If you’ve been conscious of your weight or you’ve been trying to lose weight for a long time, it’s likely you have a long and growing list of rules you’ve created for yourself.
We adopt food rules that we hear from friends, or a program we’ve signed up for, or that we’ve seen on social media, and this often creates a lot of confusion and anxiety for us.
You think that creating rules around food will give you control, but what ends up happening is that you feel disempowered and imprisoned.
Today I’m inviting you to question whether your food rules are serving you. Our judgments about whether something is good or bad and all the rules that we use to punish ourselves thin are keeping you stuck and actually taking away all your power.
So, I’m giving you a list of questions you can ask yourself to dig deep and gain awareness of your reasons for your food rules and whether you really love them.
What I mean by “food rules”
When I say food rules, I mean all of the beliefs and judgments and parameters that you put on food and eating.
For example, the diet industry and the culture we live in have been telling us for years that all we have to do is eat less and exercise more to lose weight. So you may have a food rule that says you have to just eat less and exercise more and you’re good.
You’ve probably also heard that you should eat six small meals a day to keep your metabolism moving. So you may have the rule that eating more frequently is better and not eating enough will damage or slow your metabolism.
If you grew up in the 80s and 90s like I did, it was the height of the low-fat, low-calorie diet craze. We were all starving ourselves and eating things like Red Vines because they were low fat. Everything from candy to crackers was advertising their low-fat status.
I didn’t realize that when they remove the fat, they have to add a bunch of sugar to make things palatable and that in fact, sugar is what is making us fat. I remember eating Snack Well’s cookies and Hot Tamales and drinking Diet Coke and truly thinking I was eating healthy because it was low fat. And at the time, the rule was “fat is bad.”
It’s kind of like the gluten-free labeling of things today. Without knowing much about it, even if you don’t have gluten-intolerance, many of us have adopted a gluten-free is better rule because we see the labels saying gluten-free on everything and we hear people talking about it.
The longer you’ve been alive, and especially the longer you’ve been conscious of your weight and trying to lose weight or not gain weight, the longer your list of food rules has likely gotten.
We hear something from a friend, we adopt it as a rule. We listen to a podcast and we adopt rules we learned from that. And we read a pamphlet at the doctor’s office and adopt a rule or two there. We see someone’s Facebook post and we adopt a rule from there.
Then we sign up for a program and drop some of the rules we heard on the podcast for a whole bunch of new rules of this program… and on and on and on.
So there’s a whole bunch of riffraff in our brains creating confusion and anxiety. And for a lot of us, we end up in total apathy because we feel like we can’t win.
We can’t do anything right because of all the conflicting rules we’re trying to follow.
Why we like having food rules
Our brains really like rules. We like them because our brain wants as much predictability as possible.
Predictability means safety and since our brain’s job is to protect us from danger, it loves the safety and predictability of a set of rules.
We think if we follow rules, we will be able to predict outcomes. If I do this, then this will happen.
If I eat leafy green veggies, my heart will be healthier.
If I eat too much fat, I will get fat and have high cholesterol.
And so by paying attention to and following the rules, we assume we will be able to have some control over what may otherwise be uncontrolled and therefore dangerous.
The food rules that I subscribed to
So I want you to think about some of your food rules. I want you to dig deep. Think not just about the wheat over white bread rule, but all of your random rules too.
For example, I once did a low-sugar diet that told me that bananas and raisins were high-sugar fruits and so I spent a chunk of time having the rule that those things are cheat items.
That’s another rule I subscribed to, that there are two categories of foods. Foods that are acceptable and foods that are cheat items. All fun, entertaining food was in the category of a cheat, and everything else had its own categories.
I also spent a period following a rule that told me the way to not overeat was to drink a glass of water or eat an apple before a meal, so then I would be full and eat less at the meal.
I mentioned another rule that I followed for many years: that “low fat” was healthy. So anything with “low fat” on the label I just considered a health food.
