According to research, it could be. One study found that feeling bad about what we’re eating causes our brain to transmit negative signals. The result? A slower metabolic rate and digestion, and an increase in calories being stored as fat rather than burnt for energy. Similarly, other studies have shown that guilt can lead to stress and depression.
That can manifest in physical symptoms such as headaches, a decreased immune system and a lack of motivation. One expert believes that guilt is a “destroyer of emotional energy”, leaving you feeling “immobilised”.
Psychologist Dr Marny Lishman agrees. She says that guilt can affect our ability to think straight, problem-solve and make the right decisions. It also inhibits relaxation and creativity.
“I think that health-related guilt is fuelled by society’s expectations about what’s good or bad for us,” says Dr Lishman.
“The problem with this guilt is that it can cause us to increase our unhealthy behaviours to cope with negative emotions. We can quickly get ourselves into an unhealthy spiral.” So, how do we avoid the guilt trap to accomplish a healthy balance?
We all carry a certain amount of guilt baggage. There’s the “I’m not spending enough time with my kids” suitcase, the “I should have put in more hours at work” hold-all and the “I shouldn’t have said no to that invite” handbag. And then, there’s all the lifestyle guilt we lug around too.
If you’re suffering from… food guilt
Society’s ingrained labelling of “good” and “bad” foods can leave a nasty taste in our mouths. “Labelling foods sometimes translates to people feeling guilty if they eat certain things,” says dietitian Natasha Murray.
“Control of willpower around food and intake has also been seen as positive, so if someone can’t ‘resist’ they feel bad for that too.” Natasha notes that food guilt is generally associated with overeating, not sticking to a diet or eating foods referred to as “guilty pleasures”. This reinforces the idea that these foods “shouldn’t be enjoyed”.
This can lead to an all-or-nothing mentality. We feel guilty or a failure for eating one chocolate, so we eat the whole box – sound familiar? This guilt can also impact on other lifestyle behaviours. We may not enjoy physical activity but because we’ve eaten “the wrong thing”, we may start exercising to compensate.
“There’s a physiological need for us to eat a variety of foods, so the body and brain can work properly,” says Natasha. “If we restrict or ban a certain food, that food becomes more desirable and can lead to overeating when the craving or desire becomes too much.”
To avoid and overcome these feelings, Natasha recommends practising mindful eating. This means not viewing food as bad or good, but instead tuning in to your body’s hunger signals and cues to learn what you need. She also suggests reducing distractions when eating, so the experience has your full attention.
“If you feel like having chocolate, have [some],” she says. “Enjoy your food and stop eating when you’re satisfied or full. If you feel as though you’ve overeaten, that’s okay. Acknowledge it and move on.”
If you’re suffering from… alcohol guilt
It’s common to feel guilty about overindulging or falling off the sobriety wagon. We’ve all done things after a drink that we’d rather forget. But, as well as increasing the likelihood of risk-taking behaviour, alcohol is linked to many health issues. These include increased cancer risk, diabetes, weight gain and negative impact on heart health.
Knowing this can perpetuate our guilt, but sometimes we numb that guilt by drinking more or overcompensating in other ways. Both are detrimental to our health.
“A hangover from drinking often leads to poorer food choices and less physical activity the following day,” says Natasha. “Alcohol can have a high-calorie count, so if people are focused on counting calories, this can lead to compensative behaviours, [such as] reducing food intake or increased exercise.”
The best way to avoid alcohol guilt is by sticking to the health recommendations of no more than two standard drinks a day for adults and no more than five standard drinks in one sitting. Natasha suggests safer drinking strategies such as choosing lower-alcohol options, alternating alcoholic drinks with water, choosing diluted drinks such as wine spritzers, not “buying rounds” and taking the time to enjoy the drink.
Enjoy your food and stop eating when you feel satisfied or full. If you’ve overeaten, that’s okay. Move on.
If you’re suffering from… exercise guilt
According to fitness specialist Jen Dugard, when it comes to exercise, a layer of judgment is the icing on the guilt cake. “We think about what we ‘should’ have done; when we don’t meet that expectation, we beat ourselves up about it regardless of the reason,” she says.
We feel guilty if we don’t exercise after eating something we believe needs to be ‘worked off’. We feel guilty if we’ve set exercise goals and miss the workouts.
“Negative self-talk and self-judgment as a result of guilt are huge,” says Jen. “It has the potential to put someone off the right track or on a downward spiral with their exercise, which can be hard to come back from.” Jen notes that we all need to remember we’re human, and we all have off days and hiccups in our health and exercise journeys.
“I see true strength in being able to acknowledge where we are right now and understand that something might not have gone to plan,” she explains. “We should allow ourselves to feel guilty at that moment, and then pick up where we left off the next time we’re due to exercise. Missing one workout doesn’t mean you’re going to miss them all and it doesn’t mean you should give up or give yourself a hard time.”
If you’re suffering from… relaxation guilt
Sat down for a rest and felt immediately guilty? You’re not alone. Dr Lishman says our busy world is to blame. “There’s always something we can be doing, and society tells us that ‘relaxing’ should only be done when everything else is,” says Dr Lishman. “Too much relaxation is considered ‘lazy’.” This perception conditions us to be constantly achieving.
As a result, we’re stressed, anxious and burnt out. We become more susceptible to sickness, increased weight gain and fatigue, and are more likely to adopt unhealthy coping behaviours. Dr Lishman says that it’s vital to be proactive in taking the time to relax.
“Schedule blocks of time every day where you can sit and be. Sit in the uncomfortableness of being in the moment, watch how your body and mind want to keep moving, but don’t give in to it.”
As you learn to relax, accept and realise that it’s crucial for your health. “Whether it’s a massage, meditating, or simply a walk, relaxation time is a chance for you to reset, recharge and rejuvenate,” says Dr Lishman. “The more you do it, the easier it becomes and the less guilt you will feel.”