Ever felt that lingering sense of regret after indulging in a slice of cake or skipping the salad for fries? If you have felt this, you may be wondering: Why do I feel so guilty after eating?
You’re not alone. Food guilt is surprisingly common and, for many, an accepted part of life. But just because it’s widespread doesn’t mean it’s harmless. So why do so many people struggle with food guilt after eating, and is there anything we can do about it?
Food guilt is a complex issue with many contributing factors. In this blog post, we’ll take a closer look at the reasons why you may feel guilty after eating, and I’ll provide you with actionable solutions to cope that you can implement today.
Table of Contents
What is Food Guilt?
Food guilt is the feeling you may experience after eating certain foods, eating too much or too little, or eating at a particular time or place. It’s the emotion you feel when you think you’ve done something morally wrong, and it can manifest as regret, shame, or self-criticism. Most people experience food guilt at some point. For some people, it’s a rare or fleeting occurrence, but for others, it can become consuming.
Types of Food Guilt
Food guilt isn’t a one-size-fits-all experience, it can be caused by a variety of factors:
- What Was Eaten: Feeling guilty for consuming foods deemed ‘unhealthy’ or ‘forbidden.’
- How Much Was Eaten: Experiencing guilt for eating more or less than you believe you should have.
- When the Food Was Eaten: Guilt around meal timing, such as late-night snacking or breaking a planned fast.
- Who You’re With: Feeling judged or self-conscious about your food choices when in the company of others due to comments, perceived judgment, or comparison to what or how much others ate.
- Context: Experiencing guilt during specific situations like before, during, or after vacations, parties, or holidays when your eating habits are different from your usual, you’re experiencing more stress, or feeling self-conscious about your body.
Examples of Food Guilt
- “I shouldn’t eat this cake.”
- “My boyfriend ate less than I did. I need to stop eating this meal now, even though I’m still hungry.”
- “I’ll have to skip dinner to make up for this lunch.”
- “I’ve been bad today. I don’t deserve to enjoy this meal tonight.”
- “I’ll start eating better tomorrow so I can eat what I want tonight.”
- “I can’t believe I ate all that. I have no self-control.”
- “If someone sees me eating this, they’ll judge me.”
- “I’ve already ruined my diet today. I might as well keep going.”
- “I can’t eat that, it’s not healthy.”
- “Eating this will make me gain weight.”
Food Guilt vs. Guilt Eating
It’s important to differentiate between food guilt and guilt eating. While food guilt involves feeling remorse or shame for what you’ve eaten, guilt eating refers to eating in response to guilty feelings. For the context of this post, I am referring to food guilt.
Why Do I Feel So Guilty After Eating? What Causes Food Guilt?
As mentioned before, food guilt is the emotion that arises when we feel we have done something morally wrong. Usually, guilt is associated with actions like lying, stealing, or cheating.
However, for so many people, eating – something your body NEEDS to survive – elicits a similar response, even though no moral code was actually broken.
So where does this guilt come from then?
Food guilt stems from black-and-white thinking around food (i.e., thinking certain foods are good and others are bad or healthy and unhealthy).
This dichotomous thinking is caused by various psychological, social, and cultural factors. While the list below is not exhaustive, it covers some of the most common reasons guilt can surface after eating.
The influence of cultural messages on your eating habits is so pervasive (and sometimes so subtle you don’t notice it). We’re continually exposed to diet culture messages like “guilt-free” or “guilty indulgence” food labels, unqualified and uneducated social media influencers making false claims about food and health (*cough* food babe *cough*), and news articles that sensationalize and misinterpret scientific studies.
When you’re bombarded with these messages, you begin to internalize them, even when they have no credibility. So then, when you eat that “guilty indulgence” or the food that [insert influencer] says is so unhealthy, you believe it.
As a result, what should be an enjoyable moment- like savoring a creamy and cooling ice cream cone on a hot day summer day with family – can become an experience of overwhelming guilt.
Family and Social Circle
How you think about food is heavily influenced by the people you grow up with and surround yourself with.
