Food rules mostly* create overeating, even though they sound easy to follow.
If you’re thinking ‘why do I overeat, when others don’t seem to’ – well, your diet or health rules and goals are setting you up for failure! And often, they pave the way for binge eating too.
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In this post, I’ll explain why this happens, and paint a picture of what life without food rules might look like as well. Hint: If you have an image of a rock n roll food orgy with everyone face down in custard pies and bathing in the chocolate fountain – that’s not it.
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Food rules? What food rules?
Don’t tell me you don’t know what I’m talking about. Don’t tell me that [careless hair toss] you’re an adult and can eat whatever you like! Except…
- Except that if you go over 1200 calories you start to feel shifty.
- Except that when you’re served pasta at a friend’s house you quietly panic that you’ll get bloated, or put on weight.
- Except that you never eat bananas and eye apples with suspicion, but spend £4 on a packet of blueberries because they are ‘low sugar’.
- Except that you wonder why other people can put butter on their toast, but you might as well just put it straight on your thighs.
- Except that you go to bed every night feeling like you haven’t done enough, and aren’t good enough, and can’t quite get a grip on your eating, and shouldn’t have yomped those bourbons at 4pm when you got home ravenous.
Your rules are the main reason you feel terrible about your overeating! They are what make you feel like you’re failing all the time.
Because you can’t keep to ‘I only drink on a weeknight’ when your girlfriend needs to go to a bar and talk about her love dramas TODAY and it happens to be Thursday; or you virtuously swallow your dry packed lunch every single day at the office until someone brings in those special doughnuts you only get from the other side of town… and then you punish yourself for being weak.
So… you have the rules to stop yourself giving in. But since they make you feel like a helpless sad victim, they make giving in pretty inevitable. Your best self – your empowered self that believes it’s possible to accomplish your goals and dreams – doesn’t get a lookin.
I mean, just close your eyes for a moment and think of the food that comes to mind when you say to yourself ‘I really shouldn’t eat that’.
When you think of food you’re ‘not allowed’ or ‘shouldn’t eat – do images jostle for the title of ‘most forbidden’?
Did you have images of all different foods jostling each other for space?
The chocolate spread just whizzed in from the right-hand side of my inner vision and kicked the cream tea into the peripheral.
Look, it’s completely normal to have tons of rules – like, “heck, how do I even get out of bed each morning with all these injunctions going on”.
There’s no point in judging ourselves for having a lot of rules. It’s just part of the baggage we all carry until we begin an eating psychology journey and learn to unburden ourselves of it.
I mean, even moi – yes, even I (an eating psychology coach no less) have a host of rules that pop up in my brain like old ghosts, about things I shouldn’t eat. Sugar, cow’s milk, bananas, white pasta, white bread, white rice, breakfast cereal, muesli, peanut butter, croissants, chips, biscuits, polenta, butter, Greek yoghurt, whipped cream, jelly snakes, onion bhajis… that’s about one squillionth of my list. And I probably need a separate list just called ‘desserts’.
I also have, in my head, a host of unwritten rules about things I ‘should’ do for my body. I should go for a run each day; I should walk 10,000 steps; I should do yoga every morning and evening; I should drink 4 pints of water each day; I should get to bed earlier and stop binge watching that female wresting box set; I should squeeze my fufu muscles 100 times each day to stop peeing myself every time I go on the trampoline with my kids.
There are two kinds of rule that exist around food.
Rules that restrict us, and rules that push us to strive harder. Rules that rein us in, rules that whip us to gallop faster. And when we try to manage and control ourselves like this, we get tired, we get beaten down, and we rebel.
Actually, I have learned the hard way that my ‘worst self’ is not the weak victim part that gives in to urges. She is not my favourite vibe, but I do have compassion for her. My worst self is the bully that is always trying to force me and restrain me. My worst self is the deadness and self-abandonment I feel when I have endured that bully’s regime for a time.
No wonder we rebel.
Well, I did, in my teens especially with food. And it wasn’t pretty, but something had to break the tyranny. For seven years of my life, I overate to extremes. And binge ate. And made myself purge. And felt that life wasn’t really worth living.
Cos our bodies, and our psyches, aren’t supposed to be ruled by our oppressive, totalitarian ambition for them. We’re supposed to be alive, to feel alive. And then, we can still choose not to overeat, because it feels good to choose that, not because we’re ‘not allowed’ to overeat.
Where do all these food rules come from?
Aaargh! They start right here at home, in childhood, with what I’m dishing out to my kids. I know, the irony!
“Treat time is at 3:15pm. That’s when you can eat an ice-cream.”
