Why ‘Guilt-Free’ foods are bad for your health

Guilt-free foods are bad for your health.

I was in a health food shop recently when I came across a product I hadn’t seen before. It was a small doughnut, the words “I’m a guilt-free donut” emblazoned across its packaging. I was annoyed, and confused.

Annoyed because ‘guilt-free’ is a dangerous phrase. Guilt after eating is typically associated with disordered eating behaviours. So it was confusing to see a company actively playing into the food-shaming culture of demonising certain foods by implying theirs was superior (and thus you should feel guilty after eating a normal doughnut). It doesn’t seem very responsible.

While guilt can be a useful tool in keeping society in order (we are less likely to steal or hurt someone if we feel guilt afterwards) it can also be a damaging emotion. Guilt creates feeling of shame and regret, with  an internal conflict that may include negative-self talk, anxiety and stress.

As mentioned, feelings of guilt, shame and remorse are consistently found in eating disorder sufferers. We know these thoughts and feelings can be debilitating in this population, delaying recovery and causing severe health problems. In fact, there is an eating disorder gaining attention that is specifically associated with the sufferer refusing foods seen as ‘bad’- read more about Orthorexia here.

Food is fuel

At its very basic level food is just energy. It is fuel to keep us alive. It keeps us moving, thinking and functioning. Given that food then is just a substance to keep us alive, why then do we view some food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’?

We think of pizza, cake and chocolate as ‘bad’ and apples, yoghurt and carrots as ‘good’. These labels stem from the perceived health of the food. Healthy foods are good and unhealthy foods are bad. But like everything in life, it’s not so black and white.

Coca-cola: good or bad?

It’s bad right? It’s full of sugar, sweeteners, colourings and flavourings, it will give you diabetes, tooth decay and it’s a waste of money. You should never, ever drink it. It’s juice made from the devil himself.

What if I proposed that in some circumstance it’s actually good, even lifesaving?

Consider these scenarios:

  1. You are completely lost after hiking alone all day in the intense heat.  There is no food or water left and you are weak, tired and hungry. It’s been over 14 hours since you have eaten anything. Your bag has just one thing left to consume: A can of coke! The calories and the sugar give you the spurt of energy needed to walk for help.
  2. You are out with a friend who you know is a Type 1 Diabetic. She suddenly collapses, going into a hypo. She needs a hit of sugar, and fast. Someone rushes up with a can of coke. The quick hit of sugar will help return her sugar levels to normal, potentially saving her life.
  3. Right before one of the biggest races of his life, a sprinter reaches for a coke, knowing the quick release of glucose, caffeine and energy will power his muscles to work harder than they have ever worked, leading him to victory.
  4. You have exercised every single day this week, eaten a diet full of nutritious foods and feel great. Out for lunch with friends, you order a Coca-Cola for the first time in over a year. You drink it slowly, enjoying every sip.

Now again consider again: Is Coca-Cola good for you or bad for you?

The answer isn’t as clear now, right? Coca-Cola is a very simply a source of energy and carbohydrates and in some situations it can actually save your life. The point obviously isn’t to drink it every day, but more to show it’s not inherently ‘bad’ and we shouldn’t default label it as such or feel guilty about drinking it.

Why do we eat?

We don’t just eat for health or weight loss. We eat for so many other reasons;

For celebration, for taste, for sporting performance, for religious beliefs. We should not feel bad or guilty for occasionally eating one source of calories over another. Especially if we are in the company of friends, experiencing a new food or otherwise having a positive eating experience, like this little guy. He doesn’t give a f**k. Surely all this is more important than the amount of sugar or fat in what is on the plate?

I absolutely agree that too much of anything isn’t great, but to label some foods negatively perpetuates society’s obsession with weight and slimness, which can ultimately be far more damaging. The occasional burger, ice cream or chocolate bar isn’t going to do long-term harm; the bigger harm comes if you feel guilty after eating anything seen as ‘bad’.

That Guilt-Free Doughnut

So back to this smug little doughnut telling me it’s ‘guilt free’. Why are we buying into the belief that food should bring about feelings of guilt? What ingredients in a doughnut are so bad we should feel self-hate, shame and remorse after eating?

Flour? Bread, pasta and other staples made from flour have provided an economic source of nutrition for cultures across history. Of course coeliacs should avoid.
Sugar? It’s not arsenic or heroin; it’s just part of a plant added to sweeten foods.
Butter? We have sustained entire populations with this due to its high energy density and versatility.
Eggs? Shut up, eggs are nutritious.
Milk? Ditto.
Oil? Oil has been used for hundreds of years to cook food in, and add a source of energy dense fat.

So if you want a doughnut, eat a doughnut. Eat it mindfully. Enjoy it. Savour it. Relax.

Put it on a plate and let your eyes take it in, in all its sugary glory. Breathe in, take a bite and savour every single chew. Lick the sugar from your fingers, wipe the jam that’s dribbling down your chin and focus all your attention on the beautiful baked good sitting on your plate.

P.S. It claimed to be guilt-free because it was made with natural ingredients (redundant marketing term), coconut oil (no healthier than any other oil) and gluten-free (again, no healthier than donuts that aren’t gluten-free).

Final bite

Doughnuts taste amazing, and I’ve found myself eating them with ardour. Did I feel guilty? Yes, once upon a time I did. I felt shame, anxiety and self-hate for letting myself eat any ‘bad’ foods. Now I know that since I eat well 90% of the time (well ok, 80%), and exercise most days, I can eat doughnuts, or whatever else takes my fancy and absolutely enjoy it.

So no, you won’t feel amazing every day or reach your health goals as easily if you eat a dozen baked goods each day. Eat one every now and again with the utmost ceremony and enjoyment. So stick your middle finger up to a society that tells you should feel ‘bad’ or ‘guilty’ about what you put into our body and embrace the sticky, jammy fingers from your real, authentic, sugar-laden doughnut.

Photo credit:
Coca-cola: Photo credit: Simon & His Camera via Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND
Donuts: Photo credit: Gabriel Kronisch via VisualHunt / CC BY

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Nonie says:

    What a very informative article.
    It actually made me think of so many times I have a chocolate bar and then feel’guilty’ even though I eat a very good balanced diet.
    Well done for making us think about how advertising and the wording they use can affect our whole thought process .

    1. Thanks Nonie. Enjoy your chocolates! You are very healthy otherwise with your workouts and the food you eat so no reason to feel bad about the secret stash of chocolates you have in the freezer! I may have eaten a few myself on my last visit!! X

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