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Experiencing pangs of guilt after eating is rampant among health-conscious women. An expert explains where it comes from, and how to banish it.

food guilt

It’s one thing when you’re 12 and experience “Mom’s-gonna-kill-me” guilt for sneaking cookies. It’s another when you have food guilt as a grown-up.

From refilling your wine glass to digging into a pint of Ben and Jerry’s after a stressful day, post-dining guilt can be seriously damaging to your psyche, and it’s rampant among health-conscious women.

“It happens when I’ve been very good and diligent, and I eat something I know I shouldn’t be, “ says Kristy A., a 30-year-old New Yorker. “Afterwards, I’m really upset with myself, and I feel like I’ve ruined everything.”

So, why can’t we give ourselves a break?

Media messaging doesn’t help. Women’s magazine headlines are full of “guilt-free” burgers, snacks, and desserts. The underlying message is clear: If the foods in this article are guilt-free, then those others you’re eating are guilt-y.

But it’s deeper than that. “It comes from the perspective that we’re not good enough and always need to be perfect, which is inherent in our culture,” says Jeanette Bronee, the founder of the Path for Life self-nourishment center. “Making food choices becomes a performance of being good.”

So just like we want to be the best employee in the office and get that promotion, we want to prove that we’re capable of not only succeeding, but excelling, at healthy eating.

But that’s tricky, says Bronee. Many of us deny our bodies food that it really needs based on what we think is right. This can make us choose the wrong “pleasure foods,” which in turn makes us feel awful, instead of satisfied.

For example, bodies needs complex carbs, and if you live by Dr. Atkins’ recommendations, you’ll start to crave sugar. Then you’ll be more likely to reach for a junky office cupcake, which won’t satisfy and can come with an ingredient not on the label: guilt.

So, how do we stop going on food-induced guilt trips? Bronee offers three tips:

1. Don’t be so hard on yourself. First, she says, “We have to work on some of those aspects that make us so hard on ourselves.” This means accepting that we make mistakes and are not always in control of everything. And giving ourselves credit for our accomplishments—and efforts.” She’s not just talking about food; she’s talking about life.

2. Give your body what it needs. Bronee says it’s important to develop an understanding of the foods that truly nourish you. If you listen to what your body needs, and allow yourself foods that don’t always fit into what you’re told is “right,” you’ll likely stop craving the foods that induce guilt.

3. Don’t hide your Haagen Dazs! “We tend to eat treats in shame, under cover, and we don’t embrace them,” Bronee says. “Allowing yourself room to enjoy them will help avoid guilt after. If you truly feel that you deserve it, you won’t have guilt.” —Lisa Elaine Held

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