Food Rules: Why we have them and how to let them go

You may have heard this phrase before, “I’m going to be bad and have [insert food here]”. Food rules appear frequently in our society because of diet culture, body size stigma, biased versions of what “healthy” eating actually is, and a limited view of wellness in general. These rules can be laid out to dictate what, how much, and how often we should be eating. Learning about exactly what your unique body needs fuel-wise is a long journey of trying different foods and recognizing the effects on your own body.


The challenging aspect of adhering strictly to food rules is that it takes a one size fits all approach to eating and can be rather limiting to people who need a variety of foods to thrive. It can also take the joy and sensory experience out of eating when our food options are limited to only a few options.


There are many factors that go into choosing the right food for your unique body including nutritional needs, cultures, taste, food access, budget, and medical needs. By categorizing all of your available foods into two categories (good and bad), you limit the variety of nutrients that are needed to fuel your body and miss out on the experience of eating delicious food. 


Food rules look to restrict or avoid certain foods or food groups. All or Nothing thinking, when it comes to food, can be particularly destructive as it relates to body image and weight-related distress. The idea of eating “bad” food may feel terrifying.


The journey of letting go of strict food rules can be challenging, but not impossible. By first getting curious about how you categorize foods, you may be able to unlock some deeper beliefs embedded over time about how you “should” eat. Identifying foods that are good and bad is a good next step as you start to unpack where and how these beliefs were formed. 


Intuitive eating is about giving yourself permission to eat what you want, when you want, without any prescribed rules. Understanding why you feel how you do about certain foods can create the space necessary to step out of black-and-white thinking into more of a gray area. Giving yourself permission to eat something that you may have previously labeled as bad and genuinely feel the effects can help you determine what feels good in your unique body.

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By: Leah Ehinger, MSW, ASW, RYT