Food Rules: What They Are and How to Challenge Them

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I’m Sarah (she/her), a Toronto-based writer, anti-diet nutritionist, and Certified Intuitive Eating Counsellor. I teach folks how to have a healthy relationship with food and accept their natural body size.

Hi, I'm Sarah

Once you’ve decided to stop dieting, the next stage — as you may have heard — involves letting go of “food rules.”

When you’re in such close proximity to diet culture, it’s tough to see the forest for the trees.

How can you reject food rules when you don’t know what they are? 

The traditional diets of yore were explicitly about weight loss. Weight Watchers, Atkins, the Zone, South Beach — obvious diets.

But dieting now parades under the umbrella of “healthy eating” or “wellness”, which makes it so difficult to distinguish dieting behaviours from science-based nutritional recommendations. It’s also challenging because many unsubstantiated nutrition claims sound perfectly reasonable.

With so much information out there, how can we know the difference been “food rule” and “supportive guideline”? Part of the answer lies in being able to spot food rules. The second part involves practicing and experimenting to see what works for you and what works less well. Keep in mind that our wants and needs with food can change. 

If you’d like to learn more about food rules, this post is for you.

What-are-food-rules

With this in mind, I’m running down the following:

  1. What food rules are 
  2. The difference between “safety food rules” and “diet food rules”
  3. Physical food restriction
  4. Emotional or mental restriction
  5. The issue with food rules
  6. The function of food rules
  7. Actions to challenge and change food rules 

What are some food rules?

Before we dive into the different types of food rules, I want to distinguish between “safety” rules and diet rules for the sake of clarity.

By “safety rules,” I mean the following: some food rules apply to food preparation. Cooking your meat to the correct internal temperature, washing produce before consumption, and properly defrosting foods are safety measures. While this may seem obvious, I want to be clear that when I’m speaking about food rules, I’m talking about diet culture — not health and safety. Letting go of food rules doesn’t mean challenging safety measures. 

This also applies to medical conditions. Medical nutrition therapy isn’t the same as dieting. Why? Because well-being, not weight loss, is the motivation for limiting certain foods or making dietary changes. For example, adhering to a gluten-free diet to manage Celiac disease is one example.

Diet culture rules are ways we try to regulate in the absence of genuine regulation. These rules are not about health so much as they are about trying to manage uncomfortable emotions and sensations. Often, we’re not even aware of what’s happening emotionally. Note: you may notice some discomfort arise as you read through this blog post. I view food rules as incredibly protective, and it makes sense to feel closed off to challenging them given this reality. 

Physical food restriction

When it comes to learning about food rules, there are two main types: physical vs. mental.

Physical restrictions involve physical limits, as we’ll get into below.

Mental restrictions occur in the mind. For example, you can physically allow yourself to have a slice of chocolate cake, but judge yourself for it the entire time. Alternately, you may eat the cake and spend the entire time thinking of ways you’ll compensate for it later. That’s mental restriction.

Physical restriction can include the following limits:

  • Time. “Time limits” can look like eating inside of a pre-determined window (e.g. Intermittent Fasting), no snacking, cheat days, avoiding certain foods (such as carbohydrates) after 6 pm, and not allowing yourself to eat after 8 pm. 
  • Food groups or types. These limits include low-carbohydrate diets, low-fat diets, eschewing sugar, not eating “white foods” (e.g. white potato, white rice, white bread, white flour), limiting higher-fat meats for the purpose of weight loss, vilifying all “processed food”, and demonizing bananas or starchy vegetables.
  • Amount. Include limiting the number of calories you consume through various counting methods (e.g. calories, points, macronutrients, food scale, cups, etc.), choosing low-calorie or low-carb versions of items with the intention of weight loss, and filling up on diet and/or “air” foods and beverages rather than eating adequately. 

Mental food restriction

Mental or emotional restriction is also characterized by limits, and they tend to revolve around the following:

  • Judgement. This can look like: allowing yourself to have the cake but berating yourself the entire time, eating past fullness over lunch and obsessing over it for the remainder of the day, and eating something unplanned and speaking ill to yourself. 
  • Compensation. Compensation includes exercising to “earn” pizza, “making up” for a meal out at a restaurant, or skipping breakfast after having a larger dinner. 

These physical and mental/emotional food rules tend to be rooted in shame — the belief that there is something wrong with us — and efforts to escape it. 

Food rules aren’t just about what not to do, but what to elevate: 

  • Certain macronutrients over others (e.g. “healthy fats,” protein)
  • Berries over other fruit
  • Organic over conventional 
  • Vegetables over grains
  • Low-sodium over regular sodium
  • Colourful foods over white foods
  • Grain-free over grains
  • Gluten-free over gluten
  • Plant-based over animal-based protein
  • Dairy-free over conventional dairy products
  • Sugar-free candy over conventional candy

Some of us grew up learning and upholding certain food rules that may not serve us in the present, such as being coerced into cleaning our plate, eating foods we didn’t enjoy, not having dessert, and rejecting prepared or convenience foods such as frozen entrees, ready-made meals, and other time-savers. 

Why are food rules ‘bad’?

1. Basic needs

What makes food rules so “bad,” anyway? We have rules in other areas of our life — why not with food?

