Sinful Guilty Decadent Divine Food

I’ve been thinking today of the way that we talk about food in American culture. Brownies are “guilty pleasures” but baked corn chips are “guilt free”?  Remember when we talked about that ridiculous Truvia ad campaign where a jingle singer used insane, grief, guilt, relief, and love three times discussing an artificial sweetener?  We’ve got “sinfully delicious” cookies.  Some desserts are decadent (the act or process of falling into moral decay): but some are divine (of or pertaining to a god, especially the Supreme Being).

I understand that advertisers will do whatever they can to sell a product but I would argue that we don’t have to adopt it, and I don’t see how attitudes like this can lead to healthy relationships with food.

How does being guilty about eating a food help?  Does guilt create health in some way and nobody told me?  When I hear the phrase “guilty pleasure” about food, it makes me think of hiding in a corner with some cake and I don’t think that’s a healthy way to view food.

As for the whole sinful/decadent/divine thing, how am I supposed to know if some balklava will lead to moral turpitude or give me a taste heaven?

Even the idea of  “healthy” foods and “unhealthy” foods is tricky.  Some eating plans say that potatoes are the devil but others say that you can live on potatoes, milk, and a little bit of oatmeal.  Some say eating lots of meat is healthy.  Some say that not eating any meat is healthy.  Some food plans say that anything cooked is unhealthy. Many people have food allergies and sensitivities, moral and religious considerations and more.  It goes on and on.

I used to struggled a lot with my relationship with food and I’ve found that my mental health and physical health improve dramatically when I remind myself of, and – as much as possible – remove myself from, our culture’s dangerous mixed messages, moralization and hyperbole around food.

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41 thoughts on “Sinful Guilty Decadent Divine Food

  1. Being guilty about eating has been part of my life for years. When I was young, my naturally thin brother (who still eats horribly) was allowed seconds and to eat whatever he wanted without asking, while my eating was always monitored. Whenever I took something from the pantry without permission it was called “sneaking” food. I would bring it up to my room and guiltily eat whatever it was, only to get in trouble later when the granola bars were counted and one came up missing. I remember the horrible shame I felt when I was caught with a candy wrapper in my trashcan or when I was in the kitchen and my dad yelled “get out of there!” as if trying to scare a dog away from the garbage can. At this time, though I was slightly overweight, I was not obese or in any danger of health problems, and my doctor said my weight was normal for my body type. I still get chills and am overcome by guilt every time someone in my family says “What happened to all the chips?” or “It smells like someone cooked something”, even if I know I didn’t eat that thing! Is it surprising that this left me with horrible food issues, a desire to binge, purge, not allow anyone to see me eat, etc? Removing guilt from what I eat has made a huge difference in how I feel about myself. I am beginning to heal my relationship with food and that has done so much more for me than any diet. Sometimes my family will ask “Are you sneaking food?” even though I’m 25 years old. I respond “No, I either choose to eat something or I don’t”. Guilt, like stigma and hatred, never caused me to lose any weight.

    1. No, it does not surprise me. Your experience sounds just like my experience (and I’m right around your age, too). Every time my mom comes to my apartment, she inspects my cabinets and fridge. I still haven’t been able to shake the guilt from eating, nor have I been able to shake the false self-praise from “being good”. I’ve turned to journaling about it, and it’s helped a lot. I’ve discovered that there are a lot of reasons that I think this way about food, not just because of my family or the media (e.g. I’m perpetually inforward motion and I’m never satisfied with the current state of affairs and always feel the need to change things and control my surroundings)

      1. Your stories break my heart. When I was a teenager, I developed an eating disorder and food obsession, but like you, one of my dearest friends was tortured into that state as a little girl. I’m so sorry this happened to you and tremendously respect that you’re working to break this craziness.

        As an aside, I met that friend when I was going through “food permissioning” to break that mindset, which meant keeping with me a TON of food of ANY kind I was even vaguely interested in, all the time. We were in a dance class together and she forgot her lunch, and I literally had a brown paper grocery bag filled to the top with food. Our conversation went something like this:

        Friend: Crap! I forgot my lunch.
        Me: Want some of mine?
        F: Oh no, I couldn’t, I wouldn’t want to take y–
        M: How about a ham sandwich? On bread or biscuits? I have three. Peanut butter sandwiches? With raspberry jelly, strawberry, or plain? Salad? Here’s three kinds. Cookies? There’s four kinds. Fruit? Candy bar? Chips?…
        F: You’re my kind of girl.

