What Does “Guilt Free” Really Mean?

Disclaimer:  I am writing about the inherent morality, or lack thereof, in food choices.  I am not talking about food choices that are more nutritionally dense than others, or talking about medical reasons for eating or not eating certain foods.

Trigger Warning:  This post has to do with food and lists a few different foods, including candy.  Please do not read if that will cause issues with any recovery you may be in.

I have been slowly building a candy business.  I make the candy with the best ingredients I can:  local honey, good quality chocolates, whole milk, cream, butter.  I use no artificial ingredients.  If something is flavored, it either has that thing in it, or it has an oil or extract of that ingredient.  No “artificial flavorings” allowed.

One of the types of candies I make is caramel.  Besides the regular caramel, I’ve been making different flavors.  In season, I offer a strawberry made with strawberry syrup I make myself from fresh strawberries.  I perfected a maple caramel using maple syrup (and it took a while to figure the chemistry involved for the caramel to not crystalize).  Now, I’m working on a chocolate caramel.

(Stick with me, we’ll get to the Fat Activist part of this, honest!)

In developing my flavors, I don’t just rely upon my and my husband’s tastes.  I have a group of people who are willing to be testers, so I can have a well balanced idea of what may or may not need to be changed in my recipes.  Yesterday on Facebook, I was informing people that there will be two chocolate caramels to taste with subtle differences.  Of course, my tasters don’t taste for free, and while I can’t afford to pay money, I do give some of the established candy as payment.

A friend responded and said the candy was “guilt free” because my tasters were working for it.  I responded that none of my candy came with added guilt.

That started me thinking (ah, now we’re getting to it).  Just what does “guilt free” really mean? defines guilt as:


1.  the fact or state of having committed an offense, crime,violation, or wrong, especially
against moral or penal law;culpability: He admitted his guilt.
2.  a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime,wrong, etc.,
 whether real or imagined.
3.  conduct involving the commission of such crimes, wrongs,etc.: to live a life of guilt.
verb (used with object) Informal .

4.  to cause to feel guilty  (often followed by out  or into ): She totally guilted me out, dude.

 He guilted me into picking upthe tab. See also guilt-trip.

If you listen to the diet industry, guilt free means fat free, sugar free, carb free, calorie free, and maybe even food (ie, nutrition) free.  The candy I make is not anything like that.

The idea that is being sold to us, and we are buying, is that the only way we are allowed to enjoy something is if it has nothing enjoyable in it.  If it is unrepentantly full of fat or sugar or carbs or whatever, then it is “naughty”, “evil”, or “bad”.   If a person is seen eating such a thing, they generally have to justify it.  “Oh, it’s only a small piece to celebrate!”  “I know, it’s bad for me, but it was just too tempting!”  “I’ll just work out extra hard at the gym to make up for it!”

So, what does “guilt free” mean?  With the dictionary definitions above, it would mean that there is nothing wrong, legally or morally, with it.

And that’s the crux of the matter, isn’t it?  We live in a world where food, especially certain kinds of food, are considered to be moral.  Anything with fat, sugar, eggs (for the cholesterol value) is judged to be morally inferior, and the people who presumably eat a lot of it are also judged to be morally inferior.

And, except in a legal sense, guilt (which walks hand in hand with shame) are used by people to control other people.  How dare you have that sandwich with full-fat mayonnaise on it?  How dare you go back for seconds?  Or have dessert?  Don’t you know how bad you are being for eating that?  If you really must have that treat, how are you going to work it off?

All of those questions are designed to make people feel guilty for enjoying whatever they were eating, and ashamed for the supposed outcome.  “Well!  No wonder you are so fat!”

“Guilt Free” means just that.  There is no moral deficiency for enjoying food, whether it’s freshly picked tomatoes, a loaded baked potato, a steak cooked to your desired doneness, chocolate cake, or any of the other wonderful foods that are out there.

Food is not immoral.  It never was.  And nobody is immoral for eating food.

11 Responses

  1. Sing it, sister!

    If you ever find yourself in need of another taster, I’d like to volunteer my services. Pretty please? If I’m particularly pleased with a flavor, I might send you a jar of my homemade lemon curd. I’m just saying. I’m not trying to bribe you, oh no, I’m not.

    I’ve always hated the idea that I should somehow feel guilty for eating a slice of cake, or that I ought to consider a delicious, crunchy salad a kind of penance. That’s no good in either direction. How many people do you know who hate salad not because they dislike lettuce and raw tomatoes, but because it’s been sold to them as the ‘virtuous food that makes up for eating things you actually like.’ How many will tie themselves up in all sorts of mental and emotional knots over a single candy bar?

    There was a woman I worked with once who made herself a bag of microwave popcorn every day. But before she could do it, she had this entire ritual of telling everyone within earshot multiple times how ‘bad’ she was being. She would usually offer to share with me, and since I was stony broke and more often hungry than I liked to admit, I would usually accept gratefully. Except then she would wink and get all conspiratorial about how ‘bad’ WE were being. Honey, I just wanted a snack that wasn’t on my own dime. Microwave popcorn isn’t even that exciting to me, but it kept my stomach full for another hour or so.

    So there we were. She was guilt-ridden, and very, very thin. I was utterly practical about it and very, very fat. Frankly, I think my gratitude was a better sauce than her guilt. And I would have enjoyed my popcorn about a zillion times more if I hadn’t had to listen to her berate us both for eating it.

  2. Great post. There’s also the urge for people to pathologize food choice — so, in addition to food having moral value, they also suggest that the reason you like your cheesecake, chocolate, chips, etc instead of your plain spinach salad, is because your brain is ‘hooked’ on sugars, fats, and salts. That once you ‘detox’ from fats, sugars, and salts, then you start to appreciate your plain spinach better and realize that you didn’t need the salad dressing all along!

