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Ditch the guilt this Christmas

It’s the festive season, and chances are you’re going to eat something today or in the next little while that’s not the healthiest thing in the world. It’s par for the course at this time of year.

Some fascinating new research has highlighted yet again the link between emotions and food, which is particularly relevant right about now. Researchers at Northwestern University in the US have found that feeling guilty may make a decadent treat taste even more delicious. When eating tempting foods, “people who are primed with guilt subsequently experience greater pleasure than people who are not,” the researchers report. It seems the old saying about forbidden fruit tasting sweeter might be right on the money.

In one experiment, women were asked to look at magazine covers. Half looked at health-related covers; the others at covers on unrelated topics. They were then asked to taste chocolate bars. Those who had just been exposed to the healthy living messages – so presumably felt more aware of the fact that the chocolate was not a health food – reported “liking the chocolate significantly more”. The researchers believe the concepts of guilt and pleasure have become linked in our minds to the point that we’re not even aware of it.

I’ve always disliked the idea of guilt being associated with any food. Think of all those references in the media to “guilty pleasures”. It plays into the concept of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods. Sure, there are some foods that are not going to make you feel great if you eat them all the time or in great quantities. But a person with a healthy relationship with food should be able to stay healthy while eating what they feel like – in a balanced way and within reason – and not feel bad or guilty about it. When we start giving food more importance in our lives than it deserves – which then affects how good or bad we feel about ourselves – we enter the world of disordered eating.

So here’s a little exercise for you to try over the festive season. The next time you are facing a delicious treat, whether it’s a chocolate or a Christmas mince pie or a sausage roll, stop for a moment. Ask yourself, “Do I really want this? Or am I eating it just because it’s there? Or am I eating for comfort, stress relief or boredom?” Considering these things can give you pause, and offers you the alternative of doing something else instead. Or, of simply saying “no thanks”. Remember, as our nutritionist Claire Turnbull is often saying, you will see food again.

If you do decide to eat that treat, take another few moments to really savour the food. Eat it slowly; enjoy it; relish it. Be mindful. When you’ve eaten, think to yourself consciously, “That was delicious. I feel good about that.” Then – key step – forget about it. Don’t beat yourself up about it; don’t obsess over it or try and compensate later on by denying yourself. Just don’t think about it.

That’s not licence to eat everything in sight. But what you should start to find by being more mindful is that you don’t want to overeat. You’ll learn to be more in tune with your body until you reach the calm and happy point of only eating when you are actually physically hungry. When we ditch the guilt, all the power food has over us might just start to diminish, too, which can only lead to a healthier life.

First published: Dec 2012
Last updated: April 3 2017
Last science review: October 10 2016



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