Does Guilt Make You Fat?

Feeling guilty about your eating mistakes can cause you to gain weight.

Posted Dec 12, 2018

Do you feel excessively guilty after eating something indulgent or off your diet? If so, you're not alone. But you may want to let go of and/or re-frame these feelings because research suggests those who associate guilt with indulgence (vs. seeing it as a celebration) have a significantly harder time maintaining their weight.

More importantly, guilt may not serve any adaptive function in recovering from an indulgence either. For example, researchers Kuijer and Boyce at the University of New Zealand found people who felt guilty after eating a piece of chocolate cake "did not report more positive attitudes or stronger intentions to eat healthy than did those associating chocolate cake with celebration."  Instead, they just felt more out of control.

Other research suggests guilt may actually increase perceived body weight and negatively impact body image. That's right, feeling guilty makes you feel fatter...and feeling fatter may make you want to eat more. The Institute for the Psychology of Eating even reports that guilt may slow down our metabolic rate, causing us to gain more weight from an equivalent amount of calories.

All things considered, excessive guilt about overeating can be very problematic. On the other hand, when you consider the distinction between harboring guilty (which is what most overeaters do after a binge) vs. being prone to feeling guilty, it appears guilt can serve a healthy role. For example, people who are prone-to-but-do-not-necessarily-harbor guilt are more likely to be trustworthy and sensitive in their interactions with others.

And just like the physical pain of touching a hot stove is necessary for at least a brief moment lest you walk away without the awareness that you've damaged yourself, and need to pay closer attention so it doesn't happen again, so too is a brief moment of guilt necessary if and when you've broken your healthy eating plans.

But, in my experience it's best if guilt lasts only long enough to get your attention. Once you've analyzed the mistake, figured out what went wrong, and made plans to correct it in the future, guilt serves no constructive purpose...at least as far as healthy eating is concerned. In fact, many of my clients report that guilt seems to prolong and fuel further overeating.

It works like this:  You eat something you consider "bad" or off your diet plan. Then you proceed to heavily berate yourself, which makes you feel "pathetic" and "weak." Then, when you feel weak enough, there's a little voice that jumps in and says something like "you're obviously too pathetic and weak to resist, so let's go get more...yum."

When people recognize that this voice of excessive guilt is binge motivated in and itself they are often shocked.  And this piercing insight is often enough to get them to stop yelling at themselves after they've made a mistake.  Many then find that without guilt fueling the binge, it's impossible keep overeating... and they start to naturally reclaim control of their food.

The last thing to consider about all this research is that if you are going to indulge, it's much better to plan out exactly what indulgence you're going to have, when and where you'll have it, how much you'll eat, and when you're going to stop.  Yes, there are some treats for which never is a lot easier than sometimes for some people (chocolate, for example, for me personally)... but if you are going to have it, it's much better to plan it as a kind of celebration than to put yourself in a situation where you eat it with tremendous guilt and shame.

Being lighter on yourself with guilt doesn't mean you don't have clearly defined goals and commitments though... it just means you're more willing to recognize when you're getting carried away with these negative feelings before they make matters a lot worse.  "Commit with perfection but forgive yourself with dignity" is the mantra I give my clients to summarize the best attitude for food goals.

Food for thought, no?

References

Kuijer, R.; Boyce, J.  (2014) "Chocolate cake. Guilt or celebration? Associations with healthy eating attitudes, perceived behavioural control, intentions and weight-loss"  Appetite. Mar;74:48-54. doi: 10.1016 Day MV, Bobocel DR (2013) The Weight of a Guilty Conscience: Subjective Body Weight as an Embodiment of Guilt. PLoS ONE 8(7): e69546. 

David, M. (2015).  "Mind Over Food".  Institute for the Psychology of Eating, February 20 Blog Post.  

Levine, E. E.; Bitterly, T.; Cohen, B.;, Schweitzer, T.R.; Maurice, E; (2018).  Who is trustworthy?   Predicting trustworthy intentions and behavior.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 115(3), 468-494