Eating Disorder Column : ‘Guilty’ of what exactly?

When was the last time you felt guilty about something? Anything? Guilt rides around the avenues of everyday life, doesn’t it? Guilt feeds a sense of doubt in ourselves, allowing us to question our own judgements.

If you murder your neigbour’s cat with an axe, then you ought to to feel – guided by moral judgement – to feel guilty having committed such reprehensible actions. After all, you are guilty of a crime, shamed, embarrassed, and regretful. Hopefully.

But wait a minute. Guilt is a subjective proposition, arising as a result of an individual’s inherent beliefs and values. If you feel guilty, chances are this is the way society – the external world – expects you to feel.

Bingo! Not all guilt is felt rationally. In fact, much of it is not. This sense of guilt often exposes the deepest and most damaging sides of ourselves, especially when related to the consumption of food.

The pressure to feel guilty about eating certain foods generally increases the likelihood of greater food restriction in the future. Keep in mind food restriction results in the disintegration of your physical and emotional well being, and sincerely reduced ability to function and cope on a daily basis. It is not worth it. Trust me. Been there, done that, and not going back.

Food-related guilt forms the basis of most eating disorders, but it also forms the basis of much of our wider discussions surrounding food. The term ‘guilty pleasure’ springs to mind, or ‘cheat days’, or even ‘guilt free’. But is chocolate cake really a guilty pleasure? Do macaroons for breakfast make you a ‘cheater’? Should ‘natural’ sugar and ‘healthy’ fats really spare you from feeling guilty?

No, definitely not. On the contrary, the increased moralisation of food is one of the most dangerous and consequential trends in our times. It also undermines our body’s ability to self-determine it’s natural urges, the consequences of which are manifested through eating disorders.

Much of my childhood pleasure derived from food. I would always ask for seconds of everything. I will admit it, I felt guilty about eating so much food, despite acting on physical hunger. I felt greedy, and moreover, did I deserve it?

Less was more, my disorder screamed. Less ice cream meant less guilt. Less guilt means more joy. I would be exacting control over my devil’s instinct. Truth be told, my mind was simply reneging on my body’s freedom to choose what, and how much to eat. I strongly regret this irrational pattern of thinking.

I still feel guilty sometimes. This is why – as part of my recovery journey – I purchase at least one takeaway meal per week. I must convince myself that I definitely deserve the food, even the added expense. I ordered my first takeaway a few months ago, this sense of guilt pulsing through my veins.

My disorder wept as my mouth carefully muched. My thoughts directed me towards giving up, but I did not let these thoughts slip into action. I just kept firing back with fierce swallowing and gritted teeth. It sounds ridiculous, I know. But eating disorders are powerful things. Ask any sufferer.

The point is feeling guilt is normal. I feel guilty at being such a burden on my family, having wasted so much of their precious time. Rational? I certainly think so, but how about my parents? Possibly not. Indeed, guilt is often irrational, unnecessary, and rarely supported by reality.

Guilt about eating has been normalised in the age of ridiculous diet culture and body image stupidity. In reality, intuitive eating – acting upon your body’s desire for food – must always be prioritized, no matter what wider society makes of it. This is easier said than done. But the more we challenge the myths, the more we challenge ourselves to change.

We do not deserve food, we need food for survival. Good or bad aside, we must end the categorisation of food into such black and white terms, posing an indefinite threat to our physical and mental health. Chocolate for breakfast? No crime.


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Sam Gordon Webb

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July 2022
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