Name: Julian Hayes II
Occupation: Fitness & lifestyle writer, personal trainer (NASM), and online coach.
I used to be enslaved by the "perfect" fitness mindset, championing clichés like "Eat clean, train dirty" and "Make sure to eat within 30 minutes of your workout." My desire for perfection controlled my thoughts, emotions, and actions. Everything I did—from eating smelly tuna in the middle of class to travelling with prepacked, perfectly portioned meals—was in the best interest of my fitness results, or so I thought.
Social life, be damned! Cheat days? No way! I was determined to own that six-pack.
One mistake would ruin my day and make me feel like a failure. Soon, food-induced guilt took over my life.
When I wasn't micromanaging my food intake and timing, I agonized over my food choices and punished myself emotionally for giving in and indulging on those cookies. What's worse, no matter how I looked on the outside, I became a stressed-out recluse with low self-esteem.
I eventually saw my food guilt for what it was: an unhealthy obsession. It took a lot of time to rid myself of this mentality and overcome food guilt, but when I did it, I finally felt like I could live and enjoy life's valuables experiences with friends and loved ones.
If this sounds like you, there is a way out. When guilt begins to flood my thoughts, I use one of the five approaches below to take back control.
Use these approaches to grab the reins of your life back from food guilt.
Accept your dietary missteps and move on from them
In most cases, people who are vulnerable to food guilt are those who follow specific diet plans. At first, they follow the plan to a T. Then they go out with friends one night, and it feels like all of their effort has been undone because they went off-plan and couldn't control their portions.
It's going to be okay.
Life happens. One dietary mistake doesn't mean you're a failure, nor is it a green light for binge-eating.
You can't change the past. Obsessing isn't going to do anything except make you more and more anxious and prolong the guilt.
Acknowledge what happened, understand that it makes a miniscule impact on things in the long run, and keep moving along with life.
Accept that perfectionism isn't realistic
Nobody is perfect. Everyone—from fitness professionals and models you follow on Instagram to your extreme CrossFit buddy—makes mistakes and drops off their program. They'd be lying if they told you anything else.
The idea of a perfect diet—or perfect anything, for that matter—is about as realistic as capturing a unicorn. We all slip up; that's what makes us human. Life is about enjoyment, not being prisoners of our diets.
Be kind to yourself, and learn to forgive yourself. You can be full of understanding and accepting of other people, so why not be kind to the person who matters most: yourself?
When you're kind to yourself and realize that, "Hey, I'm just a normal human being," there's no room for guilt.
Mindfully look at your situation
Oftentimes, we get caught up in the present moment of a misstep and feel the fitness apocalypse has arrived. Ask yourself, "Does this deserve an ounce of my energy in the grand scheme of things?"
The story in our mind can end up a lot worse than the reality of our situation. Always keep the big picture in mind. Think about whether that slice of cake or that one beer is going to demolish all of your efforts and your fitness goals in the long term.
If you maintain consistent and healthy daily nutritional habits, a few mistakes here and there won't kill you. What's "a few?" Aim for 85 to 90 percent of your food and drink consumption to be from nutritionally sound sources.
To indulge or not to indulge—that is the question.
Answer it quickly
If you're going to cheat on your diet, better simply to do it and move on, rather than letting it preoccupy your day. Healthy eating is eating in a way that pleases your palate, supports your physique and fitness goals, and allows you to enjoy life. Remember that being healthy is about finding joy and balance in the things you do and eat.
At the risk of sounding cheesy, life is really too short to walk around with shame and regret for putting life-sustaining food into your body. Forgive yourself and move on. You can't move forward until you stop dwelling in the past. These negative emotions are not worth your time, your energy, or your happiness.
In the comments section below, I want to hear what makes you feel guilty, and what you plan to do about it. It's time to actively do something to finally let go of guilt.