Like thousands of other shoppers across the nation, I recently spent a morning strolling the aisles at Trader Joe’s. The boutique grocery store has long been a favorite among snack-seeking college students and hungry yuppies, and my shopping list is regularly split between TJ’s and another, larger grocery store.
But that morning, I spotted something that stopped me cold: In the cracker section above a freezer case, nestled between the peanut butter stuffed pretzels and baked pita crisps, I noticed that the Trader Joe’s version of Wheat Thins inexplicably proclaimed themselves “guilt free.”
I picked up the box and studied the writing on its side. Were the ingredients farmed in an ethical manner that respected the land? For each box purchased, was a box donated to someone in need? Was the box itself made of recycled materials? Each question could be answered with a resounding “NOPE.”
It turns out that the crackers were reduced fat, and the “guilt free” labeling referred to their slightly lower calorie content. And that is straight bullshit if I’ve ever heard it.
But Trader Joe’s isn’t the only offender on my list. The “guilt free” label popped up again on a package of puffed rice snacks, and again on ELLE, Food Network, Good Housekeeping, and countless other articles designed to help you be your “best self” (whatever that means). It’s a slogan that subtly works its way into your thoughts, eventually becoming mantra that blares in your brain when you open the fridge or pantry leaving you with a twinge of shame for feeling hungry.
The thing is, snack foods like Doritos are scientifically engineered to torpedo our self-control. From the way junk food seems to melt in your mouth to the specific calibration of its spice blend, every detail has been lab tested until it’s fine-tuned in order to maximize the likelihood that you’ll go back for more. Even though we all know that overindulgence isn’t the key to good health, it’s no accident that it’s hard not to shovel snack foods. With the deck designed to always be stacked against our best intentions, the problem isn’t always a personal moral failure–it’s the direct result of snack food companies that profit from our addiction to that perfect combination of sugar, salt, and fat.
It’s worth noting that if you consistently have guilty, negative feelings after eating, it could be a signal that something deeper is amiss. Binge eating disorder affects 2 percent of the population and is characterized by eating large quantities of food, sometimes in secret and often to an extreme that interrupts daily routines such as school, work, or friendships. Because binge eaters rarely exhibit the extreme thinness that’s stereotypically associated with eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia, it can be harder for family and friends to recognize.
Researchers have linked binge eating disorder to everything from depression to disordered eating habits in which individuals avoid certain foods or restrict eating during regular meal times. But, as in all eating disorders, binge eating is not a moral failure–and people dealing with binge eating deserve love and empathy, not a culture of snack food branding that shoves boxes of crackers that make shaming jabs about guilt right in our faces.
Although everyone’s road to recovery takes a different form, help is available, usually as a combination of nutritional advice and psychotherapy. If binge eating is rooted in depression or a biological appetite disorder, your doctor may also recommend medication to treat the underlying imbalance.
Even if you don’t deal with binge eating disorder, labeling some foods as “guilt free” can actually increase the likelihood of overindulgence. Studies have found that “low fat” labeling typically prompts people to eat twice as much. Distressingly, consumers who are already overweight are particularly susceptible to overeating foods with “low fat” labels. Although the types of labels are ostensibly in place to help consumers make healthier choices, they seem to have little effect in practice.
Furthermore, a “guilt free” label implies that other versions of a snack are right to provoke negative emotions–which misses the point of eating entirely. We eat for different reasons: to nourish our bodies, to savor a taste, to share a moment. As long as you are eating an overall balanced diet (including some treats, within moderation!) food should be a source of joy–not guilt or shame.
Don’t let a box determine whether you to feel guilty, lazy, unworthy, or weak. If you want to eat a snack, eat a snack–and enjoy every damn bite, darling.
The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) offers a free, anonymous test that can help you evaluate whether or not you are exhibiting signs of an eating disorder. You can also reach NEDA’s toll-free, confidential helpline at 1-800-931-2237.