Guilt-free. A term I used to throw around with reckless abandon when talking about food and nutrition. Regardless of your nutritional leanings, you see this everywhere with reference to foods you ‘should’ be eating and foods that shouldn’t be on the menu. Even though the term itself is referring to a supposedly innocuous food choice, it’s the unintended message that no longer sits well with me. The very notion of ‘guilt-free’ foods implies that we should feel guilty or ashamed for eating foods that are not desirable. Over the last couple of years I’ve moved away from thinking about food in this way. It wasn’t even a conscious decision – I just noticed that I used the term less and less when discussing food choices with people, making me more aware of the term when I saw it. Our eating behaviour has so much more to do with psychological, sociological and emotional factors than just the food itself. If a food is deemed to be ‘guilt-free’ then often times it’s a version of a food we typically associate with being a treat: such as a muffin or cake. That it now contains meedjol dates instead of refined sugar, or almond flour in place of wheat flour gives it an immediate ‘health halo’ and we treat it almost like a health food. Which, clearly, it isn’t. Similarly, a food deemed as ‘bad’ we tend to eat it quicker, often not engaging in the actual process of eating, and we eat more of it at any one time as it’s the last time we will ever eat that food. This negates the very reason for consuming it in the first place, as we typically eat them for pleasure and satisfaction. Except almost the opposite it true; instead of pleasure we feel guilt.
There are many types of food that can create this feeling. One of the major hurdles that people struggle initially with when moving away from processed foods to a more whole food diet is this ingrained guilt and fear associated with consuming fat. Fat makes you fat, therefore we should avoid it at all costs. I certainly had it. When everything I consumed was ‘light’, ‘low calorie’, ‘diet’, and the healthfulness of a food was measured by its fat content. With over double the calories of carbohydrate and protein, any food which could be substituted for its lower-fat counterpart was sought out and promoted. Naturally, then, a diet higher in processed food was inevitable as some kind of human intervention had to take place in order to remove the fat and replace it with something close to palatable that could be consumed guilt-free. A lot of the time this was additional sugar or a sugar-substitute. If you’ve been eating the fat-free version of foods for years then it’s not always easy to throw away the Flora light and replace it with the butter tray. This is not the case for everyone, obviously. A lot of people rejoice they no longer have to choose the green lid milk over the blue. However, particularly women who have dogmatically followed a low fat diet for years, the opposite is true when letting go of these foods in favour of a ‘more food, less ingredient’ style of eating. When talking with clients about making the initial changes, they report a dislike for the taste of butter, fattier cuts of meat or a full fat, unsweetened yoghurt. Some even report feeling physically nauseous. There is certainly a psychological aspect to this. I remember when I was 8 years old I pretended to be sick so I could stay at home. I faked it so well that the apricot yoghurt mum gave me actually made me throw up (and avoid fruit yoghurt for a good 7 years). Dare I say, many females become vegetarians in their teenage years and remain so for years as a misguided way to lose weight, claiming that they don’t like the taste of red meat. It’s not until they begin eating meat again that they realise red meat doesn’t actually taste that bad.*
Typically, these are adjusted tastes; there was once a time where we thought trim milk was insipid, low fat cottage cheese was watery and and edam cheese was bland. Once our taste buds had adjusted, we could smell a full fat milk cappuccino a mile away. It is not just a psychological hurdle to overcome, indeed research last year found that taste buds physically change (one of the first scientific studies to ‘prove’ what anecdotally we have been saying for years). It does take time, though – and repeated exposure to a previously disliked food eventually results in acceptance. This physiological response to fat in food extends to the digestive processes. Certain enzymes responsible for the digestion of fat in the gut may be down-regulated if that pathway has not been utilised, therefore some people physically have problems digesting a diet higher in fat after years of omitting it from their diet. People with poor functioning liver or gall bladder may also have problems digesting fat, as the liver is the site of nutrient metabolism, and the gall bladder is responsible for secreting bile that is essential for fat digestion. Further, if you have irritable bowel syndrome and a sensitivity to FODMAP containing foods (specifically polyols), and have included additional coconut-based products in your diet, then this could explain some of the gastrointestinal distress.
When I talk to clients about a whole food diet naturally higher in fat, many experience the initial fear (and potential guilt) of eating more fat. They don’t trust themselves to add fat to the diet for this reason, as they don’t believe the effects of a higher fat diet – stabilising blood sugar, helping the delivery of fat soluble vitamins, increased satiety and an overall calmer mood state – will allow them to regulate their appetite. Too many years have been spent over-consuming ‘guilt-free’, nutrient-void processed foods which provide calories (less of them) but no nourishment. For these people, the psychological and physiological hurdles are such that it may take months or years to overcome. However, there are some things you can do to mitigate these and slowly increase the fat in your diet:
- Do it slowly. Instead of focusing on adding a lot of additional butter, olive oil, coconut oil to your food, just think about not removing the fat that is already present. Instead of automatically going for the low fat cream cheese, pick the regular variety. Choose the standard milk as opposed to the trim milk. Go for the darker cuts of meat on a chicken as opposed to the lean breast (a lot more nutritious) and don’t worry so much about removing the skin. Eat butter.
- Listen to your appetite. Fat has the ability to make you feel more satisfied after eating it, so really try to tune into your hunger cues and stop eating when you feel satisfied, not stuffed.
- Add a small amount of butter to steamed green vegetables. You do not need to drown them in it. This will help increase your absorption of fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K which require fat as the vehicle to be able to be utilised. As your taste buds adjust, you can increase the amount used.
- Add olive oil-based dressing to your salad greens.
- Increase the ¼ of an avocado to ½ an avocado.
- Make your omelettes with the whole egg and not just the egg white.
- If you do have a sluggish digestive system, helping support your liver by drinking raw apple cider vinegar in water 20 minutes before meals helps stimulate stomach acid and can help detox the liver. Bile salts help stimulate the production of bile from the gall bladder, essential for the digestion of fat.
- Add nuts and seeds to your smoothies and salads.
- Choose coconut cream to mash into pumpkin or kumara instead of milk.
Physically, you’ll soon adjust to a higher fat content without associated gastrointestinal distress. Psychologically, while you may not initially trust that you can increase the fat without gaining weight, you just need to remember to cue into your hunger cues and notice how you feel after eating. What really counts aren’t the calories – it’s the quality of those calories. Incorporating more of what is offered naturally in the way of food choices is far more nourishing and satisfying than any kind of packaged snack. However, if you choose to eat packaged snack foods then just do it and don’t feel guilty. Regardless of what you eat, the concept of ‘guilt-free’ foods and the unintended meanings should have no place in determining what we eat or, more importantly, how we feel.
*Obviously I’m not talking about all vegetarians, as there are many reasons why people choose not to consume meat. This is, however, a common one.