Some food rules make good sense. Have some variety in your diet. Make sure you're getting enough to eat. Eat your vegetables. On the other hand, most food rules we've had shoved down our throats (pun intended) are outdated at best, and can lead to disordered eating or eating disorders at worst.
As someone who struggled with bulimia for almost half of my life, I had to do a lot of work to uncover sneaky food rules that were running my life. Here are 10 rules that took me a long time to see because they're so common it was like a fish seeing water! Once I saw them I was able to make a choice for myself if I wanted to keep them around or not (I didn't). If they don't work for you either, you have full permission to kick these to the curb!
1. You have to clean your plate - This is one of the most common rules my clients struggle with. Many of us had parents who came from challenging economic circumstances and/or lineages of hardship. Over generations many of our families learned that food was scarce and if we were lucky enough to have food in front of us, we needed to eat it. Food scarcity impacted the way most humans approached food over the centuries.
Fast forward to today when you can get triple layer nachos for a $1 at Taco Bell. If we don't finish everything on our plate, we won't starve. As much as I wish this could be different, whether or not we clean our plate at a meal has no impact on starving children in Africa.
This is not to say I'm an advocate of wasting food. I often take food home with me if I'm out to dinner and don't finish my meal. When I cook at home I put leftovers in the fridge. Not cleaning your plate doesn't mean throw your extra food in the trash, it just means not using your body as the trash bin if you truly don't want to finish in one sitting.
2. Never eat after 8pm - Believe it or not, food is food whether you eat it at 6pm or 3am. I know, crazy right? Many of us have had this rule beaten into us over years of dieting and reading women's magazines, but it's BS. Food doesn't magically quadruple in calories, or turn into toxic waste between 7:59pm and 8:01pm, and you can digest food just fine at any hour. If you're hungry at night you're allowed to eat.
3. You have to eat what everyone else is eating, even if you don't like it - How many times have you been out to dinner with friends where someone ordered for the table, and you felt obligated to eat something you don't like? Or gone to a family dinner where you don't enjoy the food being served? I'm here to tell you that if you don't like something you don't have to eat it! You can order something else! If you're at your aunt's house for dinner, you can bring a side dish you love, and fill your plate with that. You can eat whatever you want.
There's no rule of law that says you have to follow what other people are doing if it doesn't work for you. You're allowed to make choices that work for you. It also must be said: this is not an excuse to feel justified in maintaining rigid diet rules or eating disorder behavior. It's simply an invitation to make choices that truly honor your body and wishes.
Many of us don't want to be a "burden" or "inconvenience" so much that we're willing to burden and inconvenience ourselves. Over time the message we're sending ourselves is that we deserved to be burdened more than anyone else. I'm not suggesting that you have to make a big display about your needs, I'm just saying that you have permission to honor them.
All that being said, if it's your grandmother's birthday and it will make her year for you to eat her homemade cookies, then have a damn cookie. In most cases, however, it's not going to be a big issue.
4. All your meals need to be balanced - This was a rule that, well...ruled my life. I was terrified of having a meal that didn't have a good balance of protein, fat and carbs. That golden ratio of course changed constantly depending on what my diet-of-the-month was.
I honestly don't know what I thought would happen if I had an all carb meal. Maybe I thought the diet gnomes would come and steal my Vitamix if I betrayed them. Who knows. Regardless, your body is ridiculously smart! You can eat an all carb, or all fat or all protein meal, and your body will still turn it into fuel. You can achieve "balance" (if such a thing even exists) over time. Obsessing over the balance in every meal takes the enjoyment out of the meal itself, and it's wildly unnecessary.
5. You can't eat dessert first - I just have one question for you: WHY? Why on God's green earth can't you eat dessert first? I get that it makes sense for children to have this rule in place, but you're a grown ass adult. You can make whatever food choices you want. If you are concerned that you won't be hungry after, and you're afraid of having a meal that's all carbs, then see #4.
You will not shrivel and die if you have cake for dinner. Look, I'm not recommending having cake for dinner every single night of your life. I'm saying that believing you can never have your cake before your baked salmon just because your mom told you that when you were 4, doesn't make sense. It's just another arbitrary food rule that keeps us out of touch with our bodies.
