I’m Being So Bad! I’m Not Supposed to be Eating This!

A few years ago, while dishing up a bowl of oatmeal in the buffet line at a retreat center, a guest next to me was adding fresh berries to her granola.

As she drizzled honey on top of the fruit, she turned to me and said, “I’m being so bad! I’m not supposed to be eating this!”

Her comment caught me off guard.

Uncertain how to respond, I just smiled at her and went about my breakfast-gathering business.

Hoping to Hear
I’m not exactly sure what response the woman was looking for, but I have a few ideas.

It’s possible she was hoping for some reassurance that she and her actions were okay, that she wouldn’t get caught cheating on her diet or completely go to pot after eating an apparently forbidden food.

Maybe she felt that by confessing her food sin she’d be absolved of the guilt she was feeling.

Perhaps she wanted me to give her some sort of permission, like, “Hey, you only live once—go for it!” or “Heck, you work hard, you deserve it!”

Or she might have been hoping for a bonding moment, a shared experience of being bad. Something along the lines of: “I hear ya. I’m going to pay for eating all these carbs!”

A Lasting Impression
Although it lasted only a few seconds, the encounter left a lasting impression on me.

I was struck by her need to call attention to her food choice, especially to me, a complete stranger. It was as if she was trying to say: “I know better! I rarely eat like this so please don’t judge me based on this one food crime.”

The entire episode left me feeling a little sad.

I could actually really relate to what the woman was experiencing because I saw myself in her when I was imprisoned in the diet mentality.

Our Oppressive Diet Culture
This is what our toxic diet culture has done to us.

It has convinced us that there are good and bad foods and that we’re either good or bad depending upon which list we choose from.

It’s made us believe our choices are a reflection of our character, morality, willpower and intelligence.

It has conditioned us to feel guilty and ashamed of our innate human desire to eat and enjoy pleasurable food.

It’s trained us to think we need to apologize and atone for our so-called eating transgressions.

And, it’s caused us to spend an insane amount of time, energy and headspace thinking about what we should or shouldn’t eat.

Designed to Keep Us in Line
Food moralism is designed by an oppressive system to keep us in line. In our attempt to be obedient and follow the rules, many of us have developed a really disordered relationship with food and our body.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

At any moment, you can decide to defy diet culture and reclaim your power.

Perhaps your first step is simply becoming more aware of when you judge your eating—and yourself—as good or bad. Start to question whether this is really true and if such labeling is helpful or harmful.

Stealing is Bad; Eating Food Isn’t
If I could go back in time to that buffet line, I would look at that woman with compassion and empathy and say something that may have helped her view the situation and her beliefs differently, something like:

Are you stealing the food? No? Well, then there’s absolutely no reason to feel bad or guilty. Truly. Enjoy your breakfast. Lick the bowl clean. Don't look back.

What Food Freedom Tastes Like

With the Fourth of July upon us, I’ve been reflecting on what Independence Day was like for me as a kid.

Naturally, the fireworks were the highlight of the holiday. However, I also have very fond memories of the food.

I recall kicking off the festivities with a pancake breakfast at our local pool. I happily gobbled up syrup-soaked flapjacks topped with strawberries, blueberries and whipped cream in honor of the occasion.

After hours of swimming and playing with my neighborhood friends, the day would end with a big block party. What a thrill it was to be able to ride my banana-seat bike down the middle of our street!

Picnic tables were hauled from backyards and covered with an array of homemade summer dishes, while a couple of grills smoked away on the sidelines.

Food-Fueled Fun
My nighttime fun was fueled by ketchup-covered hot dogs, honey baked beans, buttery corn-on-the-cob, crisp watermelon wedges, salty chips and dip, and very patriotic Jell-O salads. All of this was washed down with thirst-quenching cups of lemonade.

No matter what I ate, I always had room for a fudgy brownie or strawberry shortcake topped with rapidly melting vanilla ice cream.

I ate what looked good, sounded good and felt good in my body. Sometimes I ate it all, and sometimes I left some behind.

I ate freely and intuitively.

Not Yet Tainted
My young mind hadn’t been tainted yet by diet culture—an oppressive system full of food rules, eating restrictions, good/bad food lists, careful counting (e.g., calories, points, macros, etc.), weight stigma and false promises.

