Stop feeling guilty about food

Most of us agonise daily about food and nutrition, so when we do indulge it's usually followed by feelings of guilt. We say don't feel bad.

The root of this guilt is different for everybody, but the media certainly has something to do with it. We’re constantly bombarded with messages that tell us it’s bad and sinful to eat certain foods, and that some things make us gain weight.

Sure, overeating and overindulgence can lead to weight gain, and eating foods high in fat too often will have consequences. But whatever happened to just enjoying a meal, or eating healthy foods with relish?

Good vs. bad

Humans often tend to blow things out of proportion – especially when it comes to food. An example is a patient with a body mass index of 18 (still within the normal range, but teetering on the brink of underweight), who is worried about eating muesli because she thinks it’s fattening and a bad choice.

Muesli is a good breakfast choice that includes many good-for-you nutrients such as dietary fibre, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and monounsaturated fats. Eaten together with fat-free milk or yoghurt, it’s one of the most nutritious breakfast foods on the market. And yet this healthy, almost-underweight woman is agonising over it.

Another person complains that her body-fat percentage is too high, when it is hovering around 14%. Women with a normal weight are supposed to have a body-fat percentage of about 24%. Being worried about your weight when you’re already rake thin is just plain dangerous.

If you’re constantly thinking about your weight and about what you’re eating, it’s worth remembering that guilt can lead you down a path of eating disorders and/or nutritional deficiencies. Many people think, for instance, that they shouldn’t include milk or other dairy products in their diet because they contain so much fat.

However, if you stop drinking milk and eating yoghurt and cottage cheese, you’re depriving your body of the very best sources of calcium. By doing this, you may be increasing your risk for osteoporosis.

What’s more, if you worry excessively about eating certain foods, you’ll activate your adrenal cortex, which produces “stress hormones” such as cortisol. This will make you receptive to infections and viruses, and cause water retention.

Solutions

If you think you have a problem, it’s important to break the vicious cycle of guilt. Consider consulting a clinical psychologist to banish your underlying fears.

Various types of therapy may be beneficial, particularly if your fears of food and weight gain are based on childhood conditioning. If your father always made disparaging remarks about your looks, or your mother always urged you to watch your figure, it’s not difficult to imagine that this might have lead to a lifelong aversion to eating or desperate attempts to control your weight.

If you’re following a totally unbalanced diet – for example, a diet with so few kilojoules that it can hardly sustain you – but you’re scared to have even an extra mouthful of food because it could make you fat, it’s important to get help. A dietician can help you get back on track again.

If you’re not dangerously underweight and you have guilt feelings about eating more than your strict regimen, you should take a few sensible steps to free yourself: acknowledge that you feel guilty about eating certain foods, examine this fear and guilt, and do something about it.

If you’re underweight, try eating larger portions of the foods you usually eat. Also add healthy options such as fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts, lean meat, fish, dairy products, and whole grains.

If you’re able to eat normally and don’t believe that enjoying your food is a sin, you’re well on your way to dietary freedom.

- (Dr Ingrid van Heerden, dietician)

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