Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Guilt -- good thing or not where eating's concerned

Sometimes I wonder if guilt is a good thing or bad thing with trying to improve eating. I know for habitual dieters (focused on weight loss) that if they "mess up" with their diet, the guilt usually doesn't promote better focus and efforts on the diet. It causes discouragement, which leads to more overeating and poor food choices.

In my own experience, I don't know that I've ever thought, "I feel so bad for eating ______, that I'll do better tomorrow." It's more of a conscious decision that I got off track and need to get back on -- no guilt involved. If I do beat myself up about getting off-track (which I have many times), it usually just gets me down and I'm not motivated to improve as much.

I'm not sure why this is the case with eating because with other forms of guilt can be fruitful and helpful in promoting positive change. I remember lying about something when my oldest girls were little. I questioned it at the time, but justified my behavior. When I got home, I knew it was wrong, but shook it off. I didn't want to feel bad about it. It was easier to rationalize and try to forget it. When I got on my knees to pray, the sure knowledge that this was wrong flooded over me. I felt guilty and knew I had to correct the situation. So I went back to the person and admitted the truth. I felt so much better. The guilt had helped me to correct the situation and to improve myself in some small way.

If guilt just festers without promoting change though or if the guilt is improperly directed (I see my kids do this, feeling awful that they've spilled some juice or something that really doesn't matter), then it can just be disruptive to our lives and even damaging.

I'm thinking that what happens with eating is that (like I mentioned before), the guilt either overwhelms and brings the person into an emotional state that leads to wanting comfort through food. Or the person just wants to shut off the guilt and resort to black & white thinking, "If I messed up here, I'll just have some of that too while I'm at it. I'll get back on track after the weekend (vacation, holiday, etc.)" There's also the physiological aspect that putting unhealthy foods into our bodies doesn't help us think as clearly when it comes to the next choice of what to eat. I know for me if I start eating refined sugar or flour (especially breads and cookies), my body stops desiring whole foods and wants more, more, and more. There's no room for any other thoughts. I wouldn't feel guilty about that until late that night or a day or two later. I'd have to get the "sugar rush" out of my system first.

When I used to read Marilu Henner's Total Health Makeover books (her books were the first to introduce me to eliminating dairy), that one of her 10 steps is actually about the opposite of guilt. It's Gusto! She says that if you end up eating something not as healthy, to not feel guilty about. Her idea is that if you might as well enjoy it then get back to your eating plan afterward. If you feel such guilt, it will interfere with your digestion, your state of being, and will make you less likely to get back on track later on. This isn't a free pass to get off-track all the time, but is healthy advice for not spiraling down and getting farther away from healthy eating habits instead of continuing to improve.

I'd love to hear from any of your experiences because I'm still pondering this. It would be interesting to hear if any of you do actually benefit from guilt when it comes to poor eating choices.

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