5 Ways to Stop Emotional Eating and Banish Food Guilt for Good

Stop labeling food as good or bad, because it can trigger a vicious cycle of emotional eating and shame

Our relationship to food can be complicated and tacking on value judgments like good and bad can actually sabotage your attempts at healthy eating. If you want to lose weight -- or just maintain your current weight -- it's time to redefine you how you see food.

First, assess how you feel about your eating habits. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you feel guilty when you eat a death-by-chocolate dessert, anything top with cheese or cream? Do you consider particular foods decadent or indulgent?
  • Do you tend to label foods as good or bad? Do you label your eating behavior as good or bad?
  • Do you sometimes tell yourself that you deserve or have earned a food you normally consider off-limits?
  • Do you judge yourself after eating sweets or comfort foods or snacking for emotional reasons?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you’re intimately familiar with food guilt -- and you’re in good company. A lot of women put themselves through the emotional ringer with rules about what's okay to eat and make mental list of good foods, bad foods, when they deserve to splurge and so on. But none of the rules will help you consume less food, according to new research from the Netherlands. In fact, the only thing that women who obsess about what they should or shouldn’t eat get are more guilty feelings.

The problem is, berating yourself or making yourself feel ashamed of your food selections can come back to bite you. “This is a tremendous form of self-generated stress, and it can have a harmful impact on your mind, your body, and your social life,” says Sandra Haber, Ph.D., a psychologist in New York City who specializes in eating-related issues. Some women will stop going out with friends in order to avoid food guilt. These feelings can trigger a vicious cycle: the guilt leads to overeating which leads to guilt and so on.

But you can take steps to banish food guilt and establish a healthier relationship to food and your body. Here’s how:

Learn a second language

At its core, food guilt involves “an internal conversation that’s very negative and makes you feel bad about yourself,” Haber says. The solution: “Train yourself to learn a second language that’s gentler when it comes to your behavior,” she says. Stop telling yourself that you’re a good or bad person or that you’re naughty or slothful based on what you eat. It’s healthier to acknowledge that you may have overeaten and try to figure out what triggered it -- whether it was stress, frustration or sadness -- instead of turning back to food as a way of coping with the overeating!

Remove your labels

There’s no such thing as an inherently good or bad food. “Food is not bad unless it’s toxic, as in poisonous, or spoiled,” says Janet R. Laubgross, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist specializing in weight management in Fairfax, Va. So ditch the labeling habit. All foods have their place in a healthy diet as long as they’re eaten in the moderation and in their serving sizes. It’s a matter of changing your mindset, Laubgross says.

Strive for balance

We make dozens of decisions about food every day, says Edward Abramson, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Lafayette, Calif.., so keep the long-range view in mind. “If you overindulge, look forward to making healthier choices at the next meal,” advises Laubgross author of Emotional Eating. She uses this analogy: “We all go out and splurge on things financially from time to time and then we tighten up on other purchases.” You can do the same with your eating habits.

Question the origins of your guilt

We weren’t born feeling guilty about eating -- it came from a variety of sources including your parents, peers and even advertisements. “If you can help yourself separate from the source -- if you can recognize that it’s your mother talking or the obnoxious commercial you saw on TV -- it puts some distance between you and the judgment,” Abramson says. When you realize that it’s coming from external sources, you can choose to ignore it which naturally helps the guilt dissipate.

Learn to truly enjoy your indulgences

“Plan for your favorite foods and figure out how you can include a limited amount so you won’t feel guilty,” Abramson says. That might mean buying boxes of ice cream sandwiches or individual cones instead of large cartons of ice cream and enjoying a treat when you’re not distracted. “Take small bites, savor each one and notice the sensations,” Abramson advises. This way, you’ll get more satisfaction out of fewer bites and not have to deal with the guilt because you gave yourself permission to enjoy it.

Got a sweet tooth? Too busy to exercise or just hate working out? Whatever your hang-up, our four-week program will help you blast through your hurdles so you can lose weight and keep it off this year.

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