food as nutrients and carving out those new neural pathways in your brain to help you literally think of food differently with a new perspective. This is how we poke holes in the judgment and create a new, empowering and factual belief system.

It’s through the coaching that I’m able to answer questions and to give my students the feedback and redirection when I can tell that they’re stuck back in diet thinking. As we work through this they start to see how it all works and they start to have those wins and lived experiences where they can do things like eat cookies without guilt, or say no to free cupcakes at work, or to stop themselves mid-binge and figure out what’s going on emotionally. 

The coaching allows me to point out things that people usually can’t see within themselves because they’re in it. With me having the outside perspective, the expertise, the experience working with so many people and my own personal lived experience working through these things I’m easily able to guide people to where they need to be with implementing these skills into their lives. Reach out if you feel like you need this type of support. 

I hope that you had some ah-ha moments as you read this, and some things that clicked that hadn’t before, and if nothing else that you realized that there are things you can work on which is awesome because that means that there’s hope for things to continue to improve in your relationship with food. 

Remember that this is a journey, it’s not about getting to a finish line. It’s about rebuilding that trust with our bodies and with ourselves as human beings, which is such a rich and rewarding process. To try to embrace the process, even when it feels challenging. I’ve got your back and I’m here to support you. 

I covered it all in Episode 94-How to Let Go of the Guilt With Eating (Without Food Becoming a Free-for-All)

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