    2. I still can’t eat comfortably around my parents.

      After dinner with them, I almost always eat again afterwards because I didn’t eat nearly enough the first time.

      Is it crazy that the one thing I’d use my time machine for it go back in time and drop a copy of Ellyn Satter’s books in the hands of all the well meaning, but fat shaming, bully parents?

      1. Late reply is very late, but my mother actually read Satter’s book back in the mid-80s and tried to follow it, and I still ended up with messed-up ideas around food very similar to yours because of the controlling messages I got. My mother is a physician, too…which may have made it worse, not better.

    3. Oh, I hear you! I haven’t been able to shake the feeling of guilt eating certain things. When I was young I had arthritis and my doctor told my mum it would be better for my joints if I lost weight. I would like to say that as an adult I can see pictures of me at that age and I WAS NOT OVERWEIGHT! So my mum started denying me certain foods, at 9 years old. I used to buy chocolate bars from the shops (very occasionally) and then hide the wrapper in one of my drawers. I still remember the day with shame that my mum went through my drawers looking for something else and found the drawer full of food wrappers.
      Even though my mum has since come to recognise that it is unhealthy for me if she is looking over my shoulder at everything I eat, mentally she is still there looking over my shoulder. And I still hide in corners when I eat certain food. And I’m 30.

      1. OH MY GOODNESS this jogged a memory I haven’t thought of in so many years! My mom took me off dairy products when I was around 12 or 13 because an acupuncturist thought it would be good for my acne. My mom cared much more about my skin (and weight, and hairy legs) than I did. Along with dairy went chocolate, which I did not appreciate. My desk drawer had a “secret” compartment, which I filled with chocolate candies. Funny thing was, knowing it was there and that I could eat it any time I wanted without criticism from mom (for both the skin thing and the sugar/weight thing) was enough. Most of that candy went uneaten, to be cleaned out and thrown away long after it had gone stale. Probably when I was moving away to college.
        I became a vegan a couple years after my mom took me off dairy for my own reasons, not really much to do with my skin or my weight. I openly eat dairy free chocolate any time I want, now, which isn’t every day. I think I shall make some chocolate soy milk with dinner tonight!

    4. Same here- I’m 22, and my father will still scoff or make remarks like, “what are you doing?” if he sees me eating between meals. I used to wait till he left the room to get a snack out of the pantry and then eat it in my bedroom or in the basement. I’ve just now gotten to the point where he makes a remark and I can hear it, process it, and dismiss it.

  2. And then you have people who, because they resist these kinds of foods, feel morally superior to others. There are those who will brag, “Well, I would NEVER eat THAT!” as a way to feel superior to those who are, I guess, constantly in a battle of wills with their food. I see people like this all the time, both online and in real life. It’s almost like food is a gateway to heaven or hell and the fewer “naughty” foods you eat, the “better” you are, the more moral you are. Not sure why that is though, it’s just food.

    1. People do that with exercise, too, i.e. “my workout is better than your workout”. “Well, I run/do yoga/pilates/cycling/spinning/swim… it’s the best form of exercise EVAR!” Well, my knees and back are shot and I can’t do those things, so I’ve chosen other forms of exercise and movement that I can do without injury and that I enjoy. “Well maybe if you just lost the weight you could run/spin/etc etc etc.”

  3. And think about all the other things to be done with the energy wasted worrying about food… ^^

    (If I put it like that, it sounds as if worrying about food actually did burn calories. I don’t think that’s true, though.)

    Food is there to be enjoyed and to bring us the energy necessary for life – nothing more and nothing less. Wait, I think that’s quite a task.

  4. Ack, Ragen, you were reading my mind! I just finished a blog about food in light of the Jewish holidays and all of the amazing food that abounds and discussions of the issues and expanding tissues that come up around the dinner table. I’ll share the link with you when it’s posted and we can have a “Diablog” about it. In the meantime, yes yes and yes…and shall we launch an anti-food stigmatizing campaign? Those brownies need advocates as well!
    Warmly, Dr. Deah Schwartz,

