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Want to Let Go of Food Guilt? Try This Simple Trick

Learning to stay present is the perfect antidote to negative thoughts associated with food. Here's how to let go of emotional baggage and stay guilt-free at every meal—all the way through dessert.

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You’re at a table with your loved ones. Dinner is over, but the night isn’t. A waiter sets down bowls of ice cream for everyone. You dip your spoon into the treat, and lift the first bite to your lips. Two thoughts may come to mind immediately:

1) Your body tells you, “This is delicious!” The reward pathways in your body light up thanks to the mixture of sugar, salt, and fat—things that get demonized in our society, but that you would literally die without. And of course, your body is right: The cold, creamy, sweet mixture does taste great.

2) Your mind tells you, “This is bad for you! It’s going to make you chubby and clog your arteries. In fact, I can hear the fat bonding to your aorta right this minute. Oh, and your butt already looks bigger.”

That second thought—the judgmental one—causes far more harm than good. Truth is, the emotional baggage that you bring to the table isn’t helpful in any way. Not only can it ruin a positive experience, like enjoying dessert with friends or family, but also, it can make negative experiences a whole lot worse. Shame is one of the strongest predictors of disordered eating, reported a study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology. Guilt over a food choice can lead to far greater eating disturbances, such as binge-eating or starvation, and depression, found another study published in Current Psychology.

You have been taught throughout your life that calories matter to your body. What many people don’t realize is that how you feel about those calories also matters—and not just because those emotions can affect your self-esteem and decision-making. Your feelings have far-reaching effects and can impact your body in surprising ways.

More than 75 years ago, two dermatologists—John H. Stokes and Donald M. Pillsbury—explained that acne and other skin conditions could result not from blocked pores, but from feeling nervous, anxious or depressed. Their theory was that negative emotions, stemming from the brain, could lead to disturbances in the digestive tract that triggered inflammation throughout the body. In the years since, their ideas about this gut-brain-skin connection have proven true.

“The body is a global system,” explains Sonima anatomy advisor Pete Egoscue. “Each part talks to the other. That’s why no matter what our brilliant minds do to try and look at one specific part, or fix one specific ailment, the entire body is impacted.”

Egoscue has used this whole-body approach for decades to help thousands of people escape chronic pain. He brings his philosophies with him to the dinner table as well.

“When I sit down to eat, and let’s say there’s a whole smorgasbord of things from vegetables to cherry pie to ice cream, the first thing I do is look at all and say, ‘Where’s the fuel for me?’ Not, ‘Where’s the food? Or, ‘What tastes good?’ But, ‘Where is the fuel?’” Egoscue says.

By this point in your life, you’ve probably heard and read plenty about what good fuel looks like, such as fruits and vegetables, leafy greens, like kale and spinach, and nuts and whole grains. You know the drill. So what happens if you’re going to opt for something that’s not on the list of the next great health superfoods? Egoscue has an answer for that too: Be present.

“If I choose something that tastes good, like a bowl of ice cream, I don’t say, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t eat this; this is bad for me.’ I say, ‘I’m choosing this because it tastes good and it’s going to give me pleasure in a moment.’” Egoscue says. He immerses himself in that moment, tries to silence that judgmental self-chatter, and fully embrace what’s happening in the right now. “I am mindful of the flavors and textures. Why? Well, because it is an experience in my life, so why would I skip it?”

Try Egoscue’s approach and you can flip guilt on it’s head. You’ll stop seeing the brain chatter as something that’s trying to talk you “in” to being healthy and start seeing it for what it is: Negative self-talk that’s taking you out of a moment. Simply put, it’s a disconnection between mind and body.


Related: The Fascinating Science of Why You’re So Hard on Yourself


“Our body may be here while our mind is somewhere else, perhaps regretting the past or worrying about the future. And this disconnect between mind and body is the crux of many weight problems,” writes Thich Nhat Hanh in Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life.

But here’s the good news: If you can silence that inane mental chit-chat, then guess what? You’re being mindful, which is a lovely way to experience good food in great company. So the next time you’re with friends and decide to share a dessert, do exactly that: Share in the dessert. Do it without guilt or self-judgment. If you find your mind slipping into self-talk, take a breath, and bring yourself back into the experience, noticing the tastes, textures, and smell of the food. Do that and you’ll be better able to observe your body’s signals, such as when your stomach tells you it’s full, and truly enjoy the company of those around you, while staying connected to what’s really happening right now.

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