How to let go of food rules

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Do you have a nagging voice inside your head making up rules about food? Maybe it's a commentator telling you choose a certain meal because ‘it's the healthier option’. Or the food police telling you to avoid eating after a certain time, instilling the fear of gaining weight in you (which is not something to be feared, our bodies are perfectly capable of regulating our weight.

These thoughts and rules inside your head have likely been collected from years of internalizing external messaging about food and your body. You may have collected these food rules from well meaning family members or friends, from diet culture, or from the rabbit hole of the internet where everyone is a “nutrition expert”.

To tell you the truth, we don’t need food rules. With true nourishment and self care, we can trust our body to be the size it needs to be without the regulations. Easier said than done, right?

Let’s talk about some common food rules, why we can tune them out, and how to let them go.

 

Clearing the dinner plate

I can’t tell you how many times I sat at the table as a kid, stuffed to the brim but stuck at the table until every. damn. crumb was gone. This food rule has been handed down for many generations. Interesting history lesson: there was a campaign created during world war one called the “clean plate club” where kids were taught about the scarcity of food at the time and were encouraged to clean their plate. They were also told to only eat at meal times and not to snack. Absolutely makes sense from a food insecurity standpoint, and the rule was made with good intentions. Time went on and it was found that cleaning the plate left people feeling overly stuffed, not enjoying their food, and causing them to overeat.

The problem with this rule is we have hunger hormones that tell us when to eat and how much to eat. Meaning if mid afternoon rolls around and you’re needing a snack, it’s not helpful to wait until dinner just so you can clear your plate. Doing so will cause bloating/cramping from waiting too long to eat, cause overeating/binging behaviors at dinner (which leads to shame, guilt, poor body image, etc), and take you out of tune with your hunger and fullness signals.

What’s more helpful? Thinking about your hunger, putting an amount of food on your plate that will make you feel satisfied, and always know you can go back for more. Another tip to try is being mindful at meals; pause when you are halfway done and check in with yourself-how full am I? Am I still enjoying what I’m eating? It’s definitely okay to want to finish your plate, just know you don’t have to if your full. You can always box it up and put it away to enjoy later.

Here are some thoughts/mantras to help let go of this food rule:

“I’m full for now, this will be delicious later when I’m feeling hungry again”

“I don’t have to finish my plate because I know that clearing my plate was a rule created 100 years ago during different times”

“I can trust my body to tell me when I need to eat again”

 

No eating after 7pm

This rule comes from the idea that less food will be consumed if you stop eating by a certain time, meaning less calories, which leads people to believe they are being “good” or “healthy”. To start, 7pm is an arbitrary number- why 7pm? Our hunger doesn’t know the difference of time. Also, let's say you did stop eating by 7pm and your next meal wasn’t until 9am the next morning. Going this long without eating can disrupt your sleep, affect blood sugar regulation, hangry feelings, and overeating later on.

What’s more helpful? Eating when you are hungry, not based on when you think you “should” eat. If you need a snack before bed to keep you sound asleep through the night, this is absolutely acceptable.

Here are some thoughts/mantras to help let go of this food rule:

“If I am hungry and need a snack before bed, I give myself permission”

“My hunger does not know a time, and its okay for me to listen and honor it by having a snack”

 

I can only have “X” calories

I won’t put exact numbers of calories because they can be triggering for people, but we’ve all been told extremely low calorie amounts to follow in our lives. These made up numbers are about controlling your body size rather than nourishment, and often leave us hungry, fatigued, and in a restrict-binge cycle. When calories are restricted, our body will play “catch up” later on by urging you to binge- as a protective mechanism, our bodies are SO SMART. Not to mention these low calorie amounts are less than what our body needs just to EXIST, aka for brain function, organ systems, metabolism, hormone production-not even considering an individual's activity levels, genetics, and lifestyle. And the amount of calories needed is different every. single. day.

People fear that if they don’t track their calories, they will eat thousands and thousands of calories. And it's just not true. If we do eat more calories than we “need” at one meal, we won’t be as hungry at our next meal because our body can regulate itself. Being told unrealistic numbers to follow sets us up for failure.

What’s more helpful? Having 3 meals/day with some snacks. Check in with yourself every 3-5 hours and ask yourself, “am I hungry? Do I want a meal or snack? And have some protein, fats, carbs, and fiber.

Here are some thoughts/mantras to help let go of this food rule:

“My body does not know exact calorie amounts but what  my body does know is that it needs nourishment”

“Calories are a unit of energy that fuel my body to do the fun things in life. They are not something that need to be micromanaged or scrutinized”

 

Only having cake on birthdays

Or any rule around desserts. We use food to connect and to celebrate occasions, and that is perfectly okay; I encourage it, really. Food brings joy and joy goes hand in hand with celebrations. But cake, or any dessert, is just delicious protein fats and carbs. When we assign foods to categories or put it on a pedestal, it makes us want to the food more and brings shame when we do finally allow ourselves to have it. I promise that if you eat cake today, or any day, it will be okay.  I also promise if you eat a whole cake at every meal everyday, you will feel really sick. I also promise if you try to replace cake with something “healthier” (my least favorite example is an apple) you will still want the cake.

What’s more helpful? Eating the damn cake. If we allow ourselves to honor our cravings, you will be surprised how less frequently you will want the cake.

Here are some thoughts/mantras to help let go of this food rule:

“Cake(or other dessert) is not bad, it’s just protein fats and carbohydrates-all things my body knows how to process”

“I deserve to honor my cravings and enjoy tasty sweets without justification”

External messages remove us from our inner wisdom. And food rules get in the way of enjoying the eating experience, which is part of true nourishment. But the good news? Rules that are learned can be unlearned with practice and patience.

Do you have food rules that aren’t listed here? What are some ways you can reframe those thoughts about food?


Hannah Turnbull is a registered dietitian and certified group fitness instructor. Her work empowers people to nourish and accept their bodies with intuitive eating and health at every size. Her philosophy is all foods fit, all bodies are good bodies, and that people deserve to live their most fulfilling lives without the noise of diet culture and body hatred bringing them down.

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