Family often sets the stage by introducing notions of what’s considered “healthy” or “unhealthy,” shaping your early attitudes toward eating.
Later in life, these perspectives can be reinforced or challenged by your friends, who bring their own beliefs about food into the mix.
Additionally, you may subconsciously (or consciously) gauge your eating habits or body type to the people around you, amplifying feelings of guilt over your food choices.
Unfortunately, friends or family may even verbally shame you for what you eat, leading to many complex and intense emotions, including guilt and shame over eating.
Having strict food rules can lead to food guilt. Food rules are rigid guidelines that often come in one of three forms:
- What to eat (“I shouldn’t eat carbs” or “I should only eat unprocessed food”)
- When to eat (“I have to fast” or “I can’t eat past 7 pm or snack between meals”)
- How much to eat (“I should limit myself to less than 1200 calories per day”).
Breaking any of these rigid rules can quickly lead to feelings of food guilt.
Internalized Weight Stigma
Weight stigma is a pervasive issue that can significantly contribute to feelings of food guilt.
Weight stigma is discrimination or stereotyping based on an individual’s body size or weight, and it’s reflected in the treatment of people in a larger body.
We are exposed to weight stigma on a daily basis everywhere, from TV to ads and social media to our doctors.
Our culture often equates weight gain with poor health, laziness, unattractiveness, or unhappiness and simplifies weight into a personal choice that is the direct effect of what you eat and do. Not only is this thinking incredibly daft and inaccurate, it creates an environment where weight stigma is not only present but alarmingly still accepted in society.
This form of weight bias, or negative thinking about people based on their weight, directly impacts how we perceive food and eating.
Phrases come about like “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” or “a moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips,” which instills the idea that weight gain is something that needs to be avoided at all costs, and we avoid weight gain by avoiding eating.
With every exposure to these messages, you subconsciously begin to believe them to be true.
It’s no wonder that, within this framework, eating could trigger feelings of guilt, given the societal emphasis on avoiding weight gain.
Perfectionism can be a driving force behind food guilt. In the quest for an ideal diet or body, even a minor deviation from self-imposed dietary rules can elicit overwhelming feelings of failure and guilt.
The need to “eat perfectly” creates unrealistic standards that are hard to meet and ignore the normal variability and flow of human diets and lifestyles. When you can’t keep up with these strict standards, the emotional toll can be significant.
Worrying about the impact of food on your health can also induce feelings of guilt.
Even if you’re eating something for pleasure, health concerns can instill a sense of guilt, turning what could be an enjoyable experience into a source of stress.
(Note: This is different from if you have a food allergy or food-related condition in which you may need to avoid a certain food(s) for your health).
Past Trauma or Food Insecurity
Our relationship with food is often rooted in past experiences, which may involve trauma or food insecurity. These experiences can lead to complex feelings, including guilt or shame over eating.
If you find that past trauma or food insecurity affects your relationship with food, consider seeking support from dietitians and/or therapists specializing in disordered eating and trauma therapy.
Is It Normal to Feel Guilty After Eating?
Food guilt is incredibly widespread. According to a Harris Poll on food guilt, up to 80% of women and 70% of men experience food guilt. But just because food guilt has become normalized does not make it a ‘normal’ or healthy response to eating.
Habitual food guilt can take a toll on both your mental and physical well-being. If you find yourself constantly wrapped in guilt after meals, it might be worth examining the underlying factors or considering professional support.
It is possible to overcome food guilt and enjoy eating again! Read on to learn 8 strategies and tools to overcome food guilt.
Is Feeling Guilty After Eating an Eating Disorder?
While food guilt by itself isn’t classified as an eating disorder, it is common with many eating disorders. Food guilt is even a potential diagnostic criterion for Binge Eating Disorder.
Feeling food guilt and the associated thoughts that come with it may drive disordered eating or eating disorder behaviors.
So, while food guilt itself is not an eating disorder, it is intertwined with disordered eating and eating disorders, and it could be a red flag indicating a deeper issue that may require professional intervention.