    1. Ah yes, religion and food can be such an interesting thing. My husband is Christian but follows some of the Old Testament Holy Days (like today for him is the Feast of Trumpets). Next Saturday is the Day of Atonement and it’s one I can’t stand because he has to go 24 hours without food and we almost always get into a fight about it (because I don’t follow his religion at all). He’s expecting our five and a half year old to go 24 hours without food (and possibly drink too). It makes no sense, he feels she’s too young to accept responsibility for her TOYS but she’s responsible enough to understand why she has to go 24 hours without anything to eat or drink. Uh… Anyway, since I don’t follow his beliefs (and he knew this before we got married, WELL before we got married), I eat pork. I get called rebellious because I do so because, due to his beliefs, it is an unclean food and should not be eaten. Granted, I don’t eat seafood most of which is also considered unclean. I never had a liking for it. I grew up on pork though and I find that it tastes good but I’m rebellious because I refuse to give it up. *sigh*

      1. Just a technical point: On Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, children do NOT fast. Nor do pregnant women, women who are breast feeding or anyone who is ill. People who fast have to be at least thirteen years old and healthy. You husband seems to be trying to be “holier than thou”.

      2. Thank you, this is good to know and I’ll see if I can find anything online to back this up so that I can show it to him. YES, he does have a bit of a “holier than thou” streak which in the end will destroy our marriage because I’m getting quite tired of it.

      3. He never has respected mine. He wasn’t going to church when we were dating but went back not long after we were married and from then on, I’ve seen a horrible shift in his personality. Though he used to at least seemingly tolerate some of the things I did, that has changed to him being honest to goodness hostile about it (hard to put up a Christmas tree when your spouse is literally glaring at you while you do it).

        Thank you for the link, I will print it off and show him. Hopefully that will sink in. *sigh*

  5. After years of living with all the above named baggage around food, my motto these days is moderation in all things. I eat what I want, without guilt. And most of the time that means whole foods, produce from my garden and eggs from chickens we raise. I like to bake. And my body feels better when I eat gluten free. I bake brownies and cakes. We have lovely homemade desserts a couple times a week. When my body says enough of anything or “that not so good”, I listen. It took years for me to get to this place. And I’m happy.

  6. Another great post, Ragen. Makes me wonder how long until “Feel guilty about food – it burns calories!” turns up as a diet tip somewhere. Also, re “Even the idea of  healthy foods and unhealthy foods is tricky” I’ve been thinking about the idea that I’ve seen in comment threads that even if food has no moral value “we can all agree” that some food is healthier than other food. But what food is healthy for a person in danger of slipping into a diabetic coma? Someone undergoing chemo? Someone recovering from anorexia or bulimia? Will an Olympic gymnast and an Olympic weightlifter have similar eating habits? I was wondering if you’d like to write a post on this idea?

    Finally, you are very awesome and I hope your world tour goes well 🙂

    1. Also, re “Even the idea of healthy foods and unhealthy foods is tricky” I’ve been thinking about the idea that I’ve seen in comment threads that even if food has no moral value “we can all agree” that some food is healthier than other food. But what food is healthy for a person in danger of slipping into a diabetic coma? Someone undergoing chemo? Someone recovering from anorexia or bulimia? Will an Olympic gymnast and an Olympic weightlifter have similar eating habits?

      This. Most of the “We can all agree” statements on healthy and unhealthy food seem to be generated by using this basic pattern.

      1. Make a bunch of assumptions about what’s the most common state of health and the nutritional needs accompanied by it. Generally, this consists of a mix of actual fact, widespread misconceptions, and unproven stuff that feels right. It helps to pour on the first-world bias and class prejudice (because everyone on the internet is a middle-to-upper-class citizen of a developed country, right?). Also, the rather strange assumption that the majority of people will, barring fatness, go through life in a state of perpetual good health.

      2. Blur all distinctions between stuff that’s true for a plurality of people, stuff that’s true for the majority of people, and stuff that’s true for absolutely everyone. Statistical minorities simply don’t count, not even enough to merit the occasional “For most people” or “Unless you have these conditions” statement. And as the majority of people are, by definition, in the majority in some way, than most people are in the majority in every way! There can’t possibly be a significant percentage of the population who has a history of eating disorders and/or other mental health issues and/or food intolerance and/or other medical conditions and/or disabilities, because none of those things are true for the majority of the population, so all of them put together must be true for a tiny and easily ignored percentage!

      3. Insist that anyone who questions your assumptions is simply denying reality, and anyone who brings up less-common circumstances is simply nitpicking and being willfully oblivious.

