Guilty as Charged: The Sin of Eating In a Food Shaming Culture

Hello, everyone! I’ve been falling into the trap of re-reading books that I’ve already read and re-watching movies that I’ve already watched, because after more than a year of trying to consume mostly new media, I’m tired out and my brain needs a break. Consequently, I’ve been lacking inspiration in terms of what to post about, so I thought I’d post one of my college papers from back in 2019. With the search for wellness seemingly taking over our collective consciousness, the topic of food guilt seems more relevant than ever.

Good Vibes GIF by Schitt's Creek

It was during the hectic chaos of the Friday lunch rush at Panera Bread that I started to notice the pattern. With each woman who approached my register, we began an identical song-and-dance. They would order a salad and a diet soda, and when I would offer them a cookie for 99 cents, the struggle would begin. Sometimes they would glance longingly at the array of enticing treats, and other times,  they would dismiss it with a peremptory glance. Their answers varied in syntax, but were almost identical in theme. “I want to, but I can’t,” they might say, laughing apologetically. Another variant: “I’m trying to be good,” followed by a sigh. And my personal favorite: “If I eat that, I won’t be able to be bad later.” The behaviors these women exhibited are examples of food guilt, and if you’re a female human living in the United States, you’ve most likely experienced it, too.

Food guilt is the ridiculous moralizing of consumption, the act of turning a piece of chocolate cake into a “bad” food and a quinoa salad into a “good” food. Like dieting, which restricts food into acceptable and non-acceptable groups, food guilt turns eating into a minefield of virtue and sin. In order to remain virtuous, one must eat what society deems to be “good” foods, or risk the sinful taint of unhealthiness. Food guilt pervades all aspects of society, from magazines that advertise “guilt free cookies,” to blogs that promote “clean eating,” to companies that sell appetite suppressant lollipops. Although men do experience food guilt, they aren’t subject to the intense pressure of ad campaigns and magazines that target women with unhealthy shaming behaviors cloaked in the glow of wellness culture and “fitspo.” And while America does struggle with an unprecedented rate of obesity and a market saturated with fatty, sugary food products, food guilt does not help people eat better, nor does it make them engage in healthier lifestyles. In fact, a lifetime of food shaming media pressure and the societal idealization of “fit” female bodies creates obsessive and guilty eating behavior in women, which can lead to negative body image and eating disorders. 

Food guilt is a complex emotion that occurs when we associate the consumption of certain foods with shame. Although the individual triggers for food guilt can vary from person to person, a study on food guilt in the Journal of Psychology and Health found that it most often occurs when a person believes that the consumption of a certain food causes “some personal goal or standard [to become] breached” (Kuijer, Boyce, & Marshall 2014). This may lead to better temptation strategies, but more often, food guilt leads to less successful avoidance of temptation (Kuijer et al, 2014). This particular study by Kuijer, Boyce, and Marshall (2014) asked a group of individuals to associate chocolate cake, a classic temptation food, with either feelings of guilt or celebration, and concluded that those who linked chocolate cake with guilt “reported lower levels of perceived behavioural control over eating…and unhealthier current eating behaviours compared to individuals associating chocolate cake with celebration.” Surprisingly, the researchers also found that those who felt guilty after eating chocolate cake were not more likely than the opposing group to consider healthy eating important. Given that chocolate cake has limited nutritional value, it makes sense that eating it could leave one feeling guilty, but Kuijer et al’s study demonstrates that food guilt has little motivational value in influencing people to choose something healthier, instead leaving the eater with feelings of shame and helplessness. 

A similar study in Appetite narrowed the lens of this behavior to focus on food guilt in female college students. Researcher Ingrid Steenhuis (2009) asked participants to keep track of occurrences of food guilt in a one-week food journal, where she discovered that the majority of the sample experienced regular feelings of food guilt, most often occurring after eating snacks, eating between meal-times, or eating out with friends. Additionally, the participants reported the highest feelings of food guilt when eating candy or ice cream (Steenhuis 2009). Similar to the chocolate cake study, Steenhuis’ study concluded that food guilt can be related to the perceived healthiness of a food item, as both participants felt the most guilty eating a “tempting” food item like candy or cake (Steenhuis 2009). Unlike the other study, Steenhuis’ findings give context to food guilt, demonstrating that the majority of surveyed college women experienced regular feelings of food guilt, even when in positive socialization experiences. Food guilt in women is such a common occurrence that SHAPE magazine published an article about the subject  titled “The Sad Trend That’s Ruining Our Relationship With Food,” detailing author Dominique Astorino’s own food guilt, as well as the behavior she had observed in other women. She asks the reader to “raise [their] hand if [they’ve] ever made [themselves] feel bad about a food choice,” and to “raise [their] hand again if [they’ve] justified what [they] were eating to someone else” (Astorino, 2017). Her question exposes the universality of food guilt in her female audience, pushing them to stir up their own shameful experiences. The SHAPE article also demonstrates how food guilt can pop up in a variety of eating situations, even ones that the majority of us would consider to be healthy. Astorino recalls her own experiences of feeling guilty after eating “gluten free banana almond butter toast” because it was laden with carbs, and another time after consuming an acai berry bowl for breakfast because it didn’t contain enough protein (Astorino 2017). If a fitness writer whose lifestyle is dedicated to healthy eating is experiencing food guilt, then it’s clear that food guilt occurs in all women, not only the ones eating traditionally unhealthy diets. 

