I hear the term "guilt-free" often to describe recipes or foods that are healthier versions of full fat, high sugar, so-called "guilty pleasures," such as pizza and fried chicken. But as a dietician, the idea of eating a guilt-free version of an otherwise indulgent meal actually ticks me off.
Here’s why: If you think about it, what we're really saying when we call a cookie guilt-free is that eating a regular cookie should make us feel guilty to begin with. And that just exacerbates the horrible feeling you might get after eating a food that you genuinely enjoy but try not to indulge in that often.
I know eating foods or creating recipes that have this label is meant to be positive thing—and don't get me wrong, eating healthier alternatives to your favorite foods can be a good thing—but using this term just makes us feel worse when we finally do eat a piece of cake or whatever it is you love. And that shame-y feeling causes the stress hormone Cortisol to ramp up, which has been shown to cause weight gain around your midsection and make your cravings worse. How's that for irony?
If you choose to eat that deliciously gooey chocolate chip cookie, it should be a conscious indulgence, not a guilty pleasure. In other words, it should make you feel empowered and happy, not like you did something bad and need to eat kale salads the rest of the day to make up for it.
We don’t feel empowered by eating guilt-free. There shouldn’t be guilt in the first place to be free from! We feel empowered by eating from an empowered place and listening to our bodies.
Focusing on positive behaviors and listening to your body's hunger and fullness cues will motivate you to eat better. You don't need to mentally punish yourself to do it. By removing this term from your food vocab, you'll reduce those shameful feelings, lower your cortisol levels, and you just may lose a few pounds, too.