How to ditch the food guilt (and order the chocolate pudding)

Eight-texture chocolate cake

Peter Gilmore demonstrates the construction of one of his signature desserts, the lavish eight-texture chocolate cake.

Dinner was going well: it contained not just enjoyable meals, but as much laughter and easy chatting as you'd expect from a table of girlfriends.

Until the dessert menus were placed in front of us, that is.

Seven of the 10 women began battling with whether to order dessert, some anxiously discussed how far they would run the next day to work it off, while others added up that day's exercise to decide if they'd "earned" the gooey chocolate pudding.

Yes, we'll have cake.
Yes, we'll have cake. Photo: Steven Siewert

Dessert is often described as a "guilty pleasure", or "sinful indulgence"; language that makes us feel bad for wanting it.

While you might think that this view makes people enjoy their sweets less, the opposite is true. Research out of Yale has found that guilt actually enhances pleasure; people who feel guilty experience an intense enjoyment of their so-called indulgence.

Rebelling makes us feel good.

In our case, most of my friends ordered dessert despite the guilt; they gave a resigned sigh over the guilt they'd feel afterwards, but did it anyway. And boy, did it taste good.

Images for Good Food Chocolate Day edition. Written by Carla Grossetti.  chocolate pudding from Lucio Pizzeria and eclair Gontran Cherrier, pic by Hayley Benoit.

A chocolate eclair - for breakfast? Photo: Hayley Benoit

Why women feel guilty about dessert

New research tells us that women feel food guilt much more than men – and it's all because we're focused on the number of calories and the amount of fat in the food we're eating.

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This study suggests that our attitudes towards body image and weight cause our guilt.

Zoe Nicholson, who describes herself as a "non-diet dietitian" at figureate, agrees with this. "The guilt comes from a strong desire to lose weight or look a certain way," she says. "It comes from a deep sense of body dissatisfaction … and a misguided belief that there's a 'right way to eat', not only for our health but to achieve that 'better body' that would allow us to feel happier within ourselves, more worthy and confident.

"There's a belief in our culture that if we avoid certain foods, we're doing the right thing by our bodies. A lot of people (restrict their eating) under the guise of health, and that is a factor, but that idea of health is largely driven by how people feel about what their bodies look like."

The shame of eating what we want

Once we label certain foods as "bad", we start a difficult cycle of rebelling against ourselves and then feeling terrible about it. "If we find ourselves craving and then eating that 'forbidden food', there's a deep sense of guilt or, more accurately, shame," Nicholson says.

This shame was evident at my dinner with friends. I watched dessert menus being shuffled and listened to a chorus of changing minds. Yes, dessert would be lovely but, no, I shouldn't. Yes, I love sticky date but, no, I haven't earned it.

All that guilt might have been making the ultimate reward of saucy dessert topped with melting ice-cream worth it to those who were lamenting. But what it didn't do was enhance the enjoyment of the evening for the three of us who weren't feeling guilty.

Or, I should say, those of us who weren't being verbal about it. I don't know a woman who doesn't feel the guilt.

How to ditch the food guilt

The good news is, it is possible to turn this guilty state around.

"I use a process called intuitive eating with my clients, and what underpins it is an unconditional permission to eat," Nicholson says.

"When you have a belief that you can eat whatever you feel like, whenever you feel like it … you end up wanting a variety of food, not just chocolate all the time."

There's a Facebook meme going around that says, "Did you know that, as an adult, you can eat cake for breakfast? There's literally no one policing this." I reckon this is proof that we can eat intuitively; we don't eat cake for breakfast (well, not usually), simply because we listen to what our bodies need.

But we know we could if we wanted to.

"Deprivation drives desire, and scarcity creates anxiety," Nicholson says. "If you can eat desserts whenever you like, the urgency to eat them when they're in front of you goes away. You'll still want to eat it sometimes but … you learn to eat to hunger, fullness and satisfaction."

We just need to take those intuitions with us into the rest of our day, past not eating cake for breakfast.

"There's a dietitian in the States who says, the only reason you should ever feel guilty for eating something is if you've stolen it or you've killed someone to get that food," Nicholson says.

In other words: one serving of chocolate pudding, please – but hold the guilt.