The Role of Guilt in Eating and Food Issues

Eating issues are exhibited through a number of behaviors, including—but not limited to—binge eating (BE) and purging. Some people who have challenges with eating and food issues engage in binging or purging alone, while others engage in both. Regardless of how the food issue manifests itself, the consequences can be significant. These maladaptive behaviors can lead to serious mental and physical health problems, such as anorexia nervosa (AN) and bulimia (BN). Psychologists have long believed there is a link between affect and eating problems, but have not fully explored the affective cues that could precede and follow episodes of unhealthy eating behaviors. To address this, Kelly C. Berg of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Minnesota recently led a study that assessed the moods of 133 women with BN.

For her study, Berg instructed the women to complete surveys documenting their levels of hostility, guilt, fear, and sadness over a two-week period. She then analyzed how these emotions fluctuated before and after binging, purging, or binging/purging episodes. Berg discovered that the levels of negative emotions studied increased prior to all three types of negative eating behaviors, with one exception. The women did not report increases in hostility prior to engaging in maladaptive behaviors. After episodes of binging, purging, or binging/purging, the increases in negative mood subsided. The findings also revealed that the highest increases were found on measures of guilt before episodes of maladaptive behavior. Similarly, guilt accounted for the largest decreases in negative affect after maladaptive eating behaviors.

Berg points out that these results were obtained through evaluation of self-reports and that clinical assessment tools were not used in this study. Additionally, because the participants were adult women, these findings do not provide insight into how these four emotional states relate to disordered eating in young adult and adolescent females. Despite these limitations, Berg believes that the results of this study are clinically important. “In summary, these data provide additional support for the affect regulation model and suggest that guilt may be particularly important to the pathology of BN,” she said.

Berg, K. C., Crosby, R. D., Cao, L., Peterson, C. B., Engel, S. G., Mitchell, J. E., Wonderlich, S. A. (2012). Facets of negative affect prior to and following binge-only, purge-only, and binge/purge events in women with bulimia nervosa. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029703

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  • Blaine

    October 3rd, 2012 at 3:55 AM

    I am not sure how all of this ties into my own personal story, but I know that when I eat something that I perceive to be “bad” I feel so guilty! Are there are other people out there who also get this feeling? I think that I have dieted so long and have such an uneasy relationship with food that I don’t really know how to eat and do it moderately and accept that having something yummy every now and again does not make me a failure or a bad person. Of course it is a whole lot easier to write these things than feel it for sure. . .

  • barry

    October 3rd, 2012 at 4:29 AM

    so they are guilty about their eating habits yet go ahead and do it because it is one way they will feel better?you know its not right to say larger people brought it upon themselves then…!

  • Nanette

    October 3rd, 2012 at 2:55 PM

    If you have never experienced this kind of lave hate relationship with food then it is probably hard to realize just how horrible oyu can come to feel about food and yourself. It is the feeling of helplessness, powerlessness over food, and how you behave around it. Food makes you feel comforted yet sick all at the same time, and how you view your own worthiness is all tied up in this mish mash of, argghh, I don’t even have the words for it because it can get so complicated! All I can say is that I do not wish this kind of helplessness to its power and control on anyone because I have been trying to break the cycle for a number of years now and I have still not found the lasting answer.

  • Glenn varner

    October 4th, 2012 at 4:02 AM

    I’m sorry- I’m not sure I totally understand- is this saying that contrary to what we have thought that the majority of women did not feel any extra guilt even after engaging in their eating disordered behavior? I have always felt that their emotions would fall more into line with what Nanette posted here.

  • Millie

    October 4th, 2012 at 4:03 PM

    I really am not sure where all of this self hatred comes from that would cause someone to abuse their body in such a way. I have a hard time with feeling like there is so much self loathing because that is not the kind of world that my God would have created or would have wanted for His followers. I sincerely hope that there can be more self acceptance and acknowledgement thatwe may not be perfect, but that no one is, and that we can come to be happier with our selves and our bodies.

  • Purple Dreamer

    October 4th, 2012 at 5:41 PM

    On the flipside of that, I know for me, withholding food was a form of self-inflicted punishment. If I did something wrong, had a bad day, whatever, I would not let myself eat. I felt so guilty for whatever it was that I did, it made me feel better, for whatever reason, to punish myself by restricting. EDs are so, so complex. They are not something I’d wish on even my worst enemy. No one asks for an ED of any kind.

  • lil

    October 5th, 2012 at 4:17 AM

    purple dreamer- where did you have that kind of discipline for lack of a better word? it was punishment to the extreme to be sure, but not anything that benefitted you

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