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Dinner table isn’t proper environment for a guilty conscience

You hear it all the time.

Likely you have even said it: “I was bad today.”Or, “I was good today.”

“Good” and “bad,” terms commonly used for moral and ethical issues, somehow have become everyday language in relationship to food and eating. I hear this a lot myself as I am a registered dietitian.Somehow, I become an automatic “confession box” for the “wayward eater.”

Have you ever stopped to think about why we slap such hefty terms on ourselves and others? This language we use (“good and bad”) reveals the mindsets that underpin our words. Those mindsets are guilt and restriction.

Quite often, our word choices reveal what we actually think and fear. Vocabulary betrays our true motivations. Granted, sometimes it is easy to adopt sloppy vocabulary from others around us. Unthinkingly, we say, “I was so good today” because we’ve made a healthier choice than normal.

Oftentimes, however, we aren’t just being sloppy. We stick moral terms to our eating behaviors because we feel really guilty and awful about our food choices. We feel like a criminal eater. We then move on to “reform our ways” and begin to restrict ourselves.

The mindset we approach food with matters. It matters because it has consequences. Feeling guilty and restricting our foods can lead to confusion and truly unhealthy ways of eating.

I wish I could say that food is just fuel and so we should just treat it that way. Unfortunately, it is a little more complicated than that.

While food is primarily fuel, there is an added complexity humans bring to it. Food touches us in many ways. Food has social aspects and cultural significance. For some people food has spiritual or religious meaning.

Everyone has emotional memories involving food and some people respond to their emotions with food.

Personally, I see food as community, fuel and medicine. That is why eating well, unfettered from any guilt or restriction is uncommon and still more difficult to deal with.

The trouble is that the intensity of our guilt is out of proportion to the perceived “offense.” We condemn ourselves as moral offenders over issues that simply aren’t morally right or wrong.

We confuse the emotions of what we are feeling with what is actually true: There are poor, better and best food choices we can make, none of them (I would argue) are “moral” issues.

Yet, imperfect eating, disappointment of unmet goals, confusion or frustration as to what to eat or how to change, all stir up feelings that we haven’t done something “right.”

One way to address the guilt mindset is to work on the mindset motivators.

Here are some tips and self-reflection questions you can use to address any guilt you have around eating:

Save the comments of “good and bad” for ethical and moral issues, instead of the take-out menu. Instead, seek to nourish, thrive and enjoy your food as community, fuel and medicine.

Refuse to ride the guilt train. Refuse. If you’ve made a bad decision, if you ate out of a desire to avoid painful situations or emotions, then own it and move on. If you need to do better about your food choices then take the responsibility of working on it. Remember, you are not a victim.

Sometimes we can feel guilty when we don’t need to. If every time you ate a treat (say, a cookie) you feel like a guilty loser, just pause and ask yourself “why?” When drilling down for a reason, you might find there isn’t one at all, or at best, a lousy one. Taking a pause to ask yourself this question might be what is needed to stop the guilt.

Registered Dietitian Ilana Muhlstein has a really good catch phrase regarding the indulgences we tend to feel guilty about. Think about indulgences as “treats, and not cheats.”

The word “cheats” makes it a “good or bad” issue once again. It layers on the guilt. Also, the moment you make something a “cheat,” you have relinquished responsibility and control. You also have lost the ability to legitimately enjoy the indulgence.

When something is a treat, it reminds you that you have the ability to say no or yes. It frees you up to let go of guilt and enjoy it if that is what is best. If a treat doesn’t fit into how you feel you need to eat for your best health then feel free to not partake. If it does, then by all means enjoy it guilt-free!

When presented with an eating opportunity you tend to feel guilty about, ask yourself, “Do I want this or am I just mindlessly eating this? Am I trying to reward myself?” If so, try picking something other than food. Am I trying to relax? There are a multitude of other ways to let your hair down. Pick go-to’s other than food.

Even if you are the person who “means nothing by it,” perhaps a change in the terminology around your food would benefit the younger ears around you. No dollar amount matches the valuable example you set in the younger people’s lives around you.

Your example is priceless. Perhaps it is because I have a daughter now that I think more about this. At 18 months, she knows more challenging words like elephant and crocodile, compound words such as “all gone” and directions such as “ wipe your nose and throw the tissue in the trash.” She understands a lot.

A remarkable amount of what she has learned is simply from watching me. Facial expressions, things she attempts to do, even the way she treats our puppy are all influenced by my wordless behavior. Much more is caught by example than taught directly.

Do note that there really can be biological issues that increase cravings and struggles with food. I have lived inside of that struggle for most of my life. These biological issues can be indicators of greater health issues that ought to be addressed. (For me, it was gut issues, an autoimmune disorder and problems with gluten). If you have suspicions that there may be other health factors at play in your cravings, begin to get help from the right healthcare specialists.

If you struggle with your mindset, words or eating behaviors surrounding food, take care to work through it and not make it contagious to others around you. It is OK to be honest about the struggle (it does no one good to pretend), but be careful not to celebrate it. Sometimes we can almost celebrate the dysfunction in our lives. We talk about it as often as our hobbies or favorite show on Netflix, almost leading others to believe we are extra noble for having the struggle.

We have discussed the basic ideas of changing the guilt mindset around food. Next month we will discuss the issue of the restriction mindset and how we can eat and live without depriving ourselves of delicious foods that nourish and satisfy.

– Cathryn Arndt is a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) and owns a nutrition counseling business called The Pantry Lab LLC. She lives in the McDowell Creek area with her husband and baby daughter. Find her at thepantrylab.com or visit her Facebook page by searching under “Dietitian Cathryn.”