What are food rules?
Food Rules are a set of guidelines that a person internalizes that dictates when, where, how, and what he or she can eat on a given day.
Here are some examples of common food rules found in our culture:
“Do not eat anything after 7:00 pm.”
“No more than _________ calories per day.”
“No processed foods.”
“Avoid sugar at all costs.”
Food rules are problematic because they don’t account for individuality, or allow for the flexibility that we all need in our lives.
Should a person skip dinner if their schedule doesn’t allow them to eat before 7:00 PM?
Should an active college student be expected to eat the same amount of calories as a 40-year old sedentary woman?
Should we say no to an invitation to eating at a friend’s house to avoid processed food?
Should we stop eating fruit because of it’s sugar content?
No. All of those things are irrational, rigid, and unsupported by evidence-based research. Yet, so many of us want a set of rules to follow in order to feel good about our own diets, so we reach and grasp at anything and everything that promises to help us “stay on track” or move towards a “happier, healthier” life. We want a simple way to control our weight, body shape, and image.
Perhaps the most unbelievable rule I’ve stumbled across recently comes from Michael Pollen’s book, Food Rules, An Eater’s Manual: “The Whiter the Bread, the Sooner You’ll be Dead.”
Rules like this are dangerous. It’s dangerous to start cutting out certain types of food/entire food groups. It’s dangerous to apply one individual’s food philosophy to all people, because every person’s needs are different. Each person’s diet is shaped by his or her access to food, activity level, gender, age, food preferences, ethical/religious beliefs, lifestyle, and more. It’s foolish to think that every person should abide by the same rules. It’s foolish to think that every person should abide by any set of rules when it comes to food.
As previously mentioned, food rules aren’t really about the food. They are created and followed in attempts to control/manipulate our weight, shape, and health in unrealistic ways. These types of rules are characteristic of disordered eating/eating disorder behavior.
“Don’t eat white bread” turns into “don’t eat bread at all”.
“Eat fewer sweets” turns into “avoid sweets at all costs.”
“Consume less fat” turns into “consume no fat”.
Jenni Schaefer explains, “You may have noticed that you are avoiding certain foods, eating only at specific times, or restricting the overall amount that you eat-all because your [eating disorder] promises you that following these rules will keep you thin, safe, binge-free, or something else.”¹
But these rules don’t really keep us safe. What they do do, is hold us hostage, a slave in our own mind, to our own rules, that don’t really have our best interests in mind. Food rules develop in hopes to help us live more meaningful, fulfilled, connected lives, but they actually keep us from doing just that. They convince us to stay at home if we are at risk for breaking our own rules, they remind us that they can never be broken, no matter how illogical they may be.
How do you break free from food rules?
1) Identify Your Food Rules: Any belief, attitude, or dietary rule that you follow in order to prevent weight gain, promote weight loss, control your caloric intake, manipulate your body, or prevent a binge is considered a food rule. Some of these rules you may be aware of already, and others you may not. It’s important to identify and name your own food rules in order to start challenging them.
Ex Food Rule: “I cannot eat butter.”
2) Challenge Your Food Rules: What do you believe will happen when you break one of your food rules? What will actually happen? Are your beliefs rational? Is there any chance you are overgeneralizing? Catastrophizing? Fearful for no reason? Would the same things happen to other people if they broke your rules?
Ex. Food Belief: “Butter is a fat, so butter will make me fat. If I eat butter, I will gain weight.”
Ex Food Challenge: “Butter is a fat, but my body needs fat. Fat gives me energy and helps fuel my body. Fat helps me absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K. Fat also helps keep my skin healthy, protects my organs, and insulates my body. Adding butter to my toast won’t instantly make me gain weight. I know many people who are at a stable weight that regularly incorporate butter into their diet. If I gain weight, it isn’t the butter’s fault. If I gain weight while practicing good recovery, it’s because my body needs to, not because I did something wrong.”
3) Break One of Your Rules: The moment you start to break your food rules the easier it becomes. The easier it becomes, the more food rules you will break. The more rules you break, easier it becomes to life a life without rigid, unrealistic food rules.
Ex: Today I added butter to dinner role. It tasted good. I don’t feel like I overate. Even though it was scary, the butter did make the role taste better. I am proud of myself for breaking one of my (ED’s) rules.
No matter how big or small, all food rules must eventually be broken to recover. Yep, that’s right- all of them. The sooner you start breaking them the more progress you will begin to see.
It’s important to note that breaking the rules doesn’t always feel invigorating. Sometimes, especially at first, breaking the rules is very uncomfortable, scary, and just not fun. It can even be counter intuitive after following them for so long. If starting alone is too difficult, seek out a trusted friend or family member to help you as you begin to break the rules and expose yourself to foods you may not have allowed yourself to have for a long time.
“The best way to defy your eating disorder is to pick up your fork and nourish your body.”
1. Thomas JJ, Schaefer J. Almost Anorexic: Is My (or My Loved Ones) Relationship with Food a Problem? Center City, MN: Hazelden; 2013.