6. Always prioritize "health" over pleasure - A lot of intuitive eating guidance gets met with "but what about your health?" I'm not anti-health. I just believe that forcing ourselves to eat a salad we hate every day because it's "healthy," is not healthy. Mental health is part of health, and if we're making ourselves miserable with our dietary choices, it has an impact. If we're stressing about every bite we put in our mouth, it has an impact.
Many people believe that if they don't prioritize health over pleasure they'll turn into a sinful blob, shoveling candy into their mouths until they die a slow sugary death. There is no actual scientific evidence to suggest this. What there is scientific evidence for is that restricting sugar leads to addiction-like behaviors (although it's different neurochemically than a heroin addiction, for example). In other words the more we consciously limit our sugar intake, the more likely we are to get hooked on it.
In general, the more we force ourselves to be "healthy" the more likely we are to binge if we intentionally or accidentally eat something "unhealthy."
We're allowed to experience pleasure. Pleasure is GOOD. Pleasure helps us survive--otherwise why would our ancestors have passed the ability to experience pleasure down to us?
7. Only eat when you're hungry - If we only allow ourselves to eat when we're hungry, it's another form of restriction. Let's say you're at a dinner party and you're full after the meal, but the host brings out a dessert that looks amazing. Intuitive eating doesn't insist that you refuse it just because you're full. You can have some. You might be uncomfortably full afterwards, but that's not a huge deal. The more we make it a huge deal, the more likely we are to restrict the following day, which sets us up to binge.
Sometimes it's normal to eat past the point of being full. There's no such thing as "perfect" intuitive eating, and even if there were, it would still be OK to eat when you're not hungry. When we have full permission to eat, what we often discover is that it's not bad to eat when we're not hungry, it's just much less interesting.
8. Only eat breakfast food at breakfast (or lunch food at lunch, etc.) - This is a "rule" that many of us follow unconsciously, and it is completely arbitrary. If you want a salad at breakfast, have a salad for breakfast. If you want waffles for dinner, have waffles for dinner. Simple.
We've culturally decided that certain foods are supposed to be served at certain times, but there's no good reason for this. Waffles aren't better or worse for you at different times of day. If you want to listen to your body, you can give it what it wants even if it's not the "normal" time that food is typically served.
9. You have to eat 3 square meals per day - This one got me in trouble a lot. While I am a firm believer that we need plenty of food to get through our day, the idea that we have to eat a traditional breakfast, lunch and dinner is silly. I used to make myself eat a full dinner even if I wasn't hungry because you're "supposed" to eat dinner. Then I would feel too full. Because I thought being really full was "bad," it often led to a bulimic episode for me.
By contrast, now if I'm not hungry for dinner I don't make myself eat dinner. Sometimes I'll have a small snack, or sometimes I won't eat dinner at all. If I'm hungry an hour after lunch, I also don't force myself to wait for dinner. I can have another meal after lunch if I want it.
I get that sometimes it's just practical to eat meals at typical meal times every day. It's OK to eat lunch if you're not hungry at lunch time (refer back to #7), you just don't have to force yourself into that pattern every day if that's not what truly works for you.
10. Only eat what you've "earned" with exercise - Repeat after me: I. Do. Not. Have. To. Earn. My. Food!
Being alive takes energy. Food gives us energy. You can eat normally even if you haven't worked out.
Our bodies are very, very smart. If we're constantly burning more than we're consuming, our bodies go into conservation mode. Our metabolisms slow down so that we can survive the famine (yes, famine), that we've put ourselves into. This results in more fat storage on our bodies (because fat is stored fuel for the body), which in our culture typically leads to more restriction, which leads to binging, which leads to more restriction, over and over again.
When we're in this diet-fueled groundhog day, it's torture. How about we just eat, and not obsess about whether we exercised "enough" to justify our hunger? Our hunger needs no justification. Hunger is as natural as our hair growing, or needing to pee. We don't try to stop those processes, so why try to stop our hunger? It's just a function of being alive, so let's live, shall we?
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