How many times have you punished yourself before or after you ate something? “I shouldn’t have….” “If I eat this I…” “Should I compensate after eating a..?” Do I need to continue? That inner voice that beats you up before you eat and makes you feel guilty afterward is your worst enemy. It’s woven so deeply into your mind that it becomes a natural response.
You dish up a delicious bagel to go with your breakfast. As you finish the last tasty bite, the voice in your mind starts to scream. “Bagels are so bad.” “I should have chosen a bowl of hearty oatmeal.” “How can I make up for this?”
Many people struggle with feelings of guilt after eating food they labeled as “bad”. Labeling food as good or bad prevents you from actually enjoying it.
Guilt after eating leads to more uncomfortable feelings
Eating disorders tend to make this even worse. Feelings of guilt easily result in self-loathing, shame and hopelessness. Because we often feel out of control, we try to rid of the guilt by compensating using destructive behaviors and self-imposed rules.
“I feel so bad. I just had had a snack and now my parents and brother invited me to go to a restaurant. What am I going to do? I’m already worthless. I should be exercising, but there is not enough time. I am such a loser. Maybe there is something on the menu that isn’t so bad. But what if they want to order dessert too? I know that place has the most delicious chocolate cake that I can’t resist. I’m sure mom’s gonna order it. I hope I have enough discipline. I need to make a plan for tomorrow to make up for this.” – Mirjam (2007).
The above journal entry highlights the distorted thought patterns and negative self-talk eating disorders cause. I remember how the feelings of guilt and failure pushed me into punishing behaviors. I engaged in compulsive exercise. Or anything that could help me to get rid of that feeling.
Not just about the food
In recovery, I discovered those feelings weren’t really related to food. They were related to the inability to love and accept me. And the presence of my nagging and pesky inner critic. She was constantly telling me that I wasn’t good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, or funny enough.
The lists of “good” and “bad” food or feelings of guilt after eating were just the way I dealt with feeling poorly about myself. If you feel guilty or bad after eating a bagel or a cupcake it’s easy to feel bad about yourself too. And what you eat starts to define the way you feel about yourself.
Understanding your behaviors is an important aspect of recovery. The labels, diet rules, and compensating behaviors prevent you from asking for help. And from letting your emotions in. Making that distinction is a very important first step in getting rid of the guilt. It also helps you learn how to enjoy food again. And to deal with your emotions in a healthy way.
Emotions underneath the guilt after eating
Experiencing your emotions can be very overwhelming. But it is one of the most important and valuable things of recovery. When you feel the urge to act on behavior because you want to get rid of guilt, start journaling. Write down what you feel and where you think it comes from. In what parts of your body do you feel it the most?
Another exercise that I found really useful is to write down 3 things you like about yourself. I remember the first time I had to do that. All I could think of was ‘This is stupid. There is nothing to like or love about me.” But after a while, I noticed a shift. Suddenly I was able to approach myself with kindness instead of judgment. This exercise is a simple way to distract your mind. By directing it towards something positive it helps you in learning to appreciate yourself.
Your emotions and feelings are there to be felt not to be pushed away. Talk to them, welcome them, but choose not to punish their existence.
It takes time
Remember that change doesn’t happen overnight. It is okay to feel guilty as long as you don’t judge yourself for it (or act on the feeling by harming yourself).
Your worth doesn’t depend on food or diet rules.
Food is meant to nourish your body and feed your mind and soul. It is not for counting calories and compensation. That is a waste of time and energy. So the next time when the guilt pops up in your mind during or after eating, take a moment to step back and try to realize “Oh there is guilt, it’s going to make me feel bad, but you know what, I’m not.”
(Last Updated: May 4, 2022)
Awesome post. I love how you mention to just feel the emotions of guilt, but don’t let it define you. I also recovered from an eating disorder and now I am helping other women too.
Hi Angeli, I’m happy you liked it and that the messages resonated with you!
I loved this so much it really spoke to me. My eating disorder goes back a long way. Every bite, nibble, thought of foods brings me anxiety. It’s constant.
Thanks so much for reading. Keep fighting Linda!?
Im going through a time in my life where even if i eat something so small and healthy as the first meal of the day. I feel bad for it. I walk/jog everyday but it doesnt make me feel better while i try to make up for the food i ate. Im trying to figure out why this guilt is affecting me so much, and why its happening. And this is the closest thing to my situation. I did lose XXkgs during my weightloss journey. And now im XX, and my family is saying i shouldnt lose anymore because im at a healthy weight, but i cant stop from comparing myself to everyone else my age in their XX. Truth is, i dont want to eat anymore. I eat one meal and i think “well im not hungry, so i dont need lunch”. Or if i skip breakfast and eat lunch, its.. “i just ate a few hours ago. If i eat again ill put on more weight”. While i lost the weight i did, i never went through this PAINFUL guilt that eats me alive… and i am so aware that i know its wrong to feel like this, but i cant help but to let it sink in. Please someone help me. Im 14, but i seriously cant take this anymore ??
Piper- we are so sorry to hear you are struggling so much. It sounds like you and your family could really benefit from more support and help. Please check out resources available: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/
Sending you lots of warrior love and strength. ??
I want to say that what follows is hopefully taken as constructive and not critical, and hopefully becomes something we can all explore together.
I think it is worth making a distinction between guilt and shame.
Guilt is an emotion we feel when we believe we have caused harm or hurt to another person, or that we have morally transgressed. It’s also a feeling that gets talked about a lot in EDs, but often (I think) as an understandable but not quite right synonym for shame.
Shame is the emotion where we feel beyond embarrassed at what we have done. It makes us want to hide, to beat ourselves up, feel like we have to amend by doing something to ourselves (as opposed to guilt where we feel that we have to make amends to another person).
The distinction is important because a) the ways that can best help alleviating shame are different to those that help with guilt and b) because having ED behaviours labelled as things we feel guilty about has the risk of perpetuating an idea that there is something to feel guilty about.
The best antidote to shame is self-compassion, which is exactly what you talk about in this article and in your other very excellent articles 🙂 Writing down things you like about yourself – yes self compassion! Anything that pulls on wisdom, warmth to yourself, kindness to yourself and taking responsibility for your suffering – all of that wonderful stuff that kicks shame to the proverbial curb is super important (and let’s be honest, super hard) in moments when shame comes up.
But let’s name it for what it is. No one with an eating disorder has anything to feel guilty about, but even more so, nothing to feel ashamed about.
Me to. I can’t handle the guilt anymore. I have suffered bulimia for 32 years.
Me to. I can’t handle the guilt anymore. I have suffered bulimia for 32 years. You sound like a beautiful person, be that person,don’t let anyone tell you any different.