If food guilt plagues women of varying ages and lifestyles, there must be an underlying cause. Enter social media and advertising with a barrage of food-shaming products and impossibly fit celebrities to infect food guilt into even the most confident of eaters. The process of turning eating into an act of shame is best exhibited in an advertisement posted on Instagram by celebrity Kim Kardashian. In the ad, Kardashian promotes a line of appetite suppressant lollipops that the company Flat Tummy Co. describes on its site as a way “to maximise satiety” and “ to help control food intake, cravings, and weight”  (Oppenheim, 2018). The subtext of the advertisement and the product itself is that women, who are the lollipop’s target audience, should use the lollipop to minimize their hunger in order to stay thin, essentially shaming them into fasting. This product not only promotes food guilt by encouraging women to “#suckit” rather than eat, but it also emphasizes food intake and weight as elements to be monitored and controlled by women (Oppenheim, 2018).

Pointing out the absurdity of such a product, actress Jameela Jamil tweeted a satirical video of herself experiencing digestional issues to illustrate that products like appetite suppressant lollipops act as laxatives and should not be substituted for meals (JameelaJamil, 2017). Jamil captioned the tweet “if celebs and influencers were actually honest with us about some of these diet/detox products,” to underline that celebrities purposefully present a false image of a product to mask its more unseemly aspects (JameelaJamil, 2017). To see further evidence of food guilt’s twisted relationship with the media, look no further than nutrition writer Alex Van Buren’s article in Health Magazine, a magazine devoted to nutrition and fitness, called “Why We Need to Stop Talking About Food and Guilt,” (Van Buren, 2018). In the article Van Buren discusses how “massive national publications” used headlines with the words “guiltless food” or “guilt free diet,” and how she noticed the effects of this food-shaming tactic in the food guilt behaviors practiced by everyday women (Van Buren, 2018). She recalls meeting two women who “were suffused with guilt about food and their bodies” and who “wished they didn’t try to bond with other women over guilt, but that it was a social instinct” (Van Buren, 2018). By simply placing the word “guilt” in an article about food, the reader is forced to link the two, resulting in the behavior that Van Buren observed. According to registered dietician Christy Harrison, “not everybody who reads that is going to be negatively impacted, [but] in terms of clinical research on people with eating disorders and disordered eating, the demonization of some foods and the elevation of others is a big part of the picture of eating disorders.” (Van Buren, 2018). Considering that celebrities like Kim Kardashian and magazines like Health have such large, primarily female audiences, Harrison’s statement creates a veritable link between food-shaming media and food guilt in women. 

This process is intensified even more when wellness culture is added to the equation. Best described as food-shaming made marketable, wellness culture is an industry centered around clean-eating influencers who sell products and cook-books that promote their “clean” lifestyles. Focused on “unclutter[ing] our diets and going back to basics,” wellness culture turns healthy eating into uber-conscious eating by cutting out “toxic” foods (like anything with gluten) and replacing it with “clean” foods (like zoodles, avocados, and coconut flour) (Tandoh, 2016).

There’s no denying that Americans need to rethink how we consume food. The CDC reports that approximately 93 million Americans were obese in 2016, or about 39 percent of the population (Adult obesity facts, 2018). Nor can we deny that obesity causes a myriad of damaging health problems, including “heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer” (Adult obesity facts, 2018). Combatting the harmful consequences of obesity, however, are not as easy as wellness culture makes it out to be. Dietary studies underpin the basic tenet of wellness culture, namely that a diet high in fat and oil leads to a higher BMI, while a diet composed of mostly fruit, vegetables, and grains leads to a lower BMI (Mela, 2012). It only follows that wellness culture would emphasize diets that focus on “clean” food like fruits and vegetables and stay away from the “toxic” fats and oils that the CDC correlates with obesity. However, in his study in Obesity, researcher David Mela found that restrictive approaches to eating, such as “strict rules for food avoidance…[made] individuals more prone to disinhibited eating” (Mela, 2012). In other words, by rigidly prescribing what foods one can and cannot eat to be “healthy,” the inflexible, moralizing nature of wellness culture shames people who are already at risk for obesity for failing at a diet that they would never be able to succeed at in the first place.

