How to stop feeling guilty about food

Guilt doesn't make you healthier. Long-term trends are what matters, so practice self-compassion in your daily nutrition choices

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I eat a primarily plant-based, whole foods diet. I choose this diet for several reasons: ethical considerations around animal welfare, the number of micronutrients I can get—but mostly, I eat it because it makes me feel better than other dietary approaches do.

For many reasons, the past several months, I’ve been a little more lenient with my diet, occasionally consuming animal products like salmon, sardines, eggs, or cheese. I know these deliver great nutrients my body can use, like omega-3s and protein, and I don’t believe in strict adherence to a dietary label just for purity’s sake.

And yet, each time I ate like this, I felt a little guilty.

Lately, I’ve been reflecting on why. Especially when I hear Levels members express guilt over their food choices. Am I not eating in alignment with my values? Am I slipping on discipline? Will this negatively impact my health?

Guilt and attitudes about food are complex, driven by deep psychological and societal factors I can’t fully unpack for myself, let alone anyone else, in this space. But thinking about this brought me back to two principles that help me mitigate those unproductive guilty thoughts around food.

Overcome Food Guilt By Focusing on a Constructive—Not Restrictive—Approach to Nutrition

Most dietary approaches center on restrictions. Even at Levels, where we avoid dogmatic dietary approaches, we encourage people not to consume added sugar or processed foods. But I see these less as rules than reminders of a critical point: When we eat, we are literally constructing our bodies, so it is crucial to focus more on what you include in your diet to help build your body, rather than on what you restrict.

Food is molecular information for my body. The average person eats three to four pounds of food per day. That is three to four pounds of chemical instructions that our cells and genes are “reading” to know what to do. Good instructions lead to health; flawed or incomplete instructions lead to disease and suffering.

A constructive mindset focuses on how much positive molecular information you can get in your body in a day. Eating this way can even be a fun challenge: Every day is a micronutrient, omega-3, fiber, antioxidant, and phytonutrient hunt!

Food as molecular information is not an abstract metaphor. Our genes serve as the guide for building a thriving body, but we need food to influence the genome’s expression and to help make the structures the genome calls for. The chemicals in food enter our cells, and many bind with proteins that turn genes on and off (transcription factors). This activity influences the genome’s expression. Your DNA is not on autopilot.

Here are three specific examples:

  • Isothiocyanates are molecules that come from cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli or Brussels sprouts. They activate the NRF2 transcription factor, which activates the genes that act as a first-line antioxidant defense against oxidative stress.
  • The NF-κB pathway controls inflammation. Turmeric root contains curcumin, which decreases the expression of NF-κB—one way turmeric acts as an anti-inflammatory.
  • Selenoproteins are critical for our immune cells, and our body needs selenium to produce them. You can get selenium from sources such as brazil nuts, seafood, and organ meats.

Taking a constructive approach to food means eating to aid these processes: brazil nuts for selenium to make selenoproteins, beans for fiber to make butyrate to fight inflammation. Sugar and refined grains don’t build anything up. So why would I eat them?

If you’re dealing with guilt around food, try experimenting with this constructive mindset—focus on and celebrate the good things you are putting in—rather than fixating on what you’re restricting.

Trends Matter More than Events, So Don’t Feel Guilty Over One Event

In the complex system of your body, single events, like a poor night of sleep or a glucose spike, have little effect on long-term outcomes, so they’re not worth stressing about. (Stress could actually be more damaging to health than the single dietary “transgression.”)

Trends over time are what matters. Your body is remarkably adaptable. It knows how to use hormones like insulin to deal with a glucose spike or antioxidants to fight the damage from a fructose-filled soda. It’s when we repeatedly stress our bodies, day after day, that these systems can become overwhelmed and start to break down, leading to insulin resistance or chronic inflammation.

Single events like a glucose spike are incredibly valuable, however. They are direct feedback on how a particular food or lifestyle choice affects our glucose—information we can carry into future decisions to avoid negative trends over time. Look at an event as a gift, not a reason to feel guilt.

Eating a food we know isn’t great for us can feel like a failure. But it’s crucial to remember that it’s the sum of our behaviors—dietsleepstressexercise—over time that determine our state of health. This is why we focus on our trends, like a continuous glucose data stream. The single event carries less meaning. So don’t feel guilty about it.

When I feel guilt creeping up, I make it an immediate trigger for a deep breath of self-compassion, a curiosity about what I can learn, and a moment of celebration for all I am doing to support my wellbeing in a busy, complex world.

In other words, learn what you need to from the guilt, and move on.

— Dr. Casey