Last week at work, I had an interaction with a customer that reminded me of why I have worked so hard to rid myself of food-related guilt. I’ll set the scene: I’m making sandwiches and contemplating the meaning of life, when in walks my new personal nightmare. She points out the cookies—those generic pre-made ones you get at restaurants—and mentions it would be nice to have oatmeal raisin. I agree, to which she responds, “It would make me feel less guilty about eating them.” Now, my Customer Service Brain has been well-trained to never disagree with a customer, but I calmly reply that I try not to feel guilty about anything I eat. Her answer? “That’s the problem, most people don’t.” And then she saunters away, leaving me to mull over the conversation in a silent rage.
Since I did not have the opportunity for a rousing debate in the middle of Erberts & Gerberts, I thought I would vent my frustrations—erm, break down my argument—here. Firstly, the vast majority of us feel guilty for what we eat at some point or another. We are socialized in a society that hates, well, most bodies, but especially larger ones. We assume fat people “got that way” by eating large quantities of food and we are afraid of how our bodies might change if we allowed ourselves to eat unrestrained by guilt. We draw automatic connections between eating the foods we enjoy and being morally inferior. All of these assumptions work synergistically to make us feel fear and guilt surrounding food.
Food! The source of energy for every cell in our body! An absolute necessity that keeps our hearts beating, our stomachs digesting and our neurons firing! Sixty to seventy-five percent of the energy we consume goes toward the most basic functions of our body. We require the equivalent of around three bowls of pasta a day just to keep up our basal metabolism, excluding any activity that we do throughout the day. Food is our fuel and eating is non-negotiable. We simply cannot function without it.
I know what you’re thinking: we get that food is energy and we need energy. But we don’t need all types of food to function properly, right? Some foods are just not necessary, even though we enjoy them, right? Here’s where the food guilt settles in for the long haul. We are taught to eat certain foods as infrequently as possible, especially if we are assigned female. Think of the targeted ads for low-cal yogurt and “guilt-free” desserts, almost always depicting thin women. They promise us that we too can be feminine and desirable if only we substitute the foods we enjoy for 85 calories of misery.
But we have to eat, so we soothe the resulting guilt of being “bad” by only ever choosing foods that are considered “good.” At least, we do so in theory. In practice, we obsess over the “bad” foods to the point where allowing ourselves to eat a single bite sends us into an uncontrolled spiral of eating past the point of fullness and feeling horrible about it. It has nothing to do with so-called “willpower;” our bodies are hardwired to make us crave the things we deny ourselves. Those studies supposedly proving the addictive effects of sugar in mice? They only found that effect when the mice were deprived of food. The mice that were fed normally had no interest in bingeing on sugar. Guilt leads to deprivation, which leads to bingeing, which leads to guilt…you get the point.
Those feelings of guilt are not necessary, nor are they productive. People who feel no guilt about eating certain foods do not feel out of control around those foods—quite the opposite. The less guilt we feel, the more freedom we have to decide what and how much we eat. Really. By relinquishing the reigns and letting our bodies decide what they want, we take away the power of food guilt to poorly make those decisions for us.
Food is important, but it is not the most important thing in our lives. Obsessing over food and feeling guilty about what we eat takes up valuable brain space that could be used for more productive endeavors. Food guilt does not actually contribute to our health, but rather impedes our happiness.
So, thank you, random middle-aged lady in Erb’s, for reminding me just how far I have come since the days of obsessing over my food. And to those of you who aren’t there yet: I hope to see you soon. Life is better here…we have cookies.