Eating Candy and Feeling Guilty

Today is the day after Halloween and candy leftovers abound. Are you locked in a war with yourself about eating it? Here’s how to take the power out of the candy and put it back in you, where it belongs.

The crucial shift is in your attitude. You must know on a deep level – not just intellectually, but emotionally – that you have the right to eat whatever you want. This is true no matter what your current weight. If you feel your rights are constrained by societal mandates – that others can tell you what you should or shouldn’t eat – you’ll stay stuck in a childlike mindset, either doing as you’re told or rebelling against it. Only people with the right to choose can make choices. You can’t freely choose to forego candy or eat a salad unless you understand you have the right to make either choice.

This understanding – this crucial shift in attitude – is the primary goal in Stage 1 of Normal Eating. Recognizing your right to choose won’t make all cravings go away – there’s more fueling emotional eating than just feelings of deprivation – but it will help. And understanding you have this right forms the foundation for progress in later stages.

Note that simply eating a food does not mean you know you have the right to eat it. Someone in the forum posted this recently:

To me, it seems that the goal of Stage 1 is to understand that you are allowed to eat whatever you want. Since I am struggling with bingeing right now, I think I have the “eat whatever you want” part down pat.

Actually, if you’re bingeing, it’s highly unlikely you have the “eat whatever you want part down pat." Usually people who are bingeing feel wracked with guilt about their eating and filled with self-condemnation. They don’t feel at all like they have the right to be doing what they’re doing. And the self-flagellation that goes along with bingeing tends to perpetuate the cycle.

Stage 1 of Normal Eating is not something you eat your way through, it’s something you think your way through. If you eat something and feel guilty about it, you have not not progressed in Stage 1. What’s important isn’t whether you let yourself eat a particular food, but what you say to yourself about eating it. You may actually eat it or you may not – that’s not what’s important.

The goal of Normal Eating is to stop being at war with yourself, where one part of you is pulling you one way, and another part of you is beating the crap out of yourself for it. The first step in the recovery process is to eliminate the false parent you’re rebelling against – the "shoulds" in your head. There are no "shoulds" when it comes to eating; you have the right to make whatever eating choices you want.

Your Body, Your Life

You can know intellectually that you have this right, yet find it hard to accept emotionally – especially if you’re fat. Our society can make fat people feel ashamed of eating anything at all. From someone else in the forum:

I understand the concept that I have the right to eat what I choose. I get that, and I agree with it. However, I feel guilty about EVERYTHING that I eat. Healthy food, junk food, all of it.

I have to live in a world where I am ostracized for how I look.

The solution to this may surprise you: Recognize that you have the right to be fat. It is your body, your life, and no one has the right to tell you what to do with either. This is a core boundary issue.

Now, perhaps you don’t choose to be fat. Perhaps you are fat because you are driven by compulsion and unable to make true choices. You still have the right to be fat! The goal of the Normal Eating program is to free you from compulsion so you can make choices. But one of these choices may be that you prefer eating what you want over being thin. That is a legimate choice for you to make about your life. Or you may not choose to be as large as you are now, but down the road you may decide you prefer to eat cookies and be a size 12 than eat no sweets and be a size 0. That is a legitimate choice, too, and your right. No one else has the right to tell you how much you can weigh. It’s simply none of their business.

There still may be fat bigots who ostracize you – nothing to be done about them. But at least you can stop ostracizing yourself. That will help quite a bit. Most fat people say horrible things to themselves. It’s important to monitor your self-talk and stop doing that. There is only one person whose opinion of you really matters, and that is you. If you don’t feel good about yourself as a fat person, losing weight will not fix this. In fact, it’s the reverse. You must feel good about yourself in order to give yourself the gift of a healthy body.

Some proponents of the non-diet approach say it’s okay to eat whatever you want because there is no such thing as a “fattening food”, that it’s just a matter of how much you eat. This isn’t completely correct. There are fattening foods: Nutrient-empty snacks and desserts loaded with quick-digesting carbs are fattening – not because of their calories, but because of their effect on your hormones (see my post on the real cause of obesity). Granted you won’t gain weight from one bite of a brownie, but that’s not the point.

