Can Food Guilt ACTUALLY make you sick? Science says YES
There are a few things in my life that make me feel REALLY guilty.
Those animal shelter commercials where Sara Mclaughlin is singing about angel arms
When the grocery store cashier asks if I want to donate to the children in Africa that have no food or clean water
When I say NO to the grocery store cashier that asks if I want to donate to the children in Africa that have no food or clean water
The way the girl scout’s mom looks at me when I tell her daughter I don’t want any cookies
A couple years ago, though, those answers would have looked very different. And they would have all revolved around 1 thing: FOOD.
And I am NOT the only one that feels this way. I eavesdrop overhear women talking about this all the time: on social media, at the store, in restaurants.
“Oh I was so bad, I had that piece of chocolate cake last night”
“I'm really going to have to work this off later”
“Ugh, now I feel so fat”
or, my personal favorite,
“If I didn’t love donuts so much I totally wouldn’t be fat”...I swear I almost turned around and gave her one of my kinda sorta aggressive Jess-feminist-you-are-worthy-fat-is-not-an-identity rants, but then a puppy walked by right at that moment and I was gone...
Here’s the irony of it all, getting stressed about what you're eating, feeling guilty over what you ate, or obsessively worrying about what you will eat has PHYSICAL health consequences that can actively work against our pursuit of health that got us here in the first place.
Did you hear me? The stress created by food guilt negatively impacts our health worse than the piece of cake we were guilty about in the first place!
Am I telling you to freely eat cake all the time? Not really. However, I'm not telling you to NOT eat the cake (because you're a grown woman and can do whatever you want). What I AM telling you is what I've observed in clients, friends, and family: so many of us make food the end all be all that we overlook the role stress, guilt, and shame play in chronic disease, inflammation, weight gain, and hormonal imbalances.
Kale will not undo the stress caused by hating your own body, and choosing grass-fed over grain fed meat won’t reverse the inflammation caused by the shame over what you ate for dinner. It doesn’t work that way. Food is incredible because it can be medicine, celebration, and a great tool in your healing journey, but it is not the only piece of the healing puzzle. And it certainly doesn’t make you ‘bad’ or ‘good’. FOOD DOES NOT CONTAIN MORALITY GUYS. CAKE IS CAKE.
This post is more than just an opportunity for me to rant..although I do take advantages of those always. I wanted to tell you EXACTLY how self-shame and food guilt negatively impact your health and explain the physiology behind it. I bet you some of it will Blow. Your. Mind. (If not, you know more than I thought and I'm sorry I underestimated you)
SHAME→ STRESS RESPONSE→ SICKNESS
When I mention “stress”, it's easy to think about work, relationships, motherhood, and even certain kinds of workouts. (Crossfit anyone?). But, when I mention that shame and negative self-talk are actual physical stressors as well, I'm usually met with blank stares and confused mumblings.
But these are all in my head, you say, they are just thoughts….
Emotions and thoughts are not little creatures contained to the brain, but physiological processes that have effects all throughout the body. Basic biology and cause-and-effect science prove this well. If you want personal evidence of this, just think about what happens when you get nervous: your stomach flutters, you sweat, your heart beats fast, and often, you get diarrhea.
You don’t? Oh yeah...me neither.
Here is the crux of why this happens: since our pituitary gland does not segregate physical v mental stress, BOTH register as “threats” and activate our sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system. This means guilt and shame, whether it's about your body or the pumpkin pie you ate on Thanksgiving, is perceived as a STRESSOR by our pituitary gland and, when felt often enough, contributes to what we call Sympathetic Nervous System Dominance. What is that? Well, instead of having a balance and flowing between your “rest and digest” mode and “fight or flight” mode, your body is constantly getting ready to fight a tiger or run for dear life…… Sounds stressful, doesn’t it?
Here are some of the things that happen when you are constantly in the Sympathetic Nervous System mode of living:
1. Suppresses your immune system
UCLA did a study where they measured cytokines (the marker of inflammation in our immune system, signaling suppressed immunity) in a group of students. They were split into two groups, one that was asked to write about a shameful, guilt-ridden event. And the other that wrote about an emotionally neutral event. The result? The students who elicited guilt and shame had much higher cytokine levels post-experiment than those who weren't stressed out.
