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VOGUE FEATURE: Has our obsession with healthy eating taken the joy out of food?

Do you feel guilty every time you stray from your self-imposed diet of refined flour-free, sugar-free, organic-only food? Turns out, you’re not alone.

Featured in Vogue India, 9 Feb 2019 
by Sonal Ved

© Vogue Images

It's afternoon and you are craving for something sweet after lunch, so you order in a pastry. You eat half of it and move the box away from sight. Ten minutes later, you pull it out from behind your computer screen and gobble down two more spoons. You let go off that last quarter of a piece and complain to your colleague about how you need to stop eating “so much sugar”. Then in the evening, you decide to compensate by snacking on bajra-amaranth crackers with a store-brought low-fat dip, only to grumble to your colleague that how it all tastes like “cardboard”. On the weekend, you go to a new Italian joint and make a meal out of three quarters of a pizza and half a tiramisu—letting go the remainder because you can't bear the guilt of not working out and eating two ‘unhealthy' items in one go. Sounds familiar? Congratulations, you've just entered the club of ‘guilty eaters' (GE).

Think of food and guilt's relationship like the one between you and the texts you share with your crush. The way a text from your crush releases an instant shot of dopamine (happy hormone), for GEs, eating anything that is relatively pleasurable is followed by an instant bout of guilt. Unsurprisingly, it is not just those who are overweight who feel guilty after enjoying indulgent food. It's the skinny people, the lean people, the curvy people, the tall people, the short people, the gym rats, the couch potatoes—anyone can be a GE. (Read that again in Oprah's voice).

What makes people attach guilt to eating

What we consume apart from food (what we read, see and talk about) plays an important role in shaping our perception with regards to eating. Nutrition expert Richa Anand from Dr LH Hiranandani Hospital says, “We see all kinds of near-perfect bodies and understand them to be ‘normal', and anything failing to meet those standards is looked at as ‘not normal'—thereby generating guilt for not achieving what seems so doable for everyone else.” So when you are constantly bombarded with messages promoting veganism, eating turmeric for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and sacrificing a good ol' chocolate cake for gluten-free, sugar-free, lactose-free goop, you start believing that it is the only way to eat, be fit and subsequently live life; and everything else is wrong, which makes you feel guilty about doing it.

Why you should let go of the judgement you have for your own diet

Self-help gurus, books and life coaches emphasise enough on the relationship between how you speak to yourself and how you feel. Nothing comes closer to explaining food guilt than this. Think about the very word ‘cheat meal', for instance. “The word is guilt-ridden. When you cheat on something, you are conditioned to feel guilty. Over a period of time, you start associating pleasurable food with the subsequent guilt it generates,” says Sumitra Daswani, nutrition expert and founder of Born from The Earth, an organisation that provides holistic health and life coaching. These feelings cause the exact opposite of a win-win situation. By associating negative connotations with something as beautiful as a piece of chocolate cake or even just plain bread, you aren't engaging the pleasure centre at all. “So while you have eaten that mac and cheese and consumed the calories, you aren't gratified. In fact, you feel worse about yourself now. When you are mindful and engage in pleasure, your brain will enable healthy digestion. But if you turn on a guilty stress response, your body will go into mild digestive shutdown, not absorb nutrients fully and store fat as a result of increased cortisol and insulin,” says Daswani.

Another reason is ill-informed articles, fake news messages and articles that tell you how it takes two hours of cardio to burn off a burger, or four hours of yoga to melt of the calories you consumed with your colleague's birthday cake. “It's never so literal. What works for one may not for another. Consistent workouts and being dedicated to your overall fitness are the only things that work,” says Anand.

How to avoid food guilt

This brings us to the ultimate question—when it comes to food guilt, what should one do? The same way that meditation is the cure to everything from coping with work stress to family drama, meditation while eating is important to change your relationship with food. Now we're not asking you to plug into the Headspace app while digging into dal makhani; instead, we're talking about mindfully eating what's in front of you. Daswani explains, “Mindfulness is having a non-judgmental awareness of our thoughts, emotions and actions on a moment-to-moment basis.” Apply that to eating and you have yourself a way to be absolutely engaged in the process without adding any judgement to it—like thinking about ‘is this good for me', ‘is this going to make me fat', ‘is this too much', etc. Eat everything (in moderation), whether you have biryani or Bircher muesli on your plate. “Slowing down and savouring your food will likely result in less binge-eating and fewer calories in your diet,” she adds.

Another thing that might help is learning how to tell between a trick and a treat. Identifying cravings is half your problem solved. “Craving has eight reasons—lack of fulfilment in life, lack of water, seasonal cravings, lack of basic nutrients, hereditary causes, yin and yang imbalance in the body and emotional issues. Ask yourself, what out of this is making me reach out for that treat?” Daswani recommends.

Guilty eaters can experience guilt because of self-imposed restrictions too. You know those people who will try the keto diet, go lactose-free, drink flavoured water, ditch gluten, snack on kale chips only because it's Instagramable to do so, and not because they have been guided by an authorised nutritionist? Self-diagnosis, followed by the inability to live up to what you began leads to feelings of failure because you didn't meet your own expectation. This causes a whole new level of guilt. “You then beat yourself up for not being disciplined enough,” points Anand.

What's missing in this whole picture is gratitude. When you overlook the fact that there is food on the table and instead focus on labelling the items as good or bad, chances are you will continue to have a negative relationship with food until you break this reaction. Take up a challenge to start every meal (including those 4pm cold-pressed juice breaks) by giving thanks. Be grateful for the food, for being able to enjoy it, and for those who grow and sell it to you. A good experiment for those with kids is to try growing an herb or a vegetable with them—it will help you and them understand how painstaking it is to actually do so.

Moderation, gratitude and letting go of judgement are key to changing your relationship with food, but there's a quote by Marco Pierre White, one of the biggest chefs in the world, that will always stay with me—“At the end of the day it's just food, isn't it?” Hopefully you'll think of it the next time you obsess about the quality of turmeric in your latte too.

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