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Eat Without Guilt: Revisiting Your Relationship With Food

red and yellow neon sign that says "eat what makes you happy"

I’ve always felt uncomfortable with “healthy eating” and “clean eating” trends and could never explain why. Then I started listening to podcasts about Health At Every Size (HAES), intuitive eating, fatphobia, and it became clear. The diet industry has caught on to the fact that mainstream culture now rejects “diets.” So in true capitalist fashion, the industry rebranded itself. Instead of selling us diets, it’s selling us the ideas of “clean eating,” “health,” and “detoxing.” We are still living in a diet culture, only disguised under different terminology, under the guise of being “healthy.”

What does it really mean to eat healthy?

When we think of healthy eating, a lot of different things come to mind. Fresh produce, maybe even organic. Low carbs. Low sugar. Lots of greens. Limiting processed foods, watching out for trans fat. Cooking at home as opposed to going out. Baking or steaming things instead of frying them. Not eating too close to bedtime. And lots and lots more rules about what to eat and how to eat it.

I’m not a nutritionist, so I’m not going to make a value statement on what food is “good” or “bad” for you. But I am going to talk about the ways we attach moral value to our food and our eating habits. Because it’s pretty messed up.

If your eating and exercise habits are led by guilt, are they really healthy?

Okay, so we don’t believe in diets anymore—we’ve left them behind in the 1990s and early 2000s. But we gotta get plenty of fruits and vegetables. We gotta get lots of protein and some carbs (the “good” kind) so we don’t crave so much. Desserts are fine, indulgences are fine, but not too often and remember to work it off after. Sound familiar?

If you’ve ever felt guilty or horrible about yourself after having cheesecake for dessert, are you really eating healthy? Likewise, if you’ve ever forced yourself to exercise out of guilt after eating fried food, is that healthy too?

Health is more than just what you eat and how much you move your body.

How healthy are you if you’re forcing yourself to do things you don’t enjoy? If you’re consumed with guilt over something as mundane as food? I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with watching what you eat or getting exercise. But the idea that that is the definition of healthy, that anyone who doesn’t conform is unhealthy, is absurd.

Yes, there’s physical health. But there’s also mental, emotional, and social health, and probably other aspects of health I’m not even aware of. If you’re forcing yourself into strict “healthy food” criteria that you don’t really love, what does that do for your mental health? Or if you shame yourself for “giving in to your cravings”? Likewise, what if these rules about food affect your relationships with the people in your life?

What if we gave ourselves permission to eat whatever the hell we wanted, without guilt or shame?

Everything is on the table. Sundaes, fried chicken, condensed milk on shaved ice, Hot Cheetos, milkshakes, all of it. What would your life be like if you allowed yourself to eat anything you wanted, with no rules or restrictions?

Sure, lots of us allow ourselves to “indulge”—but this is often followed by some guilt or obligatory exercise afterward. The concept of “indulgence” is what I’m getting after. I’m talking about a world where nothing is considered an indulgence because everything is fair game.

What if we didn’t impose these rules on ourselves? What if we can say, I’m going to eat Popeye’s for dinner, and that’s that? I’m not going to work it off after, and I’m not going to chastise myself after. I’m just going to treat it like a normal meal, because it is. And what if that was how you lived your life everyday?

Some might say this is a slippery slope into poor nutrition, one that can lead to health consequences down the road. Sure, I didn’t study nutrition, I wouldn’t know. But I do know how much it sucks to see certain foods (the “bad” ones) as “off limits,” and how much more it makes you crave them. And I know how much it sucks to “give in” to a craving and then have to force myself to exercise afterward to “make up for it.” I don’t want that to be my relationship with food.

I’d rather feel good about myself and enjoy what I eat than worry about all the “healthy eating” rules I’m supposed to follow.

I wrote a post a couple of weeks ago about body neutrality, and how the journey to accepting your body is a tough one. How can we accept our bodies if we’re wracked with guilt over what we eat?

Let’s talk about language for a bit. “Clean eating” doesn’t really have a definition, but we know what it looks like. Avocados, kale, black beans, fresh beets, all those colorful well-plated Instagram posts with little sauce or seasoning. But if I’m having fettuccine alfredo or green curry, does that make my food “dirty eating”? Words like “clean” attach a moral value to the food—that that type of food is inherently better.

And what about “junk food”? So many times I’ve eaten a bag of chips feeling like I was putting trash in my body. I’m not saying high-sodium, processed foods are good for you. But the language we use to describe what we eat matters. It affects how we feel about our food and about ourselves after eating it. And just as important, it affects how we feel about our bodies.

How do we get to a place where food isn’t that big of a deal?

For me, that’s the goal. Sure, I want to enjoy food. But I want to be able to enjoy it without worrying about sugar content, sodium level, or how much exercise I’ll “have to do” after. I don’t want to have the scarcity mindset of “I had cake yesterday, so I can’t have it again today.”

I want to get to a place where all food is so mentally available to me that there’s no mystique or thrill anymore. Some people call this “food neutrality”—that’s what I want. And it doesn’t mean I won’t get excited for birthday cakes or my mom’s bamboo shoot curry, because I do. It just means I’ll also be okay with boring meals, eating whatever’s available, and not structuring my life around food.

I think some people worry that without all these food rules, you’re just going to eat pizza and hot dogs all the time. And that’s not true. Because if you pay attention to how the food makes you feel, you’ll know what works for you and what doesn’t. I love milkshakes, but they make me thirsty, so I don’t crave them all the time. Eating intuitively means I’ll have them when I want them, and I’ll ignore them when I don’t. And if I eat something that makes me feel not so great after, I can consider it a lesson learned without punishing myself for it.

Wellness means a lot of things for a lot of people. For me, it means acknowledging what I want to eat—physically, mentally, and emotionally—and letting myself have it, guilt-free.

Sometimes I’m hungry and I want a nice, hot meal. Other times I’m sad and I want a pint of ice cream. Both are things I want, and one is not more valid or morally right than the other. Emotional eating gets a lot of flack, but why? The very existence of “comfort foods” confirms that we attach feelings to what we eat.

We eat certain things to celebrate, and we eat certain things to soothe us when we’re sad. When I miss my grandma, I fry up the pork ribs she makes for me every time I visit her. When was living in DC and missed Thailand, I trekked out to Wheaton to have my favorite Thai dish. And when I’m sad, I grab a Ben and Jerry’s from the fridge and go to town.

For the sake of my mental and emotional health, I’m going to become a more intuitive eater. I’m going to respect what I want, and I’m going to stop attaching a moral value to the food I put in my body—because all that’s done is make me feel like crap. And there are more worthwhile things to do in my life than feel bad about the food I choose to eat.

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