The Worst Thing You Can Eat: Part Deux

About this time last year, I wrote this post --> The Worst Thing You Can Eat

It was my response to a question I'm asked all the time, to which I respond guilt, not food, is the worst thing you can eat (followed by anything that puts you into anaphylactic shock, food that has spoiled, and anything that tastes gross). 

But recently, I learned there is something even worse than guilt.


I recently started reading Brene Brown's book Daring Greatly, which is all about embracing vulnerability. I feel like every other page I'm yelling "YES!" - I'm certain you will see many more posts inspired by her work. 

The part that I'm reading now is all about the destructive nature of shame, and in it, she gets real specific about the difference between shame and guilt. The words are often used interchangeably - shoot, I use them interchangeably - but they actually refer to different feelings.

I think this is the easiest way to think about shame vs. guilt:

Guilt: I did something bad

Shame: I am bad

Brown defines guilt as "holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort." Shame, on the other hand, is the "intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – based on on something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do."

Shame is the real danger. With guilt, you can recognize your mistake, make amends with yourself or someone else, and move on. Shame keeps you trapped repeating the same shame-inducing behaviors again and again, because if you're feeling a diminished sense of self worth, why would you feel worthy of making a positive change? It can also cause you to act out towards others - if you're feeling unworthy, you may denigrate others to make yourself feel better. I see this when people who feel unhappy with their body are critical of others. 

After reading this, I started thinking about how this relates to eating and here's where I got. 

I don't know if guilt about food or eating is really the worst. I say this really cautiously, but I can see where guilt could be used as a tool for positive change:

  • Guilt over eating fast food on a road trip, because their business practices don't align with your values. 
  • Guilt over eating something that you know doesn't make you feel good.
  • Guilt over restricting yourself from a food you enjoy, because you know it conflicts with your intuitive eating practice. 
  • Guilt over running out the door and forgetting to eat breakfast, because you know how it will affect your eating (and brainpower) later on in the day. 
  • Guilt over mindlessly munching on snack foods in front of the TV, then finding yourself uncomfortably full. 
  • Guilt over not following your meal plan in eating disorder recovery, because it conflicts with your goal of recovery. 

In each of these examples, I can see where the feeling of guilt could be used to foster positive change. The guilt you feel for forgetting to eat breakfast could serve as a reminder to be prepared with something grab and go. Feeling guilt over mindlessly munching to the point where you're stuffed could serve as a reminder to put down the bag of chips when you're in front of the TV, and leave them for planned snacking. Guilt over restricting yourself could serve as a reminder to mindfully savor it the next time a craving pops up. 

That said, when it comes to eating, rarely is it guilt experienced without a healthy side of shame. And it's impossible to not experience shame if your guilt is tied to calories or weight control, because that's about you and your perceived worth, not a value or positive goal. 

In my practice, I see a lot of clients who try to shame themselves into eating better or exercising more. They feel like shame will keep them "in line," but shame doesn't work that way. It just perpetuates the binging, mindless eating, inactivity or whatever behavior they feel bad about. 

When you're feeling a sense of shame over something you ate or how you ate, would it be possible to strip away the shame from the guilt? Could you examine your shame to identify what it is that you're telling yourself, about yourself? Is it based in reality (my guess is no, or at the very least, a distorted reality). What's the guilt that remains? How could you positively change that behavior? Could you do all this with a healthy dose of self compassion? 

As always, I would love to hear your thoughts! Leave your comments below. 


I work with clients locally in Columbia, SC and virtually throughout the US, helping them discover their happiest and healthiest lives by nourishing a healthy relationship with food and their body. Learn more about my philosophy here.