Challenging Diet Rules

You could probably make the case that rules are the bedrock of civilization.

After all, rules tamed the lawlessness of the old “wild west.” Rules define boundaries between individuals, communities, nations. Rules lay out which behaviors are acceptable, and which are forbidden. Rules are a critical component in guiding children into functioning adults. Rules can dictate healthy behaviors. Our safety is maintained by the acceptance of traffic rules. (What are laws, after all, but rules enforced by institutional authorities?)

Convoluted Rules Governing Food choices

One function of rules — for good or ill — is to help us feel secure in areas of uncertainty and vulnerability. And battered by the chaotic influence of beauty expectations, body shaming and often contradictory nutrition advice, can you think of any aspect of modern life more insecure than what to eat?

No wonder diet rules are such a common part of our day-to-day world.

Please understand that when I say “diet rules,” I’m not talking about the practices some people follow to make sure they have balanced nutrition intake, or eat plenty of greens, or take care that they drink enough water. I’m referring to the black and white, rule-based thinking that insists “all carbs are bad,” “avoid fats,” “sugar is poison” way of viewing food. “Never eat this!” “Always eat that!” I’m talking about the often convoluted rules that people struggling with disordered eating tend to impose upon themselves.

Diet rules provide a measure of dependable structure for people feeling out of control, promising to make sense of the confusion of the array of body and nutrition issues propagated by diet culture. Haunted by the culture-wide influence of weight stigma, diet rules offer a chance to alleviate pressures we inflict upon ourselves. By listening to an external controlling force (aka The Rules) we are absolved of making decisions from the jumbled options confronting us. And as time goes on, the more fixed in our minds these rules tend to become. In fact, the influence of diet rules can actually increase over time; not because they’re right or beneficial, but simply because they have persisted in our heads — as well as the larger culture — unchallenged, for so long.

But the picture changes once we begin to take a closer look.

People who inflexibly rely on their diet rules do so to minimize their anxieties, by shifting focus onto artificial and external structures of boundaries. The greater the anxiety, the more pronounced these arbitrary regulations. So the “diet rules” dynamic is actually a maladaptive coping mechanism, deflecting attention away from the real issue of whatever it is that is triggering the anxiety in the first place.

Black and White Eating

A common strategy people use to manage anxiety is to try to exercise as much control over every aspect of their world as possible. This “all or nothing” approach to life can quickly evolve into rigid rules that govern eating choices in strictly opposing terms: one should follow a diet with total, 100% perfection, or just completely give up on any thought of eating healthfully. I refer to this dynamic as “Black and White Eating,” a logical consequence to the over-rigidity that accompanies diet rules. “Black and White Eating” tends to vilify certain foods; in a context of harsh and unbending food standards, some foods are “good” foods and the rest are “bad” foods. But consider this: If a dieter is tempted by a so-called “bad” food, well, what does that make her? No wonder people who deviate from diet food rules call themselves “cheats”! In a system based on anxiety and fear of missed perfection, everyone that buys into it is almost guaranteed to falter — falter to them means failure — and with that failure, all the self-recriminations and inner rage they so desperately had been trying to subdue ends up haunting their dark and sleepless nights.

Rules exist for a reason, and it is unreasonable to expect someone to walk away from a major behavior-defining rule (no matter how ill-advised or ultimately destructive) without a plan to replace it. Fortunately, there is a way out.

Hierarchy of Rigidity

Anxieties are emotion-based. So rules triggered by anxieties are forged in a bubble of emotional thoughts churning around in our consciousness, often growing in intensity as a product of an ongoing feedback loop. The more anxious energy fueling these emotional thoughts, the more rigid the resulting strategies. Think of it as a hierarchy of rigidity:

  1. Laws
  2. Rules
  3. Suggestions
  4. Guidelines
  5. Ideas

Challenging diet rules, then, begins with the thinking part of the brain. To move forward toward a more nuanced, healthier way of being, someone struggling with diet rules needs to first admit there are anxieties informing the beliefs affecting their world view. They might examine a rule for its validity, considering whether it is based in science or is an arbitrary prejudgment. As these assumptions are challenged, and the underlying rigidity relaxes, the listed strategies evolve from austere and absolute to more considered and flexible.

For example, the idea that cookies are bad for us to eat is just an arbitrary rule based on a subjective assumption, while the idea that moldy bread is bad to eat is a rule based on real science that applies to everyone.

Or, if Joe’s diet rule states that carbs are bad so he can’t eat them, his challenging brain can explore the ways carbs efficiently fuel his muscles. With a clear assessment of the facts, he might choose higher fiber carbs over lower fiber carbs; a first step in moving from a rule to a suggestion.

When the assumption put forth by diet rules are challenged, the austere absolutism can begin to relax the black and white thinking moving towards the gray. “I can’t eat this” becomes “How can I make this food fit into an all foods fit model?” Challenging the rules conceptually encourages a tangible shift toward defying the rules behaviorally.

Still, letting go of the diet rules that have been unquestioned for so long does set up potential pitfalls. After all, rules loom large in our lives, huge structures defining our mental landscapes, established in place so long they have become landmarks, honored even after their usefulness or benefits have been debunked. What is to take their place once they’re gone?

The replacement is mindfulness, gently flowing in the empty spot where once stood a rule, reminding us to listen to what our bodies require for nutrition; no longer trying to follow “perfection” in our eating choices, we can simply see the value in “good enough” eating. In other words, follow an Intuitive Eating approach to our relationship with eating and food.

If there are no food rules, there is nothing to violate and nothing for people to beat themselves up over. So let’s leave the rules to things like regulating traffic and taming the wild west, and let the function of food in our lives be for enjoyment, satisfaction and nourishment… not negativity.


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Additional Reading:

The Urge To Diet After an Eating Disorder
Six Questions Often Asked By Intuitive Eating Newcomers
Why Dieting Doesn’t Work
Dangers of the Wedding Diet

About the Author:

Lisa Ellis is a Registered Dietitian, Certified Eating Disorders Registered Dietitian and Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in the NYC area. She received a B.S, in nutrition and psychology from Simmons University; an M.S. in clinical nutrition from New York Medical College; and an MSW from Fordham University. Her areas of expertise include eating disorders and emotion-triggered eating in children, adolescents, adults and families. A recognized expert in the field of nutrition and emotion-triggered eating, she has contributed nutrition information to a variety of publications, including Redbook, Glamour, New York Times, Westchester Magazine, Huffington Post, Runner’s World, Yahoo, and Today’s Dietitian and is currently writing a book about emotion-triggered eating to be completed within the next year.

Written – 2020