    That kind of pseudoscience (which links pretty much every human behavior to some addiction/reward model) is also thrown around when people (usually non-scientists) argue that you can eat your way to illness.

  3. I hate eating around my in laws for this very reason. I love salads, vegetables, and I prefer very lean meats. And I don’t like the sensation of being full, so I tend to eat smaller meals more often.

    Which means, every meal around them, if I’m not listening to them try to justify eating food at all, I get to listen to either:

    A) “maybe you should see a doctor, because you hardly eat anything and you’re, well… sort of heavy dear”

    B) “oh just give up pretending to be on a diet, we can all see you aren’t and eating so little isn’t fooling anybody”

    *le sigh*

    I also get pretty tired of the misuse of the word addiction. Of course, I also don’t really care for the amount of finger waving that gets attached to processed foods or even specific ingredients. I’ve been alive long enough to be pretty much done with the food devil of the day panics. It always ends up that companies phase it out or offer versions without the devil ingredient, and nothing changes, so a year or two later another thing becomes the devil of the day.

  4. Yesterday I came back from a trip to the USA. The whole way, I was asking for whole milk please, not fat reduced. I also asked for scrambled eggs made with eggs, not egg whites. My hosts were shocked. It was explained to me that dairy fat is bad. Yolks are bad.

    I like milk. I like eggs. I don’t want substitutes for perfectly good foods that people have eaten for centuries.

    I’ve just finished drinking a cappuccino. Full milk.

    • Jennifer, as an American, I would like to apologize to you for the behavior of my countrymen and women. If you’re ever in my neck of the woods, I only use full-fat milk and usually keep actual eggs on hand.

      Yes, I have to think about things like cholesterol and fat when feeding Mr. Twistie (between his diabetes, high blood pressure, and long history of heart problems), but I also bake, and I need the real stuff to make it happen. Also, I prefer to eat real eggs and full-fat dairy.

      So if you find yourself near San Francisco, drop on by and I’ll cook us up some eggs, followed by a slice of cake with real milk to drink. Or, you know, whatever else floats your boat.

    • It’s not even true that eggs are bad for you. That’s an old myth that’s been disproved by research in the last few years. Eating foods with cholesterol does not raise your blood cholesterol; it’s actually very good for you. I tested this myself by eating eggs every day for a couple of months and having cholesterol tests before and after: no change in the results.
      So everyone can eat a dozen eggs for breakfast every day without fearing heart attacks…

      • And Lewis Black will no longer be in conflict about breakfast! He did this really funny stand up routine, where he ranted about how they would say eggs are good one day, then the next day they’re bad, and he ended with saying “I just want to have my damn breakfast!” lol.

  5. Sounds like a great business!

    I would also add that you’re not talking about food choices on religious or cultural grounds; that’s important to acknowledge too.

  6. Excellent post! I’m working on not telling myself I’m bad every time I eat chocolate or have dessert. We’ve been so conditioned to think anything rich and well-made and delightful is bad for us. I wish it wasn’t so hard to break that habit.

  7. I used to have a friend who would drive me crazy with her food guilt. At the time I was much thinner and had gotten that way by eating whatever I wanted but doing so in moderation, altering my food tastes to include more whole and fresh foods, and exercising.

    I was loving it because I could enjoy food and felt good in my body because I was active, strong and flexible.

    So we would go out to dinner, or hang out, and she would talk non-stop about how she’d eaten too much that day and really shouldn’t indulge — only to reveal that “too much” meant a whole single-serving bag of potato chips, a few bites of whatever food demo she was preparing and nothing else all day.

    Then, when the food arrived, she’d eat and exclaim how delish it was… but.

    But it’s so fattening. But it has so many calories. But it’s all butter and cream. But I’m going to have to work out all day to work this off. And so on. Every. Time. She. Ate.

    And I would continually find myself saying stuff like:
    “Dude, if all you had was a bag of potato chips and a few bites of pasta, that’s not too much.”

    “Dude, don’t worry about the calories and just enjoy it.”

    “Dude, if you butter and cream are a problem then Don’t Order/Eat It.”

    And so on.

    The only thing worse was the people at the gym, where I did massage, commenting on my food choices.

    “Eww don’t eat a POP TART! Those are awful!”

    Look here:
    A) I didn’t ask you for your opinion so, shut up;
    B) The alternative to the Pop-Tart breakfast is NO breakfast which is infinitely worse. So, shut up;
    C) Shut up.

  8. My opinon is the “I’ve been bad.” statements regarding some foods, is a form of infantilizing women. When you hear women talk about how bad they’re being, it sounds like a small child with their friends, saying how mommy and daddy would be so mad with them if they knew what they were doing.

    We need to stop conforming with society’s ideas that in order to communicate with women, they need to use concepts that one would with a 5 year old. We also should try to be adults, and not act like children about whatever decisions we make. To take responsibility for them, rather than whining on and on like eating something delicious is a form of torture.

    In regards to the Pop Tart, someone might think that is gross that you’re eating it, considering the artificial colors and chemicals in it. This isn’t moralizing, it’s that it’s a reality that many cheap foods like Pop Tarts are less food and more something from a lab. I don’t feel there should be morality when it comes to food, but I also wouldn’t want someone eating a chemical cocktail. I have eaten more organic foods, and have felt much better not eating the chemicals I have in the past.

    What I’m saying is, I might also be one to think “You’re eating that pop-tart? Eww!” but not because someone might be fat, because I’m thinking about the artificial colors in there that could cause your body damage. If you don’t want to eat organic fine, then I suggest you eat more vegetables just to give your body a fighting chance against the chemicals you’re putting into it.

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