How does this relate to you? It means that every time you look in a mirror and feel heartbroken about the size of your thighs, every time you finish your food and think “god I shouldn't have eaten that, this is why I look the way I look”, your inflammatory markers go up and your immune system gets suppressed.
Now, just think back in the last 24 hours as to how many shameful moments like that you've had. If you are like any of the women I know and work with that struggle with body image, I bet that number is higher than you thought it would be. When you wake up and step on the scale--cytokine rise. When you take your clothes off to hop in the shower and catch your reflection--cytokine rise. When you go out to breakfast with a friend and order that muffin you’re conflicted about, only to worry about how you're going to work it off later that day--cytokine rise. Day in and day out, this is what's happening in your body when you engage in self-shaming behaviors.
This leads to low-grade chronic inflammation that chips away at your immune system's capabilities. The immune system whose responsibility it is to ward off the flu and cold, stop you from developing an autoimmune disease, and PREVENT CANCER. All because you are carrying shame over what you ate and the way you look.
2. Leads to dysregulated adrenal function
Another consequence of living in a Sympathetic Dominant State is that you over produce Cortisol, your main stress hormone. I talk about Cortisol a lot on my Instagram, but just for clarity, I'm going to say it again! Cortisol is not inherently bad, it's what gives us the energy to fight a tiger off or run from a bear. It is NOT something you want to be pumping in your system all the time, though, because then you can develop things like:
Weight loss resistance
Loss of period altogether
Loss of fertility
Muscle soreness and inability to recover from workouts
Salt and sugar cravings
Lower back pain
Excess fat storage in the middle
Yeah...that's a hefty list from something as seemingly simple as negative self-talk. BUT THAT'S MY POINT. It is the farthest thing from “simple” and has a web of consequences and effects in the body. Remember, your brain does not differentiate between physical and emotional threats. It's gearing up to fight a tiger from the stress of your body shame.
When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, your pituitary gland tells your adrenals to produce lots of cortisol, which is fine in theory. UNLESS you fail to get OUT of fight or flight mode (like in the case of ongoing shame or guilt), and you find yourself producing cortisol day and night, leading to the host of symptoms listed above.
3. Digestive Distress
During Sympathetic Nervous System activation, your body shunts blood away from your internal organs and into your muscles to better facilitate strength and quick movement. Unfortunately, that means your digestion takes a pause, because digestion only takes place in Parasympathetic Nervous system activation (hence its name “rest and digest”).
Therefore, you can imagine how problematic this is if you are eating something and feeling guilty about it, or thinking about how it's going to “make you fat”, or how you're going to work it off tomorrow. The emotional shame and guilt that usually accompanies these thoughts are preventing your body from being in an optimal state of digestion, which means not only are you setting yourself up for digestive distress like bloating and gas post meal, you are actually INHIBITING your body's ability to burn the calories you are consuming. Which means you worrying obsessively about the calories you are consuming actually prevents your body’s ability to burn them off!
4. Body fat storage
Digestion is not the only reason your body will inefficiently burn calories in a Sympathetic Dominant state. As a matter of fact, a biological repercussion of chronically stimulating this stress response is that your body does not feel safe, and when a woman's body does not feel safe, you know what it does? It SLOWS YOUR METABOLISM.
Evolutionarily speaking, there were only a couple things that stressed us out way back when (far from the long list we have now): wild animal attacks and famine. Therefore, since chronic stress usually meant famine, we adapted to slow our metabolism down so we don't need as many calories to function. VERY smart, when you think about it. But unnecessary in today's circumstances, as famine is not a major concern for the majority of Americans. What we have here is a mismatch of evolutionary biology and current environment: our body doesn't compute that it's not necessary to downregulate calorie burning, it just senses a threat and BAM! You're burning fewer calories per day to cope with the “famine”. Since I've already explained to you how negative self-talk, comparison, and shaming yourself about eating certain foods are perceived as STRESSFUL to the body, you can see how doing this multiple times a day, every day, would lead to your body thinking it was in danger and slowing your metabolism to help save you.
