can food rules ever be helpful? in this post I’m providing my take.
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Today is all about food rules.
Living in diet culture, it can be easy to view food rules as useful and helpful for bettering one’s health. But ultimately, no matter the motivation behind them, non-medically necessary food rules don’t do much for our well-being. In fact, I would argue that they actually harm more than they help.
Take, for instance, cutting out or limiting sugar as an example. No one tends to feel great when they’re eating sugar in abundance, right? So initially, a food rule you create (whether self-imposed or implemented as a result of all the demonization sugar receives in our society) may seem like a positive step toward improved health. You might even feel great in the beginning of adhering to that rule!
The problem is that it’s nearly impossible to voluntarily avoid any singular food/food group all together (and even if it is possible, it’s likely you’ll find yourself wanting a little at some point). When it’s medically necessary, usually the consequences of eating the food that needs to be avoided make it easier to do so. But when you’re arbitrarily deciding to do it, it becomes much harder. So, going back to our sugar example, between birthday celebrations, your co-worker baking for the office, your kids wanting to make cookies, having a date night and splitting the dessert, etc., you will almost inevitably be in at least one situation where it’s presented and you either a) feel bad declining or b) won’t want to decline!
That’s where food rules start to go wrong. Because you’re relying on an external rule to guide your eating, you lack the ability to listen to your wise body when presented with situations that challenge that rule. Food rules are black and white, there’s no room for any gray area. When you’re able to control your environment and adhere to your food rule, everything goes smoothly. But the moment life throws you a curveball – such your friends inviting you out to ice cream – you get knocked off course.
Either you decline and miss out on that time with your friends, or you go and spend the majority of the time fretting over whether to break your food rule and get an ice cream or turn down the ice cream while all your friends enjoy.
If you partake, you may eat past the point of fullness since your food rule has disconnected you from your body’s inner signals, and that can then lead to feeling physically sick. Or maybe you eat an amount that feels good, but it brings on feelings of failure for not sticking to your food rule in the first place.
Either way, what tends to happen is you completely miss out on the experience with your friends because you were too preoccupied with your own food thoughts. Later that evening or the next day, you’re likely to make a vow to ‘get back on track’ with a re-commitment to strict avoidance, thus beginning the whole loop once more.
If this sounds familiar, I promise you you’re not alone. I was once the queen of food rules and ended up in this same cycle many times. It wasn’t until I finally moved away from all my external rules around food that I was able to break that loop.
Take a minute just to consider any food rules you might have in place. Then take some time to ask yourself why you have them and if they’re truly serving your health (and by ‘health’ I don’t mean keeping your weight at a certain number, but your overall happiness and well-being). Even when we implement food rules with good intentions, they still cause harm. Food rules can serve to distance us from our social lives, deepen our distrust in our body’s ability to guide us, as well as decrease our self-esteem and self-worth (the result of living with the constant fear of ‘failing’ when and if we break a rule).
When we remove external rules from our eating, we’re able to let a mixture of our rational mind, internal instincts and emotional needs guide our food decisions. There is no failing or getting back on track and you’re free to go with the ebbs and flows of life (impromptu ice cream outings and all!) without worrying whether certain situations might threaten your food rules. In short, you can just simply live life, unbound by the worry & anxiety food rules tend to create. You will always have your wise body with you, so learning to lean into it, listen to its cues and trust its guidance is one of the best tools you can equip yourself with to ensure you’ll always be able to handle any situation that might arise.
I know this view can seem radical given that we live in a culture obsessed with weight, food and body size. But I promise you that our bodies are smart and can guide us if we just allow ourselves to listen to and learn their signals. If you’re working your way out of diet culture, it will take some time to re-establish that trust, but it will come. And with it, an enormous amount of freedom to live a life unconfined by extraneous rules around food.
If you feel like you need help getting there, check out my FREE non-restrictive nutrition guide.
please note: these blog posts are for educational and informational purposes only and are not intended for use as treatment.1