When to Reach Out For Professional Help When Experiencing Food Guilt
There’s rarely a wrong time to seek help if you’re grappling with food guilt. Building a healthier, more enjoyable relationship with food is entirely possible.
Even if food guilt never turns into a clinically diagnosable eating disorder, if it becomes persistent, affects other areas of your life, induces anxiety, or creates fear around certain foods, it’s a good idea to seek professional help.
Of course, if you suspect you have an eating disorder or may be at risk, please reach out for help.
Consulting a non-diet registered dietitian or a therapist specializing in eating disorders can help with an effective treatment plan.
Why is Food Guilt a Problem?
- Mental Health: Food guilt can exacerbate feelings of anxiety, shame, and depression, affecting overall mental well-being. This stress can actually be more harmful to long-term health and well-being than eating any single food item.
- Disordered Eating Risk: Chronic guilt around food can lead to disordered eating behaviors like bingeing, restricting, or chronic dieting. Further, people who associate certain foods with guilt were more likely to report “unhealthy eating behaviors” and feeling like they have less control over their food choices when stressed.
- Physical Health Concerns: Persistent stress and anxiety from food guilt can negatively affect physical health. It can cause increased cortisol and inflammation and lead to digestive problems, fatigue, and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
- Social Strain: Fearing guilt-inducing foods can lead to avoiding social events, which can weaken social bonds and deprive people of the joy and connection that comes from spending time with others.
- Value Misalignment: Food guilt can cause an excessive focus on weight and appearance, which diverts attention, energy, and resources away from other important aspects of your life.
How Does Guilt Affect Food Choices?
Guilt can have a significant influence on the way you approach food in several ways.
Feeling guilt over eating can lead to disordered eating behaviors, such as chronic dieting, restriction, and binge eating. For example, eating a “bad” food can trigger guilt, leading to thoughts like “I shouldn’t have eaten that. I have to eat better tomorrow now.” This restriction leads to cravings, loss of control, and binge eating, starting the cycle over.
The thought of potential guilt from eating can make choosing what to eat a stressful experience. This can lead to decision paralysis, which in turn may lead to avoiding meals altogether, stress or fights with other people, or feeling out of control around food choices.
Less Nutrient-Dense Food Choices
People who associate certain foods with guilt are more likely to report “unhealthy eating behaviors.”
Guilt can impair mindfulness, which makes it difficult to listen to your body’s natural hunger and fullness cues.
How Can I Stop Feeling Guilty After Eating? 9 Tools to Cope with Food Guilt
Luckily, food guilt is something that you can overcome. Here are 9 tools and skills you can incorporate to help overcome food guilt.
Note: These are just some ideas. Nutrition and behavior change is incredibly individual. Some of these may not resonate with you, and that’s okay. Take what is helpful and leave the rest.
Additionally, if you’ve been dieting or restricting food for a long time, this may feel very overwhelming or unattainable. It can help to first establish a pattern of eating regular and satiating meals and snacks. A registered dietitian can help with this.
Pause and Take a Breath
Guilt is an emotion you feel when you believe you did something morally wrong or malicious.
When you feel guilt related to eating, it arises from the belief that you ate something “bad” and, therefore, you are “bad” for eating it.
However, eating food is not morally wrong – you are not a bad person for nourishing your body or eating something delicious.
So, when you notice you’re experiencing food guilt:
- Pause and take a deep breath.
- Notice what you are thinking or feeling without any judgment, just awareness.
- Remind yourself you did nothing wrong. You are not a bad person for nourishing your body or eating something you enjoy.
- Acknowledge the feeling right now may be uncomfortable, but it will pass.
Reframe your Thoughts
Food guilt comes from black-and-white thinking, which is a way of thinking in absolutes (i.e., this food is so bad, this is so unhealthy for me, I’m going to gain weight if I eat this).
This type of thinking can keep you stuck in a cycle of disordered eating, guilt, and shame.
