Food guilt: why do so many women have a complex relationship with food?

The relationship we have with food is such a big part of our day-to-day lives, so why do so many of us find ourselves struggling to achieve a healthy one? Stylist’s Alix Walker investigates.

I have always had an intense relationship with food. I think about it all day. Porridge versus bagel for breakfast. Then what’s for lunch? (Deliberations begin around 11.13am and woe betide a bad lunch decision. A soggy supermarket salad caused fury yesterday). Will a 4pm donut tip me into a cycle of ‘bad’ food for the rest of the week? Or will donut resistance have me clean eating and munching on bee pollen until my Sunday ‘f*ck it’ day, when I invite friends for a homemade roast, safe in the knowledge I’ll ‘be good’ again come Monday.

I’d even go as far to say that food is like a family member. Sometimes I love it furiously. Sometimes I’m simply furious at it for making me eat it when I really don’t want to. I never, ever forget to eat because that would suggest that food doesn’t pop into my head roughly every seven minutes. Sometimes I don’t eat on purpose.

You see, food is, and always will be, an emotion to me. It’s guilt. It’s happiness. It’s companionship, celebration, sadness, fun, comfort and sacrifice. It’s a million, billion more things than what it actually is: a straightforward transaction of calories in versus energy out. A physiological urge caused by the release of a hormone called ghrelin in your stomach which gives your brain the signal to find food in order to provide your organs with energy. Something which fundamentally keeps you alive.

Yet food means more than sating an urge. For so many of us – I’m talking rational, smart, busy women – food is feeling. And as much as we love and gain comfort from eating our favourite foods, and from talking about when and where we’ll be eating next, our relationship with this basic human function remains complex, nuanced and often irrational. 

“Maybe a handful will have the same easy relationship with a plate of hot, salty chips as they do with broccoli”

Even those of us who claim to have a completely healthy relationship with food will often, when pressed, have rules, routines and assumed associations with certain food types that are rarely backed by science. Very few of us will have gotten away without feeling, at least a few times in our lives, the guilt that can come with eating too much of something we, or society, doesn’t think we should.

Granted, maybe a handful will have the same easy relationship with a plate of hot, salty chips as they do with broccoli, but for most of us there will be layers of emotion, habit and societal judgement that will make those foods worlds apart.

And this complicated relationship is becoming more glaringly apparent as we become more educated and passionate about food than ever before. As we digest the advantages of the vegan movement, watch documentaries on farm-to-plate eating and listen to sustainability campaigners instructing us on food waste recycling, we have more of a handle on food and its origins, benefits and pitfalls than ever before. And yet, educated as we are, we see those lessons drift away when our years of self-imposed food rules come into play.

Dinner parties can be stressful for some people

And it makes us do crazy things. Things like convincing ourselves that if food is broken into smaller pieces, it’s somehow less than eaten as a whole. Or that stealing food from other people’s portions doesn’t count. Or that ordering a dessert with three spoons means you’re not having a dessert at all.

Gut feeling

So why are even the smartest heads complicating food? Well, eating is actually different to most of the other functions in the body, in that it’s a voluntary action. Just like sex. And as we’re dependent on doing both to keep the species alive, our body is programmed to pursue them voraciously: with body and mind. A sticky toffee pudding with thick custard bangs at your pleasure points in very similar ways to sex, which is why they occupy a lot more headspace than, say, breathing.

“Our basic impulses are to have sex and to eat,” says psychiatrist Dr Lopa Winters. “We are hardwired to think about, and do them, often.”

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“I’m always thinking about where my next meal is coming from,” says Beth Harrison, 27, from London. “I get genuinely anxious if I don’t know what time I’m eating and buy so many snacks to take on holiday just in case I don’t have immediate access to the type of food I like. Food is always on my mind; it makes me happy.”

She’s not alone if the chatter around the Stylist office around 11am is anything to go by. The cry of “What’s for lunch?” chimes out, closely followed by what we fancy dependent often not just on hunger levels but on our emotional wants too: something ‘nice’, maybe, because this morning has been stressful?

“Feeding is our earliest experience of both physical and emotional nurturing,” says Dr Winters. “When a baby feels hungry it can’t distinguish between whether they’re feeling physical hunger, emotional distress or fear of dying – a completely reasonable fear as without food there’s a reality of starvation and death.

Food can elicit extreme emotions 

“So, one can see that food and emotions start, and remain, inextricably linked and highly charged. It’s why we experience such extreme emotions – hanger, passionate like or dislike – around food.”

The emotional attachment is just for starters. Because one of its biggest complexities is that allfood isn’t equal. I happen to be writing this feature on a week I’ve decided to ‘be good’. This particular version of ‘being good’ involves avoiding gluten and dairy. I’ve also previously been good by cutting out whatever the latest wellness blogger / diet book / scare study has told me is ‘dirty’, ‘carcinogenic’ or ‘bloating’. On the bad list have been: protein / carbs / processed food / snacks / dairy / breakfast / mushrooms / chocolate / fun.

