Feeling Guilty After Eating: Why It Happens and How to Stop It

When eating generates almost persistent feelings of guilt, we run the risk of entering vicious circles of discomfort that can lead to eating disorders.
Feeling Guilty After Eating: Why It Happens and How to Stop It
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 12 May, 2023

In many cases, feeling guilty after eating forms the basis of an eating disorder (ED). We’ve all experienced the feeling of “I shouldn’t really eat this because it isn’t healthy and has far too many calories”. However, despite this fact, we often do it anyway. After all, it’s usually only a one-off and even strict diets can be broken occasionally.

However, some people take eating to the extreme. In fact, instead of eating to nourish themselves, they do it to satisfy their emotions. Consequently, eating turns into compulsive (and destructive) behavior. This leads them to search for products of low nutritional quality that offer a brief release of endorphins and serotonin.

But, suddenly, they feel extremely guilty. Indeed, when the act of eating generates guilt, a dead-end dynamic is created. Negative feelings lead people to continue reinforcing this deficient and problematic eating behavior. Almost without realizing it, they fall into highly dangerous vicious circles of behavior.

Woman eating and experiencing feelings of guilt after eating

The reasons for feeling guilty after eating

Children, adolescents, and adults alike might feel guilty after eating. It’s important to understand that feeding isn’t just an act of survival. It’s not just a behavior carried out for nutritional purposes. In fact, for human beings, eating is often a form of social conduct in which cultural, educational, and even media aspects are integrated.

However, few acts as basic (and necessary) as eating are distorted to the same extent by so many of the spheres that surround us. And, feelings of guilt after eating can be motivated by multiple factors. They’re well worth knowing about.

Education and family dynamics

Family eating habits are highly conditioning processes. A study conducted by George Washington University (USA) claims that many parents feel guilty about the way they feed their children. Moreover, this feeling can be projected onto the children themselves.

Therefore, from an early age, parents may transmit to their children the need to consume only healthy products. This makes the simple fact of eating the occasional pizza or donut a punishable act. Unsurprisingly, this can instill in the child feelings of guilt from an early age.

Furthermore, they may, due to family influence, maintain unhealthy eating habits. Consequently, upon reaching adulthood, they might try to be strict and follow a healthy diet. But, occasionally, they experience the desire to consume not-so-healthy foods and when they do so, they feel guilty.

Food has meanings that go beyond nutrition

Feeling guilty after eating can also be the result of cultural influences. After all, we all know that food has meanings that transcend nutrition. For example, we view sweets, cakes, and chocolate as ‘bad’ and sugary soft drinks as ‘harmful’. While pizzas, hamburgers, and french fries are ‘junk food’ and hence also damaging.

We grow up with these ideas. And, while they may be true, the occasional consumption of these products isn’t harmful. It’s only the exclusive or frequent consumption of them that causes health problems.

No food is good or bad. Food is simply food. We simply need to know how to eat in a balanced way without prohibiting anything. Moderation is key.

A society that rewards thinness

Today’s cult of thinness is probably the reason behind many eating problems. Indeed, living in a world in which beauty and sculptural bodies are synonymous with success and social acceptance is enough to threaten anyone’s psychological balance.

Today, there’s an implicit canon that dictates ‘the normative body’. Many aspire to this kind of impossible figure. And, to achieve this goal they have to restrict or limit their eating. Therefore, in these cases, they don’t only experience feelings of guilt after consuming unhealthy foods.

In fact, they feel guilty after eating any food. The simple fact of eating generates discomfort. In many eating disorders, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Stress, anxiety, and feelings of guilt after eating

We don’t always eat due to physiological hunger. Emotional hunger mediates many of our eating behaviors. It does so to the point of being a channel of stress and anxiety.

For instance, many people come home after a stressful time at work craving only one thing: to eat the kinds of foods that appease their feelings of stress and anxiety. They’re looking for quick, stimulating, and rewarding foods that soothe their discomfort. However, their feelings of pleasure when consuming a bag of chips or a pizza are brief and almost ephemeral. Consequently, after a while, they feel guilty.

How to manage feelings of guilt linked to food

If you’ve been experiencing feelings of guilt associated with eating for a while, you should consult with a psychologist specialized in this area. After all, it’s extremely easy to fall prey to conditions such as compulsive eating, binge eating, bulimia, or anorexia. Moreover, living with guilt, like eating guiltily, makes you suffer. Here are some guidelines:

  • Remember that there are no good or bad foods. Everything is permissible as long as you consume it in moderation within a balanced diet.
  • Learn how to eat due to physiological hunger and not emotional hunger.
  • Enjoy your food, calmly and without rushing. Eat a varied diet, one in which you can include what you want in moderation.
  • Integrate appropriate strategies for managing your stress and anxiety into your daily life. Stop viewing food as a channel for drowning out your complicated emotions.

Finally, eating well is synonymous with living well. So, put aside those social determinisms, beauty canons, and advertising campaigns. Bear in mind that guilt is a tormenting emotion. It’s not worth being its prisoner.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.