Having food rules doesn’t give you control — they imprison you
So many of our rules around food and eating we adopt in the name of health and weight loss. We think that following the rules will lead us to freedom in our bodies. But I think it’s the opposite.
Think of all those rules like bars in a prison cell. Every rule you adopt and hold on to is one of those bars.
So that rule you adopted when you were seven about rice cakes being basically calorie-free, or the one you picked up when you were 15 that told you that candy is fine if it’s low fat, or the one when you were 22 about cream soups contributing to heart disease are all bars in the mental prison of all of your food rules.
Our judgments about whether or not something is good or bad or healthy or unhealthy and all the rules we use to punish ourselves thin are actually keeping us stuck right where we are.
These judgments are often creating bodies that feel more and more limited in the way that they move around in the world.
Why we rebel against food rules
And the most detrimental part of living by these endless lists of food rules is that it puts all of the power and control over what we do or don’t do outside of ourselves. It’s like these external rules or bars are the only things keeping us in control.
We rely on the newest, latest diet or fad to tell us what to do and we in turn ignore our own inner wisdom about what our body needs and how to take care of ourselves with love.
This leaves us feeling like we don’t have a choice. We have to, we can’t, need to, shouldn’t, aren’t supposed to.
The rules are deciding for us. We don’t have any power.
And when we feel disempowered, our brain’s response is to try to take back the power. That’s why we so often find ourselves rebelling against these food rules that we’ve created. As humans, we’re wired to become independent creatures.
Ever notice that toddlers are constantly saying “No” and “Mine” and “I’ll do it myself”? As humans, we are driven to assert our independence and figure out how to take care of ourselves.
The irony about all these rules is that they are your own rules created by your own brain.
No one is threatening you if you don’t follow them. Your life is not on the line if you don’t follow them. Your loved ones are not in danger if you don’t follow them. Unless you have a food allergy, none of these rules are absolute. None of them are laws. None of them are set in stone.
Even if you do have an allergy or some other physical limitation with food, you can still totally choose to eat that thing. You may end up in the hospital, but you can break that rule if you want to.
In fact, all of these rules you have are just your thoughts about these foods. By and large, they are not facts.
If there is even one person on Earth that would disagree with you on this rule, then it is your thought and not a fact and is therefore optional and changeable.
Steven C. Hayes put it so beautifully when he said, “Like a lion trapped in a paper cage, human beings are generally most trapped by the illusions of their own mind.”
How to break free of your food rules
So how do we break free of these rule prisons, these paper cages, and let go of these rules?
I think the first step in making any change is becoming aware of where you currently are. So make a list of all of your food rules. All of them.
Think about different food groups, holidays, food in relationship to weight loss, what you think is good or bad, or even a list like I mentioned of foods that are okay and foods that are considered cheats or whatever you call them.
What dictates what you eat and don’t eat? I want you to question all of them. I’m not saying I want you to live a life without any rules. But I want you to be aware of your reasons for the rules and love your reasons.
Be aware of your rules and what they are creating for you. See that the rules are choices and if they are not serving you, you don’t have to keep following them
I don’t want you to be doing things because you “should” or “shouldn’t” based on your rules. I want you to be doing things because you want to and you think it’s the best thing for you.
It’s the difference between being intrinsically and externally motivated. One works temporarily and one long-term.
9 questions to ask about each of your food rules
I want you to ask yourself these questions about each rule:
- Is this true?
- How do I know?
- Does living by this rule help me?
- Do I gain anything from listening to it and living by it?
- Is it keeping me stuck?
- Does it hinder my progress?
- Does it get me closer to my goal?
- Does it help me be the person I want to be?
- What would my life be like without some of these rules?
And then once you’ve questioned and created clarity around the rule and why you have it and what it’s creating for you, you can make a decision.
Do I keep it or do I let it go?
Some of these rules you may really like and want to keep because they’re helpful, but if they’re not, let them go.
If you need help working through your thoughts about food rules, download my free 10-page guide to learn my approach in depth.