Consider this: can you imagine enforcing rules when it comes to your other basic needs? What would happen if someone told you that you could only drink water between 12 pm and 10 pm? If you couldn’t pee after 6 pm? 

The concept that food rules are necessary hinges on the belief that 1) humans are insatiable 2) we can’t trust our bodies or our hungers and 3) we can and should control our basic needs. 

The truth is, Intuitive Eaters don’t eat around the clock, enjoy a variety of foods, and can recognize when they’ve had enough to eat. 

2. Rigid thinking

The problem with food rules, though, is that they encourage rigid, inflexible, and black-and-white thinking about food. While not all foods are equally nutritious, all foods do contain nutrients — that is, protein, carbs, fat, or a combination. 

The idea that some foods are inherently “better” for our health than others based solely on their nutrient profile is emotionally dismissive. It invalidates our (important!) feelings and desires. And it ignores the many socioeconomic and cultural reasons we choose the foods we do.  

We don’t need to eat “100% healthy” to be well, meaning a few handfuls of Doritos can live happily next to a sandwich and a bowl of ice cream might just be the sweetest ending to a long day. 

3. Too general

Food rules also don’t consider your unique individual needs, nutritional and otherwise. So many factors impact what we do and don’t eat, including our preferences and tastes, budget, food availability, utilities, appliances and cooking vessels such as pots and pans, culture, religion, ethnicity, ethics, season, age, medical conditions, and more. 

Food rules can also render us susceptible to developing a clinical eating disorder or disordered eating. Even if you don’t develop a clinical eating disorder, chronic dieting is highly correlated with binge eating, compulsive eating, unsupportive emotional eating, and more. 

While I don’t think there’s anything wrong with emotional eating and I maintain that all eating is inherently emotional, “emotionally eating” tends to be specific to people who are actively dieting or have a history of restrictive eating. 

4. Unscientific

There’s also the issue of science versus ideology. Most food rules aren’t rooted in strong research (such as a randomized controlled trial, considered the gold standard in research), but in ideology. Believing that carbs lead to weight gain, for example, hasn’t been proven. Intermittent fasting was found to have no notable effect on weight loss by someone who was heavily biased toward it (cw: use of the “o” word). “Sugar addiction” may be thrown around like veritable candy, but evidence in support of this theory remains inconclusive. 

Food rules are also inherently fat phobic. These rules are often encouraged for “health,” yet “health” is culturally coded for “weight loss.” Would you practice Intermittent Fasting, quit snacking, lower your carb or fat count, or stop eating sugar if doing so meant that you would gain weight? 

5. Erodes interoceptive awareness

Adhering to strict rules with food also erodes our ability to trust our bodies and eat with confidence. People who diet chronically tend to lose touch with their internal hunger and satiety cues and eat according to external factors. It’s also hard to feel safe or well around food if we’re concerned everything we eat will either cure us or harm us. 

Food rules are also unsustainable. To think we will never enjoy ice cream again, order a cheeseburger (or veggie burger) from our favourite restaurant, or catch up with friends over a plate of loaded nachos is unrealistic. Yes, meeting our physical health needs with food has its place, but I would argue, so does pleasure and joy and celebration. 

Why do we have food rules?

Superficially, food rules may be used as a way to take care of our health. But if we go deeper, they’re also a means of managing underlying emotions and sensations. 

We can’t necessarily control the outcome of situations: there’s no guarantee the person you’re into shares your feelings, that you’ll land your dream job, or whether an ill parent will recover from an illness. We can, however, seemingly control what we eat, our body size, and how often we exercise…at least according to diet culture and some wildly effective marketing. 

Food rules also represent hope: the hope that our bodies will one day one socially acceptable or match the ideal, we’ll partner with the person of our dreams, and we’ll never have to worry about our weight or size ever again. 

Many of us weren’t given the necessary “programming” to manage underlying emotions and sensations without dieting, which is also part of why many find it challenging to stop. 

How do we challenge food rules/how do you let go of food rules?

So where do you start when it comes to challenging food rules and releasing them?

  1. Mindset work. Challenging deeply ingrained beliefs about food, learning about a non-diet approach to nutrition, and exploring your own history with your rules can be a helpful starting place.
  2. Exposure work. Habituation — or exposing yourself to previously off-limits foods repeatedly — helps to reduce the charge these foods 
  3. Practice Intuitive Eating. By this, I mean familiarizing yourself with the ten principles and truly working through them at your own pace. 
  4. Explore and process internalized fat bias and fat phobia. If your food rules are rooted in the fear of weight gain or the desire for weight loss, this is essential work in my opinion. It’s difficult to overcome food fears when we’re still worried about gaining or not losing weight. 
  5. Develop coping strategies outside of dieting. This is where somatic work and learning how to employ self-compassion can be extremely helpful. 
  6. Co-regulation. Letting go of dieting isn’t something I’ve ever seen or heard anyone do alone. It’s one thing to learn about letting go of dieting; it’s another to feel safe enough to do it. If possible, I recommend the support and guidance of a safe other to help you to work through your own food and body image concerns. 

What food rules are you still working through? What questions do you have about food rules?

For further reading:

When Intuitive Eating Doesn’t Work

Intuitive Eating With Food Restrictions

How to Stop Restricting in Intuitive Eating

Are You Addicted to Food or Just Deprived?

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