mental health
BY: Aleks Zavlunova

For The Love of Dessert: How to Enjoy Desserts Guilt-Free

All desserts are “guilt-free” desserts!

Does the thought of dessert make you happy? You finish a meal and think, “I could go for something sweet!” Or maybe your soul gets excited when you scroll through the dessert section of a menu and see they have chocolate cake.

But then, your thought process immediately follows with all the reasons why you “shouldn’t” eat what you want, and feelings of guilt begin to set in. Maybe you eat it and feel guilty about it. Maybe you opt not to eat it but then can’t stop thinking about how much you want it and feel guilty for even wanting it in the first place.

Sound familiar? You’re not alone. Many people experience this thought cycle.

But why do we feel so guilty about dessert?

Guilt is an emotion

First, it is important to understand guilt as an emotion. Understanding this feeling can be insightful and help you take the burden and pressure off, particularly when it comes to eating certain foods. Guilt is often experienced when people deem themselves as having done something wrong when they believe they may have somehow inflicted harm or endangered others or are responsible for someone else’s burden. This emotion’s degrees vary from person to person, mostly due to their life experiences and learning history.

Guilt around food is a learned response

When feelings of guilt arise around eating certain foods, like dessert, this often reflects one’s mindset around food. Many of us have been conditioned to view foods as “good” and “bad,” or “healthy” and “unhealthy.” In the process, we have also paired our own morality with those words. For example, greens are “good” and “healthy,” while chocolate cake is “bad” and “unhealthy.” So if you have salad, you are “good,” but if you had some dessert, you are “bad.” Even using words like “treat” or “cheat meal” is conditioned.

The good news is that since this is mostly a mental process, we can reshape our thoughts and language around food!

Questions to ask to break the thought cycle

When you’re feeling guilty about dessert, here’s a checklist of questions to ask yourself to help you re-examine your thought process.

  1. “Am I doing anything wrong?” Will eating dessert result in you breaking the law, harming anyone, stealing, etc.? Hint: The answer is “NO!” (Unless somehow in the process, you are, in which case dessert is the least of your worries.)
  2. “Will this ONE item have a significant negative impact on my body?” Hint: Unless there are ingredients you’re allergic to, those that cause dietary or digestive problems, or medical problems, the answer is “NO!”
  3. “Outside of this occasion, do my other behaviors align with my practices of healthy habits?” For example, do you make sure to eat various nutrients, have healthy methods for stress management, move daily, make sure you’re sleeping well, get fresh air and sunlight? Hint: If the answer is yes, occasional dessert shouldn’t be a concern or a focus. If the answer is no, this particular instance should also not be a concern or focus.

Be mindful of what you say

Diet culture and the media have a lot to do with how we speak about food. When we say things like “It’s ok, this is my cheat meal,” or “ I worked hard, so I deserve this,” we are making food consequential rather than keeping it neutral. Food is food. It is neither good nor bad. When we change the language we use around food, we are slowly reprogramming that conditioning.

You don’t HAVE to have the sweet potato brownie…

Do you know what else doesn’t help feelings of guilt around food? How we’re constantly bombarded with ways to make our favorite desserts “healthy.” You know, the recipes for all the ways to change traditional desserts: Avocado chocolate mousse, black bean or sweet potato brownies, flourless chocolate cake, and so on. While these substitutes are great ways to create variety and enjoy different nutrients in a fun way, don’t feel pressured to “healthify” your dessert.

Again, unless you have specific dietary restrictions, no one food is good or bad.

If you want to improve the quality of some ingredients because you are looking to improve your overall nutrient intake—like opting for coconut oil instead of vegetable oil or using real cacao powder instead of conventional cocoa powder—that’s great. But know that you do not HAVE or NEED to.

A “healthy” dessert is one you don’t feel guilty about eating

We are a product of our accumulated behaviors. While ingredients, how often, and how much we eat matter to a degree, what’s more important is remembering that what we do habitually ultimately determines our health. That includes our mindset around the food we eat. If you engage in healthy behaviors (eating nutrient-rich foods, getting adequate sleep, managing stress, moving daily), trust that the occasional dessert is nothing to feel guilty about. Allow yourself to feel good and savor the moment.

Aleks Zavlunova is a Holistic Behavior Therapist and Wellness Coach. She uses principles of human learning and behavior modification to help people develop sustainable skills and habits to lead healthier and happier lives. Aleks combines cognitive behavior psychology and nutrition science to help her clients begin to address maladaptive and self-destructive patterns and habits, build self-esteem, confidence, and self-love, by systematically improving their relationship with food. She strongly believes that our relationship with food greatly correlates with our relationship with the self, our emotional, physical, and mental wellbeing, as well as our relationships with others.

You can contact her on Instagram @aleks.zavlunova

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