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Food Rules and Choices: Healthy vs. Disordered Decision-Making

Nobody is born into dieting or regulating food with rules. In an ideal world, we would approach food naturally and intuitively, shaping it over time by our personal tastes and preferences. Sadly, that’s often not the case for many of us growing up. Instead, we inherit generations of disordered eating habits as diet culture bombards us with messages about “acceptable” or “off-limits” food choices.


Over time, our food choices transform into food rules, determined by outside factors that override our natural preferences and replace them with strict restrictions and regulations. Tightly held food rules, like “All sugar is harmful” or “I can’t touch carbs,” create rigid beliefs that distort our decision-making, paving the way for unhealthy eating patterns that can spiral into full-blown eating disorders.


Some of these food rules seem obvious, but others can be so subversive we don’t even realize the harm they’re causing to our intuitive eating ability and personal food preferences. When food choices and food rules intertwine, it can become confusing to distinguish what we truly like to eat from what we’re convinced to eat.


Taking Back Control Over Food Choice


Learning to take back control over your food choices and breaking up with restrictive food rules is a good starting step if you feel trapped by your eating disorder. To clear the heavy cloud of negativity swirling around food choices and transform your relationship with your food and body for the better, start by identifying your ingrained food rules. 


Recognizing how these rules inform your choices will transform your relationship with food, as you begin to understand and unravel how years of diet culture and body mantras have taught you to be wary of food instead of enjoying it in a positive, beneficial way.


The decision-making between healthy vs. disordered choices can be difficult to navigate at first, but learning from past eating disorder behaviors to chart a healthier future where disordered eating doesn’t dominate your eating habits is first and foremost to address in the goal of eating disorder recovery.


Food Rules: What Are They?


You can describe food rules as the voice in your head that dictates what is “good” or “bad” to eat. External factors often influence these rules, compelling you to avoid food not based on taste but on how it makes you feel. Its primary motivator is guilt and shame, backed up by diet culture, negative body beliefs, and the overarching obsession society has with weight and appearance. 


It may have been a TV show or movie that first taught you about the “dangers” of food, showing the existence of a plus-sized person as both a joke and a warning about overeating unhealthy or “bad” food.


Or it might’ve been a family member; a mother, a father, or a grandparent who made pointed comments about “watching what you eat” that set those initial disordered food rules and eating habits into motion. 


Regardless of their origin, these rules yield the same outcome: disordered eating and decision-making that impact what food individuals, especially those with an eating disorder, avoid and consider safe. These food rules may be the major determinator in what food choices you make, ignoring or discounting your own preferences, tastes, feelings, or desires in the matter of what you eat. 


Examples of Specific Food Rules


  • No eating after 8 PM
  • Only eat certain foods at specific times
  • Only allowed to eat when my stomach is growling
  • Can only eat things off the menu that have the lowest calories
  • Only eat low-calorie foods since they’re “better” for me
  • Pizza and cake are off-limits because they’re unhealthy
  • Only allowed to drink zero-sugar or diet soda since sugar is “bad”
  • Can only have treats on special occasions
  • Having to exercise to cancel out the food I’m eating later
  • Having to throw up or purge “bad” food every time I eat it 


With every additional add-on of “not allowed,” “bad,” and “can only,” the toll of having these restrictions rises when the inevitable slip-up happens. The inflexibility of these food rules only increases shame and guilt upon breaking them, fueling a desire to punish oneself or self-correct even harsher the next time. 


Food Rule Obsessions


Even if you are somehow able to abide by these rules most of the time, there is the ever-increasingly likelihood that food obsession and temptation overrule your restriction the longer you try to hold out. Studies have shown that restricting food access is linked to the tendency to binge these “forbidden” foods once the withdrawal cravings become too much to bear. 


These food rules not only fail to sustain in the long run but also actively exacerbate eating disorders and disordered decision-making by stripping individuals of their personal choice in determining what is right or good for their bodies. When you leave your eating habits up to an unhealthy, inflexible, and restrictive list of rules, you’re simply setting yourself up to fail. 


Pursuing the freedom of intuitive eating to make your food choices creates a healthier mindset that fulfills your body instead of destroying it. You know what your body needs, and deciding those needs for yourself, outside of diet culture and other harmful mantras, is crucial for rebuilding your relationship with food.


Recognizing and Addressing Disordered Decision-Making


Delving deeper into the reasons behind your strict food rules can help uncover the root causes of your disordered eating patterns. Are these rules stemming from a desire to control certain aspects of your life? Or are they a way to cope with underlying emotional issues? By examining the motivations behind food restrictions, you can begin to understand the complex relationship of ingrained food regulations and take steps towards fostering a healthier mindset around eating.


To gain further insight into what exactly drives your disordered eating habits and decision-making, ask yourself these questions:


  • Am I motivated to pursue a healthy lifestyle? OR Am I motivated by the urge to manage or suppress anxiety?


  • Am I healthy by eating nutritious and fulfilling food? OR Am I healthy only by avoiding “forbidden” food?


  • Am I motivated to eat healthy, finding it rewarding and beneficial, while also balancing less healthy foods to accommodate my food preferences? OR Am I motivated to eat healthy solely based on the rigidity of my food rules, and do I find any non-adherence to the rules unacceptable?


Toss Away Toxic Habits and Invite Healthy Balance In


Taking this introspective journey marks the initial step in cultivating a healthier mindset around eating, one rooted in balance and flexibility, moving away from controlling food rules. Embracing a more positive connection with food and opening up your food choice options can pave the way for recovery from eating disorders, as restriction can only lead to obsessive thoughts, constant food noise, and even binge episodes.


Breaking free from restrictive eating patterns opens up a world of possibilities where food is no longer a source of anxiety or guilt, but rather a source of nourishment and enjoyment. Learning the difference between healthy and disordered decision-making helps you to question negative food beliefs, guiding your future choices when it comes to what you want to eat. 


Ask For Help if Needed


If breaking away from food rules and patterns on your own seems impossible, know that there is support out there for you. It doesn’t make you weak to ask for help; rather, opening yourself up to vulnerability requires immense strength and courage. 


A dietitian can start you on your way by building a meal plan that revolves around nourishment and enjoyment, while an eating disorder recovery coach can help guide you through your previous beliefs and encourage you when you face any hurdles in your path toward wellness and health.


As you embark on this journey, keep in mind that every small step towards a healthier relationship with food is a victory worth celebrating. Embrace the process, trust your ability to change, welcome positive choices, and most importantly, prioritize your well-being above all else. 


Take charge of your food choices, and let them nourish not only your body but also your mind and soul.


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