  7. This is something I’ve struggled with over and over. Spent many hours in therapy trying to learn a new way to look at food, convinced that if I did, if I could just turn it into FOOD again, I would magically be thin.

    But then I found your blog and HAES and it clicked. Food is just food.

    Now I didn’t magically turn thin, but I eat what I want, when I want and so much of my thought processes can now be turned to something else, because they’re not going a million miles an hour trying to put a value on what I’m eating.

    There are still times that I struggle with the concept….when I have to actively remind myself that food does not have an intrinsic moral value. But overall, I’m in a much healthier frame of mind than even a year ago.

    And honestly, when I gave myself permission to eat a cheeseburger, I ended up wanting the grilled chicken (just for example). I stopped denying myself and listened to my body and, more often than not, my body chose what was healthier anyway.

  8. I don’t think any foods are bad foods. I think when people start to think of certain foods that way, that will make them more likely to overindulge on them, which is where a lot of the problems lie when it comes to how we eat in American culture.

  9. How does being guilty about eating a food help? Does guilt burn a bunch of calories and nobody told me? Even if it did would it be a good idea? When I hear the phrase “guilty pleasure” about food, it make me think of hiding in a corner with some cake and I don’t that’s a healthy way to view food.

    Are you psychic? Seriously, it’s like you pulled that right out of my head and then used it to make a better point than I would. 🙂 I grew up with family members totally steeped in that mentality and it drives me crazy. Why should anyone feel guilty about eating? We have to eat! (and I say this on my fourth day of recovery from a nasty bout of gastroenteritis – not being able to eat is hellish! I’m starving but my gut doesn’t want to deal anything more complex than ginger ale and crackers)

    Anyway, when I had a child I swore there would be none of that sort of food craziness in my house and I’d like to think I’m doing a good job. My son is nearly five, he eats a decent variety of foods for a kid his age and I don’t forbid sweets or fast food, but he knows they’re “sometimes” food and not for unlimited consumption. We eat very little fast food but I don’t kick up a fuss if a grandparent takes him to McDonalds either. I figure I must be doing something right because he has a “treat bowl” on the counter where we put candies he gets from holidays, birthday parties, etc and the treats can sit there for months untouched.

  10. A couple of month’s back, I read a Simon Doonan* column on Slate about guilty pleasure, he was referring to crap tv, but his point about the sanctimoniousness (is that a word?) of the “guilty pleasure” applies equally to food. Anyway, for some reason, his words really spoke to me and I adopted his philosophy of just pleasure instead of guilty pleasure immediately in regards to food. Here’s the link, only the first few paragraphs apply:

    Obviously, as my above comment shows, I’m not entirely guilt free yet when it comes to food, but I’m trying the best I can.

    *Simon Doonan might be a complete jackass when it comes to large people, I honestly have no idea, but for this one point, and one point only, I think he’s a freaking genius.

  11. It helps when you have an eating disorder and feeling guilty will surely make you stay away from food. In control. The most successful day is the one in which you haven’t eaten anything.
    Now seriously, I’ve been there and it takes a lot of patience and determination to stop the voices around you and just realize that you need a great relationship with food esp. after it’s been a strained one for many many years. Everyone has the right to enjoy, savour and feel great about nourishing their bodies. Of course, ads are bulls*it, I try to avoid them ar all costs. I won’t let them distort my image of food anymore. Or anything else.

    It’s sad because a basic need such as eating has been transformed into a morality issue. And an issue that is not well understood by most people. Diets are the perfect example-they really think that eating the same things everyday will work. Or not eating enough.

    I think that as long as we stop obsessing over something, it will stop being so much of a big deal.

  12. How funny, I was just today talking about that damn Truvia ad and showed it to my boyfriend who was horrified. I feel strongly that the “sinfully delicious” verbiage around food is harmful banter. It’s still connecting certain food INHERENTLY to emotions/judgments/states of being.

  13. Even if you cook the majority of your food yourself, unless you only use the same handful of memorized recipes, you will run face first into body shaming, food moralizing, etc. Because apparently it is illegal or something to print a recipe without pointing out all the (usually less flavorful) substitutions that were made in the name of health. With the exception of subbing applesauce for fat in many baked goods… applesauce makes everything better lol. If you like applesauce anyway.

    Food blogs are the worst for this — I love the *recipes* on The Pioneer Woman Cooks for instance, but I could do without all the body snarking. “Ignore the freaky pink alien hand” under almost every picture with her hand in it. Or comments about her jiggly butt every time she uses butter or cream or anything. And it’s not just that site, ANY cooking blog you will be slapped in the face with the idea that the recipe they present is bad in some way.

