Huge thanks to Shannon Western for her help with this post.
Food rules keep us stuck trying to change our body, or put judgements onto other people’s food choices. They are diet culture’s best friend- a really important step in stopping dieting and wishing to change your body is rejecting food rules. Here is a non-exhaustive list where food rules come from, which will hopefully help you learn where rules you hold come from:
- Past diets: Even if you are not actively dieting right now, you might be holding on to past diet rules. This could be because you have underlying hopes that your body will change, or you don’t want to gain weight. This is normal if you’ve been dieting for a long time. Past diets like dieting programmes or dieting behaviour like counting calories, restricting specific foods or food groups, or not allowing yourself to eat certain foods unless you’ve “earned it” through exercise or eating well throughout the day or week.
Examples: You can only eat “treat foods” (in non-diet culture terms, you can call these play foods or sometimes foods) if you have eaten healthy all day or week, then have a “cheat meal”
You need to limit carbs or only eat “good carbs” – remember, all carbs are good. It’s about balance over time!
- Childhood: This may be from parents or other family members who dieted around you, adults who restricted food from you, or labelled food as good or bad.
Examples: Being a member of the Clean Plate Club and not being allowed to leave food on your plate. This might mean you feel a “waste not” mentality and always feel you need to eat all your food even if you’re satisfied/full.
If your parents were unhappy with their body and dieting, you might have food rules you internalised before you were ever unhappy with your body.
- People: This can come from friends from school or uni, work colleagues, friend groups, or from hearing general conversations in restaurants or coffee shops. Diet culture thrives on people talking about dieting and changing their body- and talking about these things is known to form bonds between people… Maybe you can think of examples where talking about your diet has really interested people.
Examples: Hearing others comment on other people’s bodies, and getting into a comparison cycle
Overhearing people in a restaurant saying they are going to order salad because other foods are bad
- Social media: People on the internet who aren’t registered nutrition professionals, like Dietitians or Registered Nutritionists aren’t bound by a code of practice to make sure what they write online is evidence-based and not harmful. So damaging information about food can be published online, which can result in problems with food.
Examples: A wellness influencer creating cookbooks or Instagram posts filled with “healthier” alternatives like cakes, bread, desserts etc. And putting down foods like bread, pasta, dairy etc as “not good for them”
- The media: TV shows and films often use diet culture language to make their audience feel more connected. Think of sayings like “carbs are the devil!” or “I have intolerances to x, y, and z foods”.
Common food rules and alternative statements:
- I can’t drink high calorie drinks
Positive alternative: I can drink fancy drinks from coffee shops if I want to, and I know alternatives I can drink if I have these on a regular basis. But I know an occasional hot chocolate is not bad for me, and if I enjoy drinking them, I can continue to do so.
- I can only eat one treat per day
Positive alternative: Foods aren’t good or bad, so there are no “treat foods”. There are foods that make me feel more physically well, which might mean I don’t always choose to eat “play foods” multiple times a day. I know if I do eat multiple play foods in a day, I’m not doing anything wrong and I will have balance over time.
- Fruit has too much sugar- I can only eat one piece per day
Positive alternative: Fruit is filled with essential vitamins and minerals, and fibre. I should aim to eat 2-3 portions daily and mix up the variety.
- I need to avoid gluten
Positive alternative: Foods containing gluten are foods I enjoyed, and since I do not have Coeliac disease, I am happy I can eat these foods. I will seek out help from a gut health Dietitian if I’m experiencing digestive problems.
- Organic is the best option; non-organic is bad for me
Positive alternative: It’s great organic farming exists as it’s positive for the environment, but I’m not going to stress if I can’t buy organic foods. It’s better to buy enough of what I can afford, than buying less to buy organic.
- Vegetables always have to fill half of my plate
Positive alternative: Sometimes vegetables will make up ½ of my plate, but sometimes they won’t. Vegetables can also be cooked into foods (like pizza, omelette, curry) and don’t need to have a set section.
- Oil adds unnecessary calories, so I avoid using any
Positive alternative: I can use oil in cooking, but I can use my thumb to portion. I can also use oil to eat in ways I enjoy, like drizzling fresh bread in olive oil or using oil in a salad dressing. Oil increases how much nutrition I get from food, and it’s delicious too.
- Dairy is bad for me, so I eat dairy-free
Positive alternative: I enjoy eating yogurt and cheese, and I like to drink milk. I don’t need to cut these foods out if I enjoy them. I can also try out fortified plant-based alternatives if I want to switch things up, but not because either option is better for my health. Dairy is filled with important nutrients, like calcium, vitamin D, and iodine.
- I have to be vegan as it’s better for my health
Positive alternative: Adding more plants to my diet is a good thing, but I don’t need to not eat meat, fish, dairy, or eggs to eat more plants. I enjoy these other foods, so I will continue to eat and enjoy them. I will enjoy adding more plants to my diet, and find which ones taste best to me.
- Don’t eat anything with ingredients you can’t pronounce or don’t know what they are
Positive alternative: There are lots of ingredients used in the food industry, and I don’t know them all. I know that EU food standards won’t allow any ingredients that will damage my health (even if I eat this lots every single day). I will try to stay away from websites or people who are trying to spread awareness of certain ingredients, as this isn’t helpful for me.
- Fizzy drinks are unnecessary and cause health problems
Positive alternative: Fizzy drinks won’t cause me any major harm, but if I’m drinking high-calorie sodas everyday, I know an alternative would be to switch to a lower-calorie option like a 0 sugar version. I also know these 0 sugar versions are demonised and won’t cause me bad health.
- I can only eat bread or pasta once a day, and never both in the same day
Positive alternative: Bread and pasta are foods I enjoy, and eating them together makes a delicious meal… Bread and pasta also make great bases for meals, which means I can prepare myself a balanced meal quickly that I can add a variety of other foods to (and make extra to save me time on other days too).