As for those who do have the willpower to succeed in a “clean” eating diet, the effects can be even more devastating. The power of wellness culture lies in its ability to label some foods as “good” and others as “bad,” giving them the same saintly and sinful qualities as human actions. Thus for those who zealously ascribe to the wellness diet, fear of lapsing can cause obsessive and destructive behaviors, and in some cases, eating disorders. Take the case of Christina Rice, a UCLA student whose obsession with “clean” eating drove her to orthorexia. Rice describes orthorexia as “an obsession with being healthy” and recounts how she once thought of “certain foods as pure and clean” and believed that other foods would make her “dirty” (Delish, 2015). At one point during her orthorexia, Rice weighed 73 pounds and a doctor warned her that if she didn’t return to normal eating habits, she could be killed by a heart attack (Delish, 2015). Her case demonstrates the dangerous effects that long term food shaming can have on one’s self esteem and on the development of eating disorders. Even though her experience may seem unique, a 2008 survey by the UNC School of Medicine and SELF Magazine reported that 75 percent of American women between the ages of 25 and 45 experience “unhealthy thoughts, feelings or behaviors related to food or their bodies” (Survey finds disordered eating, 2008). Considering the surge of wellness culture’s popularity in the ensuing decade, it’s probable that the intense pressure has made even more women regard eating in a more unhealthy and obsessive way. 

To some, wellness culture may seem like a positive advancement towards a healthier diet in the United States, and the food guilt it produces a necessary tool for motivation. But to me, food guilt is just another way of pressuring women into killing themselves to be thin. I’ve dealt with my own food guilt issues since adolescence: skipping meals, counting calories, and belittling myself for weakness when I caved and ate something “bad.” It never made me thinner, but it did chip away at my self esteem until piece by piece, I saw eating as less of a pleasure and more as a method of control. Luckily, I never crossed the line into orthorexia, but that doesn’t mean I came away unscathed. Even now, I still find myself mentally tallying how long I can go between meals, and yelling at myself for picking chips over a salad. This behavior is not motivational, and it’s not healthy. Forget devil’s food cake and onion rings and potato chips; the most toxic item in America’s diet is food guilt. 

References

Adult obesity facts. (13 August, 2018). Retrieved from 

https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html

Astorino, Dominique Michelle (2017, Feb. 17). The sad trend that’s ruining our relationship with 

food. Shape Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.shape.com/healthy-eating/

diet-tips/sad-trend-thats-ruining-our-relationship-food

Delish. One blogger’s obsession with clean eating nearly killed her. (2018, Feb. 5) [Video file].

Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=139&v=-Xsfy

JpjDZY

JameelaJamil (2018, Nov. 27). “If celebs and influencers were actually honest with us

About some of these diet/detox products” [Tweet]. Retrieved from

https://www.fastcompany.com/90273742/this-good-place-star-is-expertly-trolling

Celebrity-instagram-influencers

Kuijer, Roleine G., Boyce, Jessica A., & Marshall, Emma M. (2014). Associating a prototypical

forbidden food item with guilt or celebration: Relationships with indicators of (un)healthy

eating and the moderating role of stress and depressive symptoms. Psychology and Health,

30, 203-17. https://doi.org/10.1080/08870446.2014.960414

Mela, David J. (2012). Determinants of food choice: Relationships with obesity and weight control

Obesity 9(S11), 249S-255S. Retrieved from 

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1038/oby.2001.127

Oppenheim, M. (2018, May 16). Kim Kardashian criticized for promoting ‘appetite 

suppressant lollipops.’  The Independent. Retrieved from

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/kim-kardashian-

Lollipops-appetite-suppressant-diet-flat-tummy-co-outrate-a8353831.html

Steenhuis, I. (2009). Guilty or not? Feelings of guilt about food among college women. 

Appetite52(2), 531-534. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science

article/pii/S0195666308006235?via%3Dihu

Tandoh, R. (2016, May 13). The unhealthy truth behind ‘wellness’ and ‘clean eating.’ VICE

Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/jm5nvp/ruby-

Tandoh-eat-clean-wellness

Van Buren, A. (2018, April 12). Why we need to stop talking about food and guilt. Retrieved

from https://www.health.com/food/food-guilt

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