Sneaky ways your food rules are actually sabotaging you

Food rules are black and white, and most of us are living our lives in the gray area.

The Flourish team
A flat lay of leafy green vegetables, cucumbers, and lemons

Nowadays, food rules are everywhere. Chances are, you or someone you know subscribes to at least a few. Maybe they're obvious—going gluten-free or practicing paleo or veganism. Or they could be a bit more subtle—limiting carbohydrates, having dessert only if you’ve exercised, or restricting meals after a certain hour in the evening.

You've probably looked to food rules to wrap your hands around living a healthier lifestyle. In today's day and age, nutrition information can feel messy and complicated. Food rules present themselves as simple frameworks to solve your health or weight issues. And sometimes they work, which is awesome... But for most of us, they don't.

Food rules are black and white, and most of us are living our lives in the gray area.

Let's say that with the best of intentions, you put a food rule in place—no eating after 8 pm a la intermittent fasting. But you're also exploring the dating game, and a Bumble guy you're really excited about just asked you out on a 7:30 pm dinner date. This is when your well-intended change in your health can actually start to make daily decisions feel way too complicated, ultimately robbing you of agency and freedom in your health.

Ultimately, nutritional guidelines aren't harmful in themselves. Recommendations that encourage the consumption of fruits and vegetables along with a variety of food groups are tools that empower you to choose foods that nourish your body and encourage you to live a healthy life.

But the keyword is choose. With food rules, there's not much of a choice in the matter. They require you to white knuckle it to obey these mandatory food rules, sacrificing anything that may get in the way... Unless you end up breaking a food rule, once again falling off the proverbial wagon.

Now's the time to dig deeper. What motivates your food choices? How are your food rules impacting your mental, emotional, and physical health? If what you're doing is working for you, great! But if you're struggling to fit your gray life into a black and white structure... It may be time to take a step back and re-evaluate your approach.

The danger of rigid food rules is the high probability of experiencing some form of guilt or shame. It can feel like you’ve failed or disappointed yourself in some way when you don't stick to your self-administered nutritional legal system. And experiencing these negative emotions doesn’t just feel bad. Shame and guilt further prevent flexibility for growth and learning in the brain, meaning the brain will then continue to participate in the same thought patterns, feelings, and behaviors.

How many times have you binged and then shamed yourself into never doing it again? How many times has that worked? Probably very few. That's because shame sends a signal to the brain that certain foods are to be feared, which keeps you from being able to make choices from a place of agency over your health. 

Recall a time you went into the weekend revved up with all the pep-talk you could muster. You tell yourself, “I'm going to have a healthy weekend. I’m NOT going to finish this whole bag of chips while watching Love is Blind.”

The weekend flies by, it's Sunday night, and to your dismay, you find yourself on the couch in front of the TV at the bottom of your favorite bag of chips. You’re immediately filled with regret and shame, beating yourself up over the thought of, “How did I lose control again?” You vow to never let this happen again, believing that next weekend will be different.

Well, was it? And how about the weekend after that? Did the shame transform your behaviors for good, or is it more likely that it further perpetuated the cycle? (Remember, you can't hate yourself healthy.)

Food rules can also create unnecessary drama around certain “off limit” foods. When you separate food into “good” and “bad” categories, your cravings for those “bad” foods naturally increase. (Think about Adam and the forbidden fruit.) Your primal brain thinks it’s doing you a favor by noticing the “scarcity” that's happening around you. But the truth is, those “off limit” foods are still very much available physically and have merely gone through a mental restriction. So you find yourself thinking and dreaming of those foods day in and day out until you can’t restrict any longer. So you fall face first into a bag of M&M's and the cycle starts all over again.

We've talked about showing up for yourself and how important it is to keep the promises you make to yourself. It's the building block of confidence. The problem with food rules is that they're unsustainable promises. So you make a promise that was never meant to be kept, and you blame yourself for that failure. The cycle continues until you stop making promises to yourself altogether. But that's not the life you want.

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