LeapingsmallWhat does it mean to be “guilt-free”?

To not feel that nagging sense that you’ve done something wrong, let someone down, or hurt someone?

When you run an Internet image search of the term “guilt-free,” surprisingly, there are no images of people free from guilt because they are in content relationships being loyal to their partners.

There are no images of guiltless people who have no arrest record and had never been convicted of a felony.

Instead, the vast majority of images are related to food: Guilt-free recipes! Guilt-free snacks! Guilt-free cupcakes! Guilt-free comfort food… unless that cupcake was just found innocent in a trial, I don’t buy it.

The diet industry is at it again. Can we please stop prescribing emotions to people? Why does the diet industry get to decide whether or not someone enjoying their dinner (i.e. nourishing their body) should experience guilt? It’s as if they’re implying that if you eat anything other than their product, you should be full of guilt and remorse for your alleged sins.
And how about the sister-term of “guilt-free” … “reduced guilt”? Does it mean that if you eat “reduced guilt” products, you should feel guilty, but slightly less guilty than if you were to eat the regular version of the product?

In Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) terms, guilt is an emotion that fits the facts of a situation when we violate our own morals and do something objectively wrong, not just something we have been conditioned to believe is wrong. “Guilt-free” food products appeal to our distorted thinking parts rather than to our true and authentic selves.

Implying that someone should feel guilty for eating a regular cookie – rather than a guilt-free cookie – is the very thing that keeps food-related cognitive distortions and disordered eating alive. We need to get back to the idea of moderation and balance. Yes, sometimes people feel guilty after they overeat, or eat certain foods. This is usually related to the messages they receive about those foods (i.e: bad for you, fattening) rather than the actual facts about the food (i.e. okay in moderation, containing carbohydrates and fats to keep your body energized and your belly full). Often, people do not feel guilty after eating certain foods. In fact, many people feel satisfied!

It is unfair for the food and advertising industries to capitalize on the diet-fueled mentality Americans have adopted over the past 30 or so years. While this may be beneficial for the industry’s wallets, it is dangerous for society’s mental, and often physical, health.

Let’s use facts rather than emotions to label foods: “Reduced Fat” instead of “Reduced Guilt,” “Cholesterol Free” versus “Guilt-Free.” Then, it is up to the consumer to decide how they feel about the food based on hunger cues and taste, rather than based on the label on the package.

Here’s how you can really live guilt-free: Treat people kindly and lovingly. That includes yourself. Be forgiving of your mistakes. Remember that every mistake can be a learning experience, and every moment is an opportunity to start fresh. Remember that eating a cookie is not a mistake. Eat a freshly-baked cookie. Eat a hearty salad. Try not to break the law. Practice self-care every day. Be cautious to not allow a label to tell you how you’re supposed to feel.

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ErikaVargas1Erika Vargas, LMHC, is the lead clinician in the Adolescent Intensive Outpatient & Partial Hospitalization Programs at Walden’s Braintree clinic. She is trained in the Maudsley Method/Family Based-Treatment and works with adolescents to decrease eating disorder behaviors with the support of their families. Erika is passionate about promoting healthy body image, understanding the impact of social media on self-esteem, and encouraging parent education in the treatment of eating disorders. In her non-clinical life, Erika enjoys traveling and spending time with her corgi. Erika welcomes comments at EVargas@waldenbehavioralcare.com.