I've been working on a better relationship with food and eating intuitively for a while now, but every time I eat past the point of fullness all the food guilt comes back and takes over my brain. I feel like a horrible failure even if it's just a couple of bites more than I needed. How do I handle food guilt when I know I've overeaten?
Let's clear something up straight away: there is no such thing as 'perfect' intuitive eating. Even the most natural intuitive eaters on the planet do not eat in a way that's 100% in tune with their bodies every single day. That's not possible. We will all eat past the point of comfort sometimes, and not eat quite enough other times. Sometimes we're totally sure of what our body's craving but it's not available, so we make do with what's there. Maybe we'll eat a whole meal and only realise afterwards that it wasn't actually what our body wanted. All of this is part of intuitive eating.
The goal isn't to never ever overeat again. The goal of intuitive eating is to do your best at listening to your body, eating in tune with your hunger, fullness, nutrient needs and pleasure, while also not beating yourself up if every eating experience doesn't tick those boxes. That last part plays as important a role in healing your relationship with food as the actual eating does.
You have not failed at intuitive eating if you eat past the point of comfort sometimes. I repeat: you have not failed. In fact, when I started practising intuitive eating I was rocking a third trimester food baby after at least one meal most days. It's a process. It's coming back to your body after a lifetime of being alienated from it. There's no failure here, just learning experiences that will hopefully inform your choices when the next meal comes round.
I also know how all-consuming food guilt can be and that simply saying, Hey! You don't have to feel this! doesn't make it go away. Eliminating food guilt is another process of unlearning that takes time and practice. And the most powerful part of that healing for me was constantly reminding myself of where the food guilt came from.
All of our feelings of guilt and failure around food aren't things we made up on our own and decided to torture ourselves with. These are feelings we've been conditioned to carry around by a culture that normalises disordered eating, and dishes up a side order of shame with every meal as soon as we're old enough to chew. Food guilt is something we've been taught. From day one. Which means that it isn't your fault that you feel this way. Hold onto that, feel the weight of what that means – it means that you can let go of the blame you've been putting on yourself all these years. It has never been your fault.
So whose fault is it? Where does food guilt actually come from? Well, these are few of the culprits that contribute to our almighty fucked up relationship with food:
Otherwise known as all of the influences in our day-to-day lives that sell us the idea of weight loss and thinness being the ultimate achievement. The constant advertisements for diet products, foods and groups. The social conditioning to see our worth in our waistlines and always, always make sure it's the first thing we talk about. The decades of a single body type being celebrated as 'good' and 'beautiful' in the media (that's only just shifting slightly).
All of these things add up to make diet culture. And all of them require restriction. Denying our hunger. Hiding our appetites. Attributing moral value to how much we eat and punishing ourselves for being 'bad'. Diet culture thrives on food guilt. And since the diet industry needs our shame to continue to make money, refusing to be ashamed of eating is a delicious middle finger to a system that continually chooses to sacrifice our mental health in order to make a profit. Fuck diet culture. You are allowed to eat.
All genders experience disordered relationships with food and eating disorders, but if you are someone who identifies as a woman or a girl then it's likely that your food relationship has been impacted by our societal idea of femininity. Female hunger has been demonised for centuries. The shame we still carry now can be traced back to Victorian etiquette manuals that taught women how to be properly ladylike by eating exactly the right amount in exactly the right way and never ever showing that they actually enjoy food. That would just be uncouth.
Conditioning women to believe that our appetites are sinful and unfeminine is another tactic to keep us small, quiet, obedient, and convinced that our needs aren't important. Fuck that cis-normative misogynistic bullshit. You are allowed to eat.
Fear-mongering nutrition narratives
A whole lot of the conversation around food and health that the media perpetuates genuinely makes it seem like every time we take a bite of something that isn't perfectly nutritionally balanced, we have to shave a couple of years off our life expectancy. And don't get me wrong, nutrition is of course important if you're trying to promote healthful behaviours, but as Marianne Kirby and Kate Harding put it in their book Lessons from the Fat-O-Sphere, ‘eating ice cream is not actually equivalent, health-wise, to pouring battery acid down your throat’.
The way we talk about food and health is in need of some serious perspective so that we're not in a constant state of fear about what's on our plates. Because this is not good for our health however you look at it, mental or physical. We need more people like Laura Thomas PhD to teach us about nutrition without the fear. Fuck anyone who's ever tried to make you scared of a loaf of bread. You are allowed to eat.
The idea that food is fuel
I mean, it is. But it's also so much more than that. It's tradition, it's creativity, it's comfort, it's social glue, it's one of the most simple pleasures we have. Sometimes it's also just damn good and THAT IS OKAY. We cannot reduce food to fuel alone and we don't have to. It's possible to have a healthy relationship with food while embracing that it represents all the above, as well as being the stuff that keeps us going. I'm not sure who to fuck here but you get the idea.
Logically, food guilt is bullshit. But that feeling also isn't logical for the most part, it's deeply emotional and engrained over years. So knowing all of this on a rational level won't take it away immediately, but it's a start.
Keep practising forgiveness and self-empathy on the not-so-intuitive days. And remember to spend some time stroking your full stomach and sending it gratitude for the role it plays. Full bellies are worthy of love and kindness too.
Love & bopo,
P.S. If you like this column and want more advice like this, I wrote a whole book of it! You can find Body Positive Power here.