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“From a nutritional perspective in isolation, no food is good or bad. All foods contain certain nutrients and all foods fulfil certain needs,” says Laura Thomas, registered nutritionist and author of Just Eat It: How Intuitive Eating Can Help You Get Your Sh*t Together Around Food.

“The subtext to labelling food with this emotive language is that our self-worth is dictated by eating or avoiding certain food. We internalise the morality of the labels that are applied to food and so we feel guilt, anxiety and stress when we eat something that we and society have deemed as ‘bad’. This inevitably leads to a series of ‘food rules’.”

You hear these rules espoused by women (and men) who are entirely rational in other areas and are often surprised at themselves when they stop and dissect their own flummoxing food rationale. But our labelling of food often starts very early in life. Dr Winter says: “During childhood, food is often used by caregivers to reward, punish, relieve. We carry all these associations with us into adult life and internalise ‘rules’ and ideas about food.”

It’s coconut oil, it’s not magic 

We know what is sensible. We know moderation is key, and, unless you have a diagnosed food allergy, cutting out an entire food group is neither necessary or healthy. That the ‘magical foods’ – coconut oil, spirulina, apple cider vinegar – are mythical and not remotely magical at all. That the scare studies which claim a certain food either causes or cures cancer are nonsense. We are smart women. And yet we want to believe.

“Even I have fallen into this trap, despite knowing all the science around it,” admits Dr Winters. “I once went on a diet prescribed by a personal trainer where I only ate eggs… of course I didn’t last a day.”

Why do we continue to buy into these regimes and detoxes and cleanses when we’re smart enough to know the loopholes? “We’re looking for this magical panacea for health and we’re taught if we micromanage our food and our exercise we’ll have more control over our health outcomes,” Thomas says.

“If you eat the superfood you won’t get cancer or cardiovascular disease, all the while ignoring the fact that health isn’t just predicated by diet and exercise but by genetics, medicine, smoking, alcohol, whether you live in safe housing, mental health and so on.”

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We’re also using food to try and achieve happiness and belonging too. “As we identify less with a particular religion people are looking for something to believe in,” says Eve Turow, author of A Taste Of Generation Yum and forthcoming book Hungry who has spent years researching our growing food obsession.

“We see people putting an almost religious zeal in the belief system of a certain food movement like vegan or paleo or whatever, and through following that particular style of eating they have access to a whole group of people who share the same belief system as them.” We are finding friends and belonging, in a way, from subscribing to the same ‘food rules’.

We also use foods to make statements about ourselves. We peer into the lunchbox of our colleagues and stalk Instagram feeds of friends and strangers to see what they had for dinner. 

“This food obsession is directly tied to the rise of technology”

We also use foods to make statements about ourselves. We peer into the lunchbox of our colleagues and stalk Instagram feeds of friends and strangers to see what they had for dinner. 

“This food obsession is directly tied to the rise of technology,” says Turow. “Food fulfils needs that have originated from us spending all day staring at a computer and interacting with tech rather than people.

“It’s something real, something creative, it’s a visceral experience, totally tied to our senses. It also allows us to assert some authority and control over something – like saying no to gluten or GMOs, for example – which is really appealing in the world as it is right now.”

Power hungry

The only issue with this is when we start to give food too much power. Feeling overwhelmed is common these days, and food can be a way of exerting some control. “I guess I subconsciously think if I’m super structured about what I eat I’ll be more structured in other areas: I’ll write in the evenings, go to the gym, go networking,” says Anna McKay, 35.

“We use food to make statements about ourselves”

Of course, the danger with this thinking is that it can lead to food controlling us. I know I have put off doing things because they don’t adhere to my ‘rules’; I’ve turned down dinner invitations because I didn’t want to be the person eating salad while everyone else tucked into pizza. That I’ve felt high as a kite when I’ve eaten to fit my self-imposed standards and pretty low when I haven’t. 

“We need to stop placing morality on food and just enjoy it for what it is,” says Thomas. “I think it is a process of rebuilding your relationship with food, in accordance with your appetite. Comparing our food choices with other people tells us nothing about what we should be eating, what will make us feel well, what our tastes and preferences are.

“Learn to neutralise your language around food and to stop being so judgemental around food choices: it’s just a dessert, it’s just breakfast.

“Also, your lunch doesn’t have to be perfect for you to have a balanced diet. When we talk about balance we’re talking about balance and variety over time.”

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I will always love food. I will always love to feed those around me, to ask you what’s for lunch, to read cookbooks and hunt out new restaurants. Eating is something we do to survive, it makes sense that we’re invested in making it as exciting as possible. There are so few things today that unite us, but the need to eat is one of them.

And because of that, eating has a miraculous ability to bring people together, to cross cultural divides and to create a sense of community. Food isn’t good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, virtuous or sinful. Food is just food.

Unless it’s a big bowl of pasta… then it’s everything.

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