You have the right to eat whatever you want, regardless of whether the food is fattening, because you have the right to be fat. You have the right to do whatever you want with your own body, without limitation. You even have the right to eat in a way that kills you, though you probably will choose not to do this once you reach Stage 4 and become able to make choices. The main point is this: Your right to choose what you eat is absolute. This is your body and your life.

Something to Try…

If you are feeling plagued by your leftover Halloween candy – or if you’re at war with yourself over eating any other type of food – try this novel approach:

  • Constantly tell yourself – every time you even think about eating something – that you have the right to eat whatever you want. This needs to become a refrain in your head that you repeat constantly, to counteract the constant cultural pressure in the other direction.
  • Ask yourself this very important question: Do I want to eat this right now – do I truly feel like eating it? The answer might be yes, or it might be no. Either way is fine. What’s important is that you ask yourself the question to reinforce in your mind that it is a choice.
  • If you decide to eat it, don’t scarf it down so fast that 10 seconds later it’s like it never happened. That’s guilty eating. If you’re going to eat it, enjoy it, savor it. Eat it mindfully. (And if that’s hard, check out this previous post: 5 Reasons Emotional Eaters Shun Mindfulness.)

After you’ve tried this, please report back! How did it feel to do that? Do you feel your attitudes shifting, on an emotional level? Do you feel angry about societal pressure to take away your right to eat what you want? Did the shift in your thinking cause your eating to change at all?

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11 Responses to Eating Candy and Feeling Guilty

  1. avatar Bonnie says:

    Oh, I am quoted! That’s cool.

    I truly don’t want to be fat, so in the beginning it was very hard to separate that from my thinking about eating. It’s really easy for the two issues to get tangled up more than they already are. But the idea that I have a right to be fat, and I have a right to be thin (and I have a right to dye my hair blue if I wanted) was a big and helpful mindshift.

  2. > Oh, I am quoted! That’s cool.

    I always quote anonymously, but since you noticed… 🙂

    That was a good exchange we had in the forum. Forum conversations are often the inspiration for blog posts. I expand on issues that come up.

    – Sheryl

  3. avatar annieflorance says:

    Sheryl the concepts in yours blog have absolutely changed how I view myself in the world. I once approached life apologising for my existence, especially because I perceived my body to not fit the cultural ideal. Now I find myself buying clothes I like and wearing them with confidence, no longer feeling the need to hide my body as a form of apology for the curvy hips that grace my body. My body is my right, what I feed my body is my right and I will not apologise for any of myself again!

  4. Annie, I am delighted to hear it! It makes me very happy. 🙂

    – Sheryl

  5. avatar Molly says:

    Sheryl,

    I think from what I read somewhere I should be posting this in a forum thread, but I already did that and still feel stuck…you directed me here to this blog, and I’m really needing some understanding.

    Oi, I am still a little stuck. I read every single thread in the Stage 1 section, and took your advice to read this blog, which was pretty much everything repeated from the threads I already read…so, not sure about that?

    Even though I’m new, I believe in this program and I’m giving myself to the process…BUT – I am still so confused about the HOWS…I just have to know the HOWS – knowing the whats and whys isn’t enough for me.

    I understand I have to know I have the right to eat, but please, tell me HOW I get there … how do I get to the “crucial shift in attitude”? I want to!

    You say the goal of Stage one is to think your way through…okay, I get that, but what does that actually mean? What am I supposed to be thinking and how do I get a true shift in thinking, i.e. believing…?

    I see your list of 3 things to do under “Something To Try”…are those the things I’m supposed to be doing in Stage 1? Have I missed something? I will do those things if they’ll help, but I don’t want to commit to something that I’m unsure of…is that the general way you think through this stage, or is there another guide somewhere that I’m missing?

    I don’t know why I can’t get this. It’s so frustrating to feel like I can’t move forward on something that I know will work.

    Help???

