There can be quite a bit of food-related anxiety at this time of year, with chocolate sales and consumption at an annual high. But it’s really important to not beat yourself up if you indulge this long weekend.
Every year, as soon as Christmas is over, the supermarket shelves move onto the next major holiday: Easter. This usually means hot cross buns and, perhaps most notably, an overwhelming amount of egg and bunny-shaped chocolate as far as the eye can see.
But because we’re taught by diet culture that chocolate = bad, there can be a tremendous amount of pining for something we ‘can’t have’ because of how we as a culture has moralised food. We are therefore ridden with guilt when we give in to those cravings.
“Food is no longer just food, but something that we have attached meaning to. It’s good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, clean or toxic,” says dietitian and certified intuitive eating counsellor, Nina Mills.
“The problem with this is that we extend that moral judgement onto ourselves. When we eat a ‘bad’ food, we believe we are bad. We know that guilt and shame can have a negative impact on our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. It’s definitely not the motivator to change behaviour that we have been led to believe.”
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This sort of thinking can be dangerous, both in the short and long term, says Lysn psychologist Nancy Sokarno, who explains how developing unhealthy eating patterns can lead to a poor relationship with food over time, even eating disorders. It can stem from anywhere, she says, and can be deeply ingrained from a young age.
“If you think about what we might be exposed to on a daily basis – diet fads, food rules, nutrition tips and general content focused around healthy eating, it’s easy to see how that could infiltrate our minds and make us feel bad about what we’ve eaten,” explains Sokarno.
“Food guilt can certainly be a learned behaviour from your mother or father, even if you don’t realise that it’s a habit you’ve picked up.”
As Easter approaches, we’re bombarded with advice on how to have a healthier Easter, or how much exercise it takes to burn off a chocolate egg; all that rhetoric can be particularly triggering for food shame or guilt. So how do we overcome it? Just eat the damn chocolate.
“We are not supposed to feel bad about engaging in a behaviour that is critical to our survival,” says Mills.
“There is nothing bad or shameful about nourishing your body, whatever the food might be, and yes, chocolate does provide nourishment.”
She adds: “Eating a lot of chocolate is not going to damage your health because our experience of health is influenced by a lot more than what we do or don’t eat. Our bodies can handle eating chocolate, and eating a lot of it, just fine.”
Mills says the key to diminishing guilt around food, or certain foods, is that creating restrictions actually makes it more enticing and is more likely to lead to a blow-out, rather than working in harmony with your balanced diet.
“The antidote to food guilt is not to try harder to not eat the food you feel guilty about, but to give yourself unconditional permission to eat that food,” she says.
“Eating chocolate with strings attached might sound like, ‘I eat chocolate, but only two squares of dark chocolate each day’. Eating chocolate with unconditional permission would sound like ‘I eat chocolate’. The former, while it allows chocolate, still has the potential to spark guilt, because if you ate a row of milk chocolate, a rule has been broken and we tend to feel bad when we break food rules (or we say, ‘stuff it’ and jam a whole bunch of chocolate in because our ‘good eating’ has been ruined for the day).”
She continues: “The latter creates the space for all chocolate, if and when we feel like it. This might mean eating a lot of chocolate one day and none the next or eating two squares of dark chocolate every day – but we do so and move on with our day… When we put restrictions around chocolate, like not allowing it in the house or only allowing it on Easter Sunday, we are actually setting ourselves up to eat a lot of it when we do allow it because we know we only have a limited opportunity to do so.”
As a mental health professional, Sokarno encourages you to examine your why, too, and whether there could be something else going on behind your motivation to binge.
“Food should be pleasurable, so try to eat slowly and mindfully,” she says.
“Think about why you are eating. Ideally, it should be because you’re hungry or want to experience the taste, but if the reason you’re eating is stemming back to something else, like you feel stressed or anxious, try to consider your relationship with food and your emotions. If you’re eating to make yourself feel emotionally better, this should be closely looked at.”
So, go forth, friends. Enjoy Easter and ditch the guilt, once and for all.