I hadn’t been taught yet that I should be hyper-vigilant with food and micro-manage every morsel.

No one had told me yet that my body couldn’t be trusted and that I needed to rely on a plan or program to tell me how to eat.

I hadn’t learned to abhor my belly, demonize certain foods, feel ashamed about my eating and compensate for my food “sins.”

I didn't worry about others judging my choices nor did I play Hide & Eat to keep myself safe from scrutiny.

Do I Want It?
While I loved all that food, I had more exciting and important things to focus on, like water-balloon tosses, sparklers and bottle rockets.

As an Intuitive Eater, I just ate and moved on.

Eating was simply a matter of: I can have it. Do I want it?

Diet Mentality Takes Over
Unfortunately, all of this changed as I entered my teenage years and began adopting the diet mentality powered by salads, rice cakes and diet sodas (hello, Tab!).

My desire to achieve the “thin ideal” led to decades of disordered eating.

Thankfully, with help from some very wise guides, I eventually broke free from diet culture and made peace with food and my body.

The healing process wasn’t easy or fast. Some days, I feel like I'm still a work-in-progress. But, it’s all been worth it.

Ending the war I was waging against myself enabled me to return to the food freedom and body liberation I experienced as a young girl.   

It’s Still Within You
I’m sharing this story as a reminder that we all came into this world as Intuitive Eaters—that is, we ate based on our instincts, inner cues and desires. We ate without worry, guilt, fear or shame.  

Sadly, we’re losing touch with our ability to eat intuitively at a younger and younger age. Shockingly, an estimated 80 percent of 10-year-old girls have been on a diet.

I’m also sharing my experience to assure you that if you’ve become disconnected from the Intuitive Eater within you, you can reconnect with it.

It hasn’t gone away. It’s just buried under layers of diet-culture gunk, which today, is often packaged under the guise of “wellness.”

Magical Powers Not Required
I don’t have any magical powers. My clients don’t either. If we can relearn how to listen to and trust our bodies, so can you.

“I’m no longer searching for the ‘answer’ to the perfect way to eat. I don’t stress about how I eat because it isn’t that big of a deal anymore. I no longer believe those food guilt thoughts and that is F-R-E-E-D-O-M!”
–Client Molly

Will You Join Us in Banning the G-Word?

If you’ve been with me for a while, you know how strongly I feel that guilt has no place in our relationship with food.

For this reason, I am absolutely thrilled that the San Francisco Chronicle’s new restaurant reviewer, Soleil Ho, has promised to never use the G-Word in her reviews.

Here’s what she had to say in a recent article

“Guilt: I don’t use this word because of the harm it does to our relationship to food, especially because ‘guilt’ in this context never actually refers to things that do carry ethical weight, like cannibalism or stealing food from the hungry.

Why should anyone besides the Hamburglar, who seems to enjoy the act of larceny for the sheer thrill of it, feel guilty about their food choices?

The overwhelmingly majority of the time I’ve encountered this word in food writing or a marketing context has been about diet food, mainly directed toward girls and women: ‘guilt-free snacks,’ ‘ice cream without the guilt,’ and so on.

Criminalizing the everyday act of eating reinforces the idea that we need to punish ourselves for wanting food when we’re hungry, which encourages us to develop really screwed-up and disordered attitudes toward our own bodies.

Relatedly, I hate every time Great British Bake-off judge Prue Leith says that a pastry is good if it’s ‘worth the calories.’”

I did an extra cheer when I read Ho’s last sentence because I also cringe mightily whenever I hear Leith (or anyone else) make a comment like this.

Let’s Do This Together
My hope is that more people—from restaurant reviewers and food writers to chefs and copywriters—follow Ho’s lead and ban the word guilt when it comes to food.

You, too, can help drive this change. Notice when you find yourself saying things like:

  • I feel so guilty for eating all those cookies.

  • My guilty pleasure is a bacon double cheeseburger.

  • I seriously overdid it at dinner; I need to burn off all those calories tomorrow!

  • This chocolate fudge cake is sinfully good.

  • I was so bad today; I ate way too many chips.

When you do catch yourself referring to guilt or morality when talking about your food choices (or someone else’s), turn it into an opportunity to practice a new way of speaking to yourself and others about food—one that is unconditional, empowering and liberating rather than criminalizing, punitive and oppressive.