    It just highlights what an absurd relationship with food that the modern world has, when highlighting how bad something is for you is intended as an endorsement!

  14. Reading this blog post took me back to my struggle with compulsive eating. I found a lot of help in Geneen Roth’s work (“When Food Is Love”) and I even went to one of her seminars with my mom.
    Before discovering Geneen, my mother wasted a lot of time and energy (and damaged our relationship and my self esteem) trying to “help” me by harping on what I ate or didn’t eat. She was always trying to diet and projected her fears and insecurities onto me. She never actually tried to put me on a diet, she’d go the passive aggressive route and try to guilt the crap out of me for not doing it. Ours was a house of “good” and “bad” food – if I had any “bad” food I got to hear “Are you really going to eat that?” “Do you know how many calories are in that?” “Why don’t you have an apple/banana/salad/drink some water?” But my mom was the one with the ‘candy drawer’ – hidden of course because candy is evil and must not see the light of day…looking back it makes me so sad; the damage we did to ourselves and each other because of the lies of the media and the diet industry.

    The only word I would say might deserve to be used practically is “decadent,” if only to accurately describe a food in relation to other food. A slice of chocolate cake that has been made from scratch with real sugar and butter is not on the same level as a Hostess cupcake. A lot of restaurants serve desserts that deserve the title of decadent, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. To me, decadent just means rich and/or fancy. So now I don’t feel sinful when I order, I feel like a queen. Only the best for me – whether ‘best’ be a cupcake or a carrot stick is up to me and between me and my body.

    If good tasting food is a sin then I’ll be fat and happy in hell, and anyone who has a problem with that can, well, *eat it*! 😉

    1. Amen to that! I notice a correlation and a direct proportion between people who want to police my food and people whose relationship with food is utterly neurotic. I just use my little mantra “that’s not my issue, you can have it back” and move on. Sounds like you have moved yourself to a really good place. Congratulations and rock on 🙂


  15. What a fantastic blog Ragen 🙂 I am enjoying the conversation. I get sad when I see folks develop a hate relationship with food due to the negative messages in society.

  16. I swear, you blog about topics that have been bouncing around my head all week o_o You must be psychic.

    I work for a cafe, and I see this sort of thing all the time. Next to the register is our “dessert tower” that holds all our cookies, brownies, etc. and all the time, I see women glance at it, consider, then say, “Nah. I’ll be good today.”

    Good? For not buying a cookie? Come on!

    I’ve also seen people flip-flop between a choice of fries or fruit with their sandwich. “I really want fries today, but…I’ll go with the fruit.” As if fries are of the Devil. Ours are fried in canola oil – a very healthy, light oil.

    I mean, if you want some fries, get some fries. I know that a cup of melon and grapes can’t replace that crunchy, salty, golden stick. Sometimes I want to say something, let these people know that it’s okay to enjoy the food you eat, but at the same time, it’s really none of my business what people put in their bodies. And I’m hardly that eloquent.

  17. I have a pumpkin pie-scented body lotion that I bought at Target. I also had matching body wash, but I used all of it so that’s gone.

    On the bottle, it says “Indulgent fragrance is an invitation to the senses and a treat for your skin.

    Discover guiltless holiday comfort with the deliciously rich pumpkin and caramel scent.”.

    Got that? Don’t eat the pie! Smear something that smells like it all over yourself instead! It’ll be just as satisfying, and you don’t have to feel guilty about it!


  18. So what of those of us who know we are doing something REALLY unhealthy (in my case, I am a soda junkie – I drink way too much in order to self-medicate with caffeine)? It’s hard to unwrap the guilt of knowing I’m doing something deeply unhealthy (like having 2/3 of my caloric intake be liquid in the form of Mt. Dew…) from the guilt of being a fat girl who likes to eat food and drink soda. I don’t know if that makes sense. :-/

    1. Hi Saffie,

      I totally understand what you mean. For me, when I choose to do something other than what my body would probably choose on its own I make the choice to either do it and truly enjoy it, or not do it at all. I don’t believe that making healthy choices is a personal, social, or moral obligation and so I work hard not to attach those kind of judgments to it. For me it goes back to the question “how is the guilt helping?” and what do I want to choose for me?

      Hope that helps.


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