  6. Hi Molly,

    Yes, I suggested you read this blog post because of the three steps at the end – that wasn’t in the forum discussion. Try doing this, and then see how you feel.

    Normal Eating is a program of action. You will start to feel differently as you start to take action.

    – Sheryl

  7. avatar Matt says:

    I used to feel guilt about food but over the years the guilt has gone the way of the dodo.

    I guess it’s from understanding that nothing in and of itself will do my body any harm nor good (unless of course it truely is bad for me like rotten food or poison) but it’s more about how much and if the nutrients canbe used or not. I never feel guilty because I know I will use the sugar for things like workouts, walking to the store and telling my neighbors to stay in their own yard 🙂

    No bad no guilt.

    Matt

  8. avatar Jeff says:

    Sheryl,
    One thing that I’ve noticed is that when I’m journaling about foods I’ve eaten, I often mistake eating foods that I consider “bad” for a “binge” or an instance of emotional eating. Just because I’m eating a food that I usually rely on for comfort doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s an instance of emotional eating, does it? I think that’s probably the hardest place to draw a definite line.

  9. Hi Jeff,

    That’s a good point. I’ve noticed in the forum that people tend to use the word “binge” to describe virtually any time they eat in a way they think they “shouldn’t”. Actually, the word “binge” has a specific meaning. Here are some definitions:

    Bingeing” means eating a very large amount of food very quickly – so quickly you hardly even notice it going down. A person can eat 5000-10,000 calories in under an hour during a binge. All bingeing is emotional eating, but not all emotional eating is bingeing.

    Emotional eating” means eating to meet needs other than hunger – for example, to distract from something anxiety-provoking, or to soothe feelings of unhappiness. There’s nothing wrong with a certain amount of what I call “recreational eating” if you feel like it, but emotional eating is different in that it feels involuntary, “compulsive”.

    Compulsive eating” means eating in a way that feels involuntary, not a choice. You feel like you can’t stop yourself from doing it. Sometimes the cause of compulsive eating is emotional, and sometimes – especially in the case of quick-digesting carbs (white flour as in bread, pasta, cake, cookies; white rice; white sugar; white potatoes; etc.) – it’s physiological. Quick-digesting carbs have an addictive effect on the body. So all emotional eating is compulsive eating, but not all compulsive eating is emotional eating.

    Actually, I should put these definitions into a separate post because I think many people confuse these terms. Calling something a “binge” when it’s not really a binge is a way to put yourself down, which is not a good thing.

    > Just because I’m eating a food that I usually rely on for comfort doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s an instance of emotional eating, does it? I think that’s probably the hardest place to draw a definite line.

    Only you know for sure whether it’s emotional eating. You know in your gut if you ask yourself honestly and answer honestly. Just eating a food that you sometimes use for comfort doesn’t mean that it’s emotional eating – that’s true. If you are making a choice to eat it and it doesn’t feel compulsive to you, then it’s not emotional eating, it’s just your choice. Only you know if it feels compulsive.

    – Sheryl

  10. avatar Shawn says:

    I’m just new to this site but have done some reading on here and have read through your book.

    As I read through the definitions I feel that “emotional eater” fits me the best. It’s only recently that I’ve been able to admit that I may let my emotions get the best of me. I’m a guy and guys just don’t do that. We are supposed to ‘suck it up’ and move on.

    I’m struggling with the notion of eating whatver I want because I have the right to. The first thing that pops into my head is that I don’t want to gain anymore weight which in turn affects the choices I make. It’s all those years of the diet industry telling us what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’. I’m still thinking that there are good foods and bad foods. Is this correct?

  11. Here’s a very belated answer to your question – but a complete one. I wrote a blog post on this:

    No Bad Foods? All Foods Equal? Careful!
    http://normaleating.com/blog/2010/10/no-bad-foods-all-foods-equal-careful/

    So short answer, yes, there are good and bad foods. But you’re still entitled to eat whatever you like. Take a look at the post. I think you’ll find it interesting.

    – Sheryl

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