In the past few years, the term “guilt-free comfort food” has been circulating on the internet and becoming prevalent in the marketing of food. Halo Top and the ilk advertise a guilt-free experience and Fitness magazine, The Daily Meal and Food Network have published roundup articles on guilt-free recipes. Many of these recipes substitute baked for fried, or they feature swaps like mac and cheese made with reduced-fat cheese or “ice cream” made with yogurt and vegan protein powder.
Last year, two cookbooks on guilt-free foods were published: the American Diabetes Association’s Mr. Food Test Kitchen’s Guilt-Free Comfort Favorites and the Weight Watchers-inspired The Guilt Free Gourmet 2019 Cooking Guide.
“Guilt-free” infers that eating anything high in carbs, fat or sugar should make us want to run to confession and ask for forgiveness. While eating healthy is usually the way to go, why does society lambaste comfort food eaters for indulging once in a while?
“Food is not morally good or bad,” said Alyssa Pike, a registered dietician and the nutrition communications coordinator for the International Food Information Council Foundation. “It’s only when you categorize it that way when feelings of shame or guilt become associated with certain foods. Once we stop labeling foods as good or bad, we can stop feeling guilty about them.”
Jen Bateman, aka Dr. Jen, a food psychologist who specializes in diabetes and weight management, considers how that type of classification is a disservice to our health. “When we make foods ‘bad,’ we can set up a cycle of rebellion and craving them more,” she said. “It’s the inner teen inside us that doesn’t like to be told what to do. People feel ashamed and often feel hopeless or a sense of ‘what’s the point,’ and then they overeat to comfort.”
“Once we stop labeling foods as good or bad, we can stop feeling guilty about them.”
She further explained that having a positive attitude toward food is best for our emotional well-being. “In practice, this would mean feeling freedom to eat a range of food, including so-called ‘unhealthy’ options,” she said. “However, many people require support to be able to do this, particularly if they are using food for emotional regulation purposes ― they are using food for comfort or distraction the way others may use alcohol, shopping and sex. If the person identifies as having a true sugar addiction, striving for complete abstinence is wise.”
One reason guilt-free has become so omnipresent, Dr. Jen suggested, is because “guilt is a powerful emotion.”
“There are an abundance of messages that tell overweight people it should be easy to lose or maintain a healthy weight,” she said. “For instance, ‘just eat less and move more.’ There are a lot of negative and shaming words and phrases around food: ‘I shouldn’t,’ ‘it’s naughty,’ ‘it’s a treat,’ ‘I’ve been good, so I’ll have one.’ We are wired to move away from pain, so the term ‘guilt-free’ likely provides a sense of relief that comes from reading a ‘guilt-free’ message before buying, and it helps marketers sell their products.”
Pike links America’s infatuation with “clean” eating to the push for a guilt-free lifestyle. “Often, options for clean eating become so slim and exclusive that there’s not a lot left to choose from,” she said. “So we become obsessed with trying to find a healthier alternative that won’t make us feel guilty about indulging.”
In a blog post for the International Food Information Council Foundation, Pike wrote how clean eating transformed from people wanting to eat more wholesome foods to it becoming “a privilege of consuming nicely packaged foods with influencer-approved ingredients,” and how this type of eating excludes those who don’t have access to upscale grocery stores. “[Clean eating] implies that those who don’t care to eat clean are unhealthy or lazy — they are eating ‘dirty,’” she wrote in the post.
One path to fix the guilt-free industrial complex is to adopt an intuitive diet.
“It’s more about honoring your hunger, preferences and health,” Pike said. “Intuitive eaters understand that eating isn’t perfect and it never will be, so shame no longer has a place.” In a blog post on intuitive eating, Pike offered a hunger scale that used “eat-mojis” to rate hunger from starving to stuffed. The scale suggested “satisfied” was the best spot.
“When we finally take the restrictions off our food choices, we’re less likely to crave or overeat those indulgent foods,” Pike said. “What you eat over the long haul is more important than any one particular meal or food item that you eat. Your eating patterns should be sustainable long-term, considering your taste preferences, budget and lifestyle.”
“Intuitive eaters understand that eating isn’t perfect and it never will be, so shame no longer has a place.”
Dr. Jen is hopeful that at some point terms like “guilt-free” will be destigmatized. “Being overweight is linked with low self-esteem, so as our culture slowly shifts from viewing overweight as a problem of lack of motivation, willpower and self-discipline, and rather a symptom of distress and possibly poor mental health, I believe a more compassionate stance will emerge,” she said.