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Guilty Pleasure

In a recent book column review, Charles de Lint, who’s written some of my favorite stories, asks a very good question in relation to the phrase “guilty pleasure”: “But why should anyone feel guilt over something that gives them pleasure (and no one is being hurt during the act…)?”

It’s a good question, and it certainly relates to food as well as reading. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized I’m not sure I know anyone who hasn’t struggled with feeling guilty about eating certain foods at one time or another.

I know I’ve felt this way, and it saddens me when, in my work as a coach, someone shares aspects of their eating habits that they’ve never told anyone, even their spouse. Don’t get me wrong – I’m glad they feel comfortable telling me, but why should food evoke such a need for secrecy and shame?

I often wonder how much of this dates back to our society’s Puritan roots, with people who believed pleasure in general was suspect and something to feel guilty or ashamed about. Whether intentionally or not, we’re made to feel that pleasure is not virtuous, and we should be focused on other things. In the food realm, I suppose this would mean eating more nutritious foods rather than ones that we’d normally think of as a guilty pleasure.

I also think it has to do with how we compare ourselves to others. As Wikipedia noted, a guilty pleasure is something “that one enjoys despite feeling that it is not generally held in high regard, or is seen as unusual or weird.”

Being unusual or weird can sometimes be fun, but not always. And when we’re surrounded by media images – TV, movies, magazines, social media – that present an expectation of what “normal” eating looks like, and what we’re “supposed” to do, it can make the experience of eating all the more fraught with shame and guilt.

But I’m with Charles de Lint on this. I don’t think we should be ashamed of what we eat, and certainly not so ashamed that we feel like telling someone about it risks their judgment and might make them reject us as a person.

So here’s to normalizing our food habits, whether that be sometimes having fast food, pints of ice cream, bags of chips, lots of Girl Scout cookies, or being addicted to certain fruits or vegetables (yes, that can happen, too). If we can bring that out of the shadows, it can only help reduce any guilty associations with food, and in my mind, that is never a bad thing.

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