CW: Disordered and restrictive eating behaviors shared in details below.
I used to abide by many arbitrary (and seemingly “healthy”, at the time) food rules. For example: At a restaurant, the first thing I did was scan the menu for descriptive words and dishes that fit the confines of a very narrow definition of “healthy eating”. If there was a “healthy” section, I only ordered from that! Rarely did I ever pick up a menu and simply ask myself, “What sounds good?” (I do that now!) Instead, I asked, “What satisfies The Rules?”
At one point in our lives—maybe as kids or teenagers or even young adults—eating was a much simpler task. We didn’t overthink it. If food was available, we ate when we felt hungry, we ate what was offered, and we ate what aligned with our preferences.
Then we were exposed to diet culture and myriad messages about what it really means to eat in a “healthy” way—maybe as kids, teenagers, or if you’re lucky, not until young adulthood. These messages about what, when, and how we should eat are often translated into personal food rules. And these food rules often impact our relationship to food, and we forget how to go back to that relatively simple task of eating what we like and what we need, when we feel hungry.
Have you ever thought about your own food rules? Have you ever written them down and taken a look at that list, to think, is this really helping me?
If you’re up for it, and it feels safe to do so, keep reading and get out a pen and piece of paper (or notes app). Let’s define a food rule, and then identify some of your own. This is often an important step towards having a healthier relationship with food, and eating in a way that feels more pleasurable, satisfying, and even healthy.
First: What IS a food rule?
I define a “food rule” as anything that strongly influences what, when, and why you choose to eat (or not eat), in a way that often overrides your body’s intuition and/or your personal food preferences.
When it comes to food rules, there are some more common ones like “I think I should only eat carbs at lunch and dinner” or “I should only eat whole wheat breads” And I’ve heard some random ones that made their way into someone’s psyche and really stayed put for no discernible reason. For example: “A trainer once told me to never eat peanut butter with bread, so I don’t!” (True story; unnecessary rule.) See some more examples below.*
As I explore this concept with clients, they’re often surprised not only by how many rules they try to follow every day, but also by how restrictive these rules actually feel. We realize that what may have began as an attempt to eat “healthier” developed into a rigid set of rules that impact our relationship to food, health, movement, etc. So I find this to be a really helpful topic of exploration, both to liberate clients from these rules but also to help them redefine what “healthy” eating really means to them.
In my first session or two with a new client, we might be able to identify one or two food rules. It feels weird at first! So many people assume that without rules, they would never eat something “healthy” again. Or, without rules, their physical health would take a nosedive. But that’s rarely true!
In fact, one study showed that when people had less restraint (e.g. rules and restriction) with eating patterns, and showed intuitive eating behaviors, it was associated with decreased disordered eating. Another study reported that intuitive eating (e.g. eating with more self-guidance, vs. guided by rules and rigidity) was consistently associated with positive physical and mental health outcomes. (2)
Which brings me to something that is often overlooked in nutrition media and education: the mental weight of having so many food rules, and so much rigidity around what we eat! I’ve already seen one AthletaWell community member note that tracking food for a week felt okay, but any longer than that felt too arduous! If we’re constantly thinking about, tracking, weighing, and calculating what we ate, or are about to eat, it often leaves little room to think about much else. Food stress and food anxiety, often the result of having so many rules, may feel overwhelming and tiring.
Even without these rules, chances are high that you would eventually want a salad, a piece of fruit, or some “healthy” fats. Humans often crave variety, not just of flavor and texture, but also of nutrients. So, part of the process of letting go of these food rules is trusting that you won’t just throw all so-called healthy foods out the window. Your knowledge of “healthy eating” combined with your unique food preferences and lifestyle will still result in your own version of balance and moderation.
Do YOU have food rules? (Probably yes!)
I invite you to join me in the exercise I have most clients do: Start a food rules list! You don’t have to do anything with it just yet (or ever), but it helps to at least bring some awareness to how often a food rule is influencing, or fully deciding, what you allow yourself to eat and enjoy.
Please be gentle with yourself in this exercise! It may feel triggering and unsafe. If that’s true for you, take a pause and only proceed if you have support and guidance from a practitioner you trust.
Since it often helps to have some real life examples, here are a few restrictive food rules clients have shared with me over the years, that we’ve eventually worked together to unlearn:
“I won’t eat a food unless I know how many calories it has. I only eat at restaurants with calorie counts.”
“I have to eat breakfast after 8am, and lunch after 12pm. Dinner must be before 7pm.”
“Only eat sugar after 12pm.”
“Only have carbs at two meals per day.”
“I don’t eat pizza unless it’s thin crust.”
“Snacks are unhealthy.”
Does this sound familiar? What comes up for you?
Share any rules you've let go of, or want to get rid of, in the comments below! And check out some of the events coming up this month to help you continue to explore this, with support and guidance.
Anderson LM, Reilly EE, Schaumberg K, Dmochowski S, Anderson DA. (2015). Contributions of mindful eating, intuitive eating, and restraint to BMI, disordered eating, and meal consumption in college students. Eat Weight Disord. Aug 5.
Saunders JF, Nichols-Lopez KA, Frazier LD (2018). Psychometric properties of the intuitive eating scale-2 (IES-2) in a culturally diverse Hispanic American sample. Eat Behav. Jan;28:1-7. doi: 10.1016/j.eatbeh.2017.11.003.
*These have been modified to ensure client confidentiality.