Have you ever noticed a food advertised as “guilt-free” and wondered what it was all about? It likely meant it had less sugar or fat than the original recipe, so you should feel less guilty about eating it.
Wait. What? Guilty about eating food? Guilt is defined as “a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some crime or offense.” Have we really come to a point that eating something we enjoy makes us feel like we’ve committed a crime? It should never be that way.
But that’s our food reality these days. Food marketers freely use words like “guilt” and “sin” and “cheat” in the context of food, so what we eat is wrapped up in who we are and the choices we make. We judge food as being either good or bad, and then judge ourselves based on what we choose to eat. If we enjoy salad, we are good, but if we indulge in ice cream, we are bad . . . unless it’s guilt-free ice cream, of course. Doesn’t this sound absurd?
It’s time to remove food from the scales of judgment, and remember that food is fuel for your body, and nothing more. Maybe you’d feel guilty for stealing food from a store, but for eating cake? Ridiculous.
If junk foods are “bad,” it’s human nature to try to make them good so we can continue to enjoy them without remorse. That’s where the whole guilt-free movement comes from — it’s supposed to give us permission to indulge. But it’s based on lies. The reality is that no magic wand can turn sugar and trans fat into health food, and it shouldn’t have to. It’s okay to have a treat once in a while.
Still, food manufacturers and marketers rely on these tricks to sell guilt-free foods:
•Making “organic” junk food: Somehow, this term adds an underserved health halo to foods. Organic is a method of farming, not a health claim, and those cookies or chips are still high in sugar, salt or fat.
•Marketing “low-glycemic” sweeteners that are “high in trace minerals:” Coconut sugar, agave, brown rice syrup — it doesn’t matter what sugar is called; consuming too much is unhealthy. And you’d have to ingest cups of it to get any substantial amount of minerals anyway.
•Selling breakfast cookies: Have you seen these? The recipe starts with the usual fat, flour and sugar, but includes some “nutritious” ingredients like oats or flax to justify cookies as a morning meal. Give me a break!
•Promoting smoothies: Ah, milkshakes in disguise. When you take eight cups of fruit and add it to a blender, you get a sugary drink that could be served in an ice cream parlor. The same is true for fancy fruit juice, too.
Don’t fall for these ploys. If you want to enjoy these foods, do so with pleasure. But don’t be fooled into thinking they are healthful because of how they are promoted.
Making small changes to ultra-processed foods does not turn them into health foods. The cop-outs that justify eating junk food are unnecessary, and only serve to block us from the more important reality: Food should never be associated with guilt, sin and trickery. That’s the real problem here.
Eating well involves truth and honesty. If we want to eat cookies for breakfast, we can go ahead and enjoy them. But we need to be honest about what we’re eating and why. Our worth does not depend on what we choose to eat. Coming to that conclusion — often with the help of a dietitian and therapist — can help us enjoy food again.
Rather than chastising ourselves for eating ice cream, we need to congratulate ourselves for enjoying it mindfully. We need to banish the inner voices that shame us for enjoying food and replace the negative thoughts with positive ones. That will help us feel good about ourselves and our food choices, which boosts self-worth and perpetuates a positive cycle of making better choices. The goal: Get to a point where we nourish the body with nutritious food and allow treats in moderation, without any guilt or trickery.
In a study that examined whether people perceive eating chocolate cake with “guilt” or “celebration,” researchers found that people who associated the cake with guilt were less successful at losing weight, didn’t have stronger intentions to eat healthfully, and had less control over their eating habits.
Guilt doesn’t work as a motivator for healthy eating — so why bother? It just makes us feel bad. Remind yourself that you do not need to succumb to the marketing ploy of “guilt-free food.” Eating is pleasure and is part of everyday life. And if you forget that, repeat these words: “I don’t have to feel guilty, because I haven’t done anything wrong.”
Registered dietitian Cara Rosenbloom is president of Words to Eat By, a nutrition communications company specializing in writing, nutrition education and recipe development. She is the co-author of “Nourish: Whole Food Recipes Featuring Seeds, Nuts and Beans.”