People tend to fall into this pattern of thinking because it provides a sense of security or certainty which can help reduce anxiety – it’s the brain’s natural tendency to fall into this pattern of thinking as a coping mechanism.
However, thinking in absolutes prevents you from seeing things the way they actually are with all the intricacies and nuance. Things in life are seldom black and white – there’s always a grey area.
While thoughts are often automated and may feel beyond your control, there is a silver lining: You DO have control over whether you choose to engage with them. With practice, over time, you can begin to change your neural pathways and this will start to get easier.
So how do you do this?
When you notice a black-and-white thought, ask yourself these questions:
- What’s the evidence that this thought is true or untrue? Are there other ways of looking at it?
- Is this thought helpful?
- Is this thought unhelpful and/or harmful?
Then write down three alternatives that are more flexible, neutral, and helpful.
Note: the reframe should still be something realistic and meaningful to you. You’re reframing an unhelpful thought into something more nuanced and helpful (or at least neutral) – you’re not trying to convince yourself to believe something you don’t or gaslight yourself.
For example, “If I eat this pizza with my family, I will be unhealthy. I have to eat a salad instead, even though pizza sounds really good.”
- Is there another way to view this that’s less absolute?
No food in isolation will make me unhealthy. Pizza consists of crust which is bread, and provides the body with carbohydrates and energy. The sauce is tomato-based and provides micronutrients. The cheese has protein and calcium. None of these foods alone are bad, and they aren’t bad in combination. They provide my body with essential nutrients.
- Is it helpful?
No, this thought is not adding any benefit to my life.
- Is it harmful?
Yes, it’s causing stress and worry over eating. It’s taking me out of the present moment and keeping me from enjoying a meal and making memories with my family.
Three alternative thoughts:
- I’m learning to make peace with food. I can eat this pizza and enjoy it.
- Instead of worrying about what I’m going to eat when I’m out with my family, I can be present in the moment and focus on making memories with them instead.
- Eating pizza will not cause me to be unhealthy.
Noticing and reframing negative thoughts takes practice. It can be easy to feel disheartened if you’re struggling in the beginning, but it does get easier with time. It can help to have a support system.
Focus your Attention on Something Else
It can be easy to get stuck ruminating over a certain thought or feeling; however, that’s typically not too helpful. Sometimes you just need to put some distance between yourself and the situation. So instead of dwelling on the situation, do something else that requires your attention and energy. Here are some examples:
- Work on a puzzle
- Read a book
- Go for a walk
- Call a friend
- Put on your favorite music and dance
- Watch some funny or cute videos
Focus on How you Want to Feel
Instead of focusing on the numbers or labels of food (calories, macros, or “good” and “bad”) divert your focus to how the food makes you feel. Ask yourself:
- How did I feel after that meal/snack?
- Do I want to feel that way again?
- What do I need from this meal?
- How long do I need it to hold me over?
Let go of Nutrition Labels
If you’re used to viewing food as just calories or macronutrients, reframe it to view it as what the nutrients are providing you. For example:
- Calories: provides your body with fuel and energy
- Carbohydrates: the body’s preferred source of fuel, often contains fiber
- Fat: helps to absorb fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E, K), keeps you satisfied and full longer, enhances flavor and “mouth feel” of meal/snack, provides satisfaction
- Sugar: serves as a form of quick energy or fuel (particularly helpful for a workout), adds satisfaction and taste to a meal/snack
View Food as More Than Just Nutrition
Similarly, food provides more than nutrients – it’s part of life’s big and small moments. It’s the cake at a birthday party that adds a layer of celebration and connection, or the family recipe that reminds you of baking with your mom and grandma as a child. Sometimes food is joy, social connection, nostalgia, a link to your culture, or a way to be festive. Food isn’t just fuel- it’s a part of who we are and the moments that make life meaningful.
Practice Body Appreciation
Body appreciation is the practice of recognizing and expressing gratitude for your body (physical traits and functionality).
It’s not about loving every feature of your physical appearance or the number of things your body can do, but valuing your body’s current abilities and acknowledging its limitations with self-compassion and care.
