Nutrition Counseling

Combating Food Guilt

As RDs, there’s no doubt in our minds that there’s more than one way to eat healthfully. But there’s also no doubt that eating has become a confusing matter for many people. Consumers receive more messages about food and eating than ever before. Hundreds of advertisements for every food from snacks to breakfast cereals to beer, gourmet restaurants to gas station fare, and quasifoods designed specifically to “slim your waist” and “detoxify,” bombard consumers every day. Television, print and digital media, and radio all contribute to a steady diet of food-fueled messaging.

Moreover, social media has become a powerful driver in creating ongoing narratives about food and nutrition in novel (but often inaccurate) ways. Influencers, often those without any formal health care training, have become “internet famous” with their perfectly filtered and edited posts, attracting hundreds of thousands or millions of followers. Manufacturers have taken notice and now work to partner with these influencers to reach consumers in more intimate ways than ever before. Advertising is meant to drive behavior, change the way people think, and rouse desire to buy products—often by creating false pictures of perfect lives and bodies.

But how does all of this information about food affect an individual’s thoughts about their own eating behavior? Although most of us aren’t psychologists, as health professionals, it’s essential to listen carefully to how our clients talk about food and their eating behavior—and carefully consider how we talk about it ourselves. Clients with eating disorders certainly exhibit significant negative self-talk around food, but that happens even to those without eating disorders. As we work with clients to help them make positive shifts in their food choices, we must be aware of their internal dialogue that could hinder their progress, and ultimately find ways to help them combat it.

Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW, a researcher and author of Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, does a great job of explaining the difference between shame and guilt. Guilt, she says, can be helpful to changing behavior. However, shame leads to a desire to cover up behavior, not change it. While it’s normal for clients to regret overeating when they’re trying to lose weight, if overeating leads to self-judgment about their character or worth, there may be value in helping them reframe their thinking about food. After all, why should they feel shameful about their food choices?

Some phrases and concepts that can help include:

  • “Food is valuable for fueling my body and promoting good health, and it’s also OK for food to be eaten just because it tastes great.”
  • “Eating a nutritious and well-balanced diet includes allowing myself to enjoy my favorite foods.”
  • “Because I choose to eat foods that are super nutritious most of the time, there’s room in my eating habits to allow for indulgences.”
  • “I deserve to have a healthful lifestyle and to eat my favorite sweet/salty/fatty foods.”

I always tell people, “You can eat anything you want and have the health you want. But you can’t eat anything you want, anytime you want, in any portion you want.” Simply providing nutrition education isn’t enough; we must also help our clients change the way they think about themselves in relation to their choices to empower them to make healthful choices throughout their lifetime.

— Sherry Coleman Collins, MS, RDN, LD, is president of Southern Fried Nutrition Services in Atlanta, specializing in food allergies and sensitivities, digestive disorders, and nutrition communications. Find her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook as @DietitianSherry and at

2 Comment

  1. I like the idea of reframing a person’s thinking about food if they are misinterpreting their food intake to mean something about their self worth. I think this could really help my sister getting her eating habits under control because she feels like what she eats and how much really is a determinant on her self-image. We need to get her a good nutrition counselor that could help her reshape her thinking.

  2. “You can eat anything you want and have the health you want. But you can’t eat anything you want, anytime you want, in any portion you want.” – Great quote and message!!!

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