UNDOING THE SHAME
Okay, now you're properly freaked about all the ways your minds is hurting your body, DO NOT FEAR. I help women undo the lies they’ve been told and tell themselves every day! I have a few go-to tricks (some short-term some not) I employ when I feel my food guilt monster coming out of her hellhole:
1. ACTIVELY SPEAK BACK
When your negative self-talk voice makes an appearance--speak TRUTH to the LIES. For me, it even helps to laugh a bit at it, because it helps me take away its sting and power. Whenever you hear “you shouldn't be eating this, look at you”, just chuckle and say “Um... Haven't YOU seen ME? IM A FRICKIN VISION”... and continue eating and savoring and living your life like the goddess wonder woman you are.
2. SURROUND YOURSELF WITH LIKE-MINDED PEOPLE
It is incredibly difficult to not guilt yourself when all your girlfriends at the table are talking about how “fat they feel” (which, newsflash, fat isn't a feeling) or how “bad they are” for eating this cake; making you feel pressured to join in.
Take the opportunity to talk about how food holds no morality, and try to change your group dialogue. OR, if they're not having it, just politely ask that they refrain from that kind of negative self-talk around you because you are working on loving yourself, and it makes it harder when they say negative things about themselves. If those don't work, you can always remove yourself from situations or groups if it is really damaging your healing process.
3. DETACH YOUR WORTH FROM YOUR LOOKS
Easier said than done, trust me, I know. But this is the most worthy pursuit you can make on your healing journey. It is difficult because we grew up with media and people telling us that we are what we look like. That our beauty is the crux of what we have to offer the world..... Well, I'm calling BS on that.
That is not even close to the truth. You are enough, and it has nothing to do with what you look like. You were born, you are breathing, you are a human life, and you have nothing to prove. Do not place something so important as your worth in the hands of other people to decide. They don't deserve it, not now not ever.
5. REALIZE THERE IS NO WAGON
You know the old adage “I fell off the wagon”. Well, I want to let you in on a little secret.
There. Is. No. Wagon.
YEAH, I KNOW. This imaginary wagon every one has been taught to stay on forever and ever doesn't exist. It's made up, by other people to sell us stuff and by ourselves to indulge in self-shame. Your life journey and healing process cannot be confined to a transportation device. This is YOUR LIFE we're talking about, ladies. You are not “on” or “off” anything in your life --unless it's drugs….which requires a whole other post for a whole other time...but for now I'll stick with “JUST SAY NO”..Okay? Okay. Moving on.
The idea that we have this conceptual “Wagon” we need to be on all the time means it's possible to actually be OFF. Like you have to be all or nothing when it comes to pursuing health. Not only is that a gateway to restrictive tendencies and disordered eating habits, it's not even helpful at achieving real physical healing.
Your life is a healing journey, filled with balance and birthdays and holidays that are A APART OF LIFE. It is incredibly damaging to fragment yourself into ‘on the wagon” where you are ‘good’ and pursuing health, and “off the wagon” where you easily develop a F*It attitude and engage in destructive behaviors because you 'might as well make it count'. This way of thinking leads to binge-restrict cycles and is not what we do here at Wholly Healed. We don't do restriction that leads to binging, we don't do wagons, and we don't do fragmentation. What you eat and your pursuit of health is an ongoing process that doesn't just END because you ate dessert or indulged more than you would have liked. Notice how you feel, why you made that choice (not with judgment, just curiosity), and move on with your life. Because that's what this is, YOUR LIFE. Not a wagon ride in the circle of shame.
All in all, my hope is that you take away the importance of grace in the healing process. What you eat does not define who you are, and though I believe food is medicine, I also believe it can be a celebration. Eat the kale and grass-fed beef, but also eat the birthday cake if that's what you want. As is my catchphrase, YOU DO YOU GIRL.