Body appreciation is correlated with increased levels of intuitive eating and reduced disordered eating and chronic dieting.
Body appreciation is a core feature of a positive body image, and it can be developed and strengthened over time. One way to foster body appreciation is to practice body gratitude – bringing awareness to and acknowledging the things you’re grateful for about your body.
If you’d like a guide and template for practicing body gratitude, download my free Positive Body Image Toolkit.
Respond With Self-Compassion
It’s common to react to eating something perceived as “bad” with negative thoughts, which can then cause even more feelings of guilt.
When you notice the food guilt, pause and acknowledge your feelings without judgment. Then try to respond with self-compassion – i.e., treating yourself with the same kindness and understanding you would offer a close friend or family member.
Curate Your Social Media
Your social media feed can significantly influence views on food and body image.
If you notice that certain accounts spark feelings of guilt or comparison, unfollow or silence them. Instead, connect with accounts that promote body neutrality and intuitive eating.
A thoughtfully curated feed can help foster a healthier relationship with food and body image.
Journal Prompts for Dealing with Food Guilt
- Reflect on the association between morality (being “bad” or “good”) and food. Where did these thoughts originate from in your life?
- When was the first time you remember feeling guilty about eating?
- What specific messages or beliefs about food have you internalized from cultural or social influences?
- Are there specific foods that trigger guilt for you? Make a list of the foods that elicit guilt.
- What foods do you consider to be “bad” or “unhealthy,” and what foods do you consider to be “good” or “healthy”?
- Is there a more neutral way to think about these foods?
- What are 3 aspects about yourself you appreciate that have nothing to do with how you look?
- Think back to a time before you had food rules (if there was ever a time). What foods did you enjoy the most?
- Besides fuel and macronutrients, what else do your favorite foods provide?
- Reflect on your last satisfying meal or snack. What made it enjoyable?
Final Thoughts on Food Guilt After Eating
I hope this blog post gave you some perspective on why you may be feeling guilty after eating. While food guilt is common, it does not have to be your normal. I hope some of these strategies for overcoming food guilt resonated with you and help to guide you to a more peaceful relationship with food.
If you’re interested in learning more about Intuitive Eating and body image, check out some of these other blog posts:
- Intuitive Eating for Weight Loss [Everything you Need to Know]
- Body Appreciation: A Comprehensive Guide to Cultivating Body Gratitude
- The Disadvantages and Dangers of Dieting [An Unbiased Guide]
- 100+ Intuitive and Mindful Eating Affirmations to Help Combat Negative Self-Talk
- Intuitive Eating Before and After [What to Expect When You Start Intuitive Eating]
- Looking for an Intuitive Eating Coach? Read this!
- Why Intuitive Eating Doesn’t Work: An Expert’s Perspective
- The 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating [A Complete Guide + Free PDF]
- Intuitive Eating Hunger Scale [+Free PDF]
If you’re looking for personalized support, I offer one-on-one nutrition and Intuitive Eating counseling services to help you find food freedom. My one-on-one services are tailored to your specific needs and concerns. We work to develop a plan together that will help you achieve your goals and fit into your life. Whether you’re looking to break free from the diet cycle, overcome emotional or binge eating, or stop hating your body, I’m here to help.
I am a Registered Dietitian, and as such, the information provided is accurate and evidence-based. However, I am not your dietitian, and nutrition therapy is highly individual. The information contained in this post is not intended to be a substitute for individualized nutrition advice or care.
The information provided in this blog post is intended solely for informational and educational purposes. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
If you suspect you may have an eating disorder or any other medical condition, consult with a qualified healthcare provider for a comprehensive evaluation and tailored treatment plan that’s appropriate for you. Always seek the advice of your qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.
Kristin is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor, and Certified Personal Trainer. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Dietetics with a concentration in Biology and a Master’s Degree in Nutrition and Dietetics. She has experience conducting systematic reviews and writing and evaluating scientific literature in peer-reviewed journals. She has a goal of making evidence-based nutrition information accessible and easy to understand.