“We have an hour a day of Outdoor Time. Even if it’s raining. Come on kids, put your wellies on, we’re going splashing in puddles!”.
I’m all too aware that being firm with my kids is a double-edged sword – because some of our deepest-believed rules start with childhood.
For instance, my own internalised food rules from childhood include ‘Don’t waste food, it cost us money and it cost Nature to make it, so eat it’; ‘You shouldn’t eat sugar’; and “Other people can have a 54321 bar in their lunch box, but I must martyr myself with a dried banana instead’).
And lo and behold, on a recent camping trip, there I am still obediently trying not to throw out leftover porridge made from damsons gathered for free from a village churchyard.
But it’s not all down to our parents.
(Blame and judgment won’t help us figure out how to stop overeating, they’ll just keep us stuck). We’re just observing influences here, OK? So we layer up a bunch of rules on top of our childhood ones. They are ones we use to define ourselves, once we start to express our autonomy through eating and identify our own eating and body attitude.
We live in a time where healthy eating info is everywhere. We take on food values as part of our identity, and gather more rules in our minds as we self-educate around nutrition.
For instance, at some point during my binge eating/bulimic phase I became vegan for two years. I did authentically believe in the ethical dimension, but I also found the political stance a legit way to publicly commit to being completely abstinent from cheese, chocolate, and many other foods I found it hard to moderate my appetite around.
I still have echoes of these rules in my eating today – I have an unwritten rule to avoid cow’s milk on cereal for example.
What’s the problem with having rules?
The problem is, I’m an adult now. I make all the choices in my life. I’m responsible for everything that I put into my mouth. 100%, my eating is my choice.
So if I live by rules, I pretend I’m not choosing.
If my rules say I can’t eat Oreos, and I like them, I feel like the victim of my rule, all deprived and self-pitying. When actually, I don’t ‘have to’ do anything. I’m willingly choosing to not-eat the Oreos.
Maybe, feeling like a victim will depress me. It’ll sap my confidence in my ability to overcome my overeating, for sure.
And if I break the rule – which I’m more likely to, the more my inner rebel gets that red flag of deprivation waved at it – say I cave in one insomniac night and inhale the whole sleeve of the evil biscuits while I wonder what midnight snack to have to get back to sleep. Then I don’t admit to myself that I actively chose to eat them either.
I explain it, justify it, make excuses for it.
“Just this once my willpower to stick to my rule failed because I was worried about my work deadline and I couldn’t sleep, but otherwise I could have stuck to the rule.”
I tell myself it was a glitch, out of character, a slip-up, an error, and it was something that happened when nobody was looking. And then I immediately clamp down harder on my resolve to abide by the rule again.
A better relationship with food is to learn to own, and trust your own decision-making around food.
And that means, you learn to give yourself permission to choose whether or not you’re eating, at the time when you’re actually putting the food into your mouth.
A better relationship with food is stop feeling like a victim all time. To get confident and trust yourself not to overeat your favourite foods.
So how do you do that?
First, I have to spot my rules. They have been repeatedly thought, and that repetition has turned them into beliefs (just more solidified thoughts, but also ones which have been assimilated into your habit brain, your unconscious mind!). So we need to bring them into our field of vision again.
Next, I need to relinquish the thoughts that “I can’t” have Nutella or “I should” take the stairs, and reinstate my own agency in the process. “I’m choosing not to have Nutella”, or “I’m going to go for it and take the stairs today”.
(By the way, if you want to uncover these unconscious drivers in your own eating, these first two stages are key steps in my eating psychology kickstarter challenge, 14 Days to Food Psychology Savvy, where you are guided through the process of discovering your own food rules, and then on many more steps in beginning an eating psychology journey – all within two weeks!)
Thirdly – and this is more long-term as it’s a gradual process – I might like to try to give myself permission to eat my off-limits foods. But not anyoldhow.
For instance, I now eat my forbidden foods, intentionally and deliberately. It’s a process called habituation where you stop fearing your ‘naughty foods’, and take the excitement out of them through familiarity.
It’s not the same as just opening the treat cupboard door and trying to exhaust your appetite for them by having a free-for-all, it’s more mindful and slowed-down than that. It’s a huge relief to eat them, to admit that I love them.
This is a bit nerdy, but… I practise, with a treat time every single day, same as my kids have.
I love exploring these foods I love, and have been too pious to even admit I love for years. And it hasn’t made me put on weight yet (I have actually lost weight because I’m not OVEReating these foods any more!).
I’d also say in all honesty, this process is a little uncomfortable, because I have to learn to stop eating these foods too. I have to be willing to experience the urge to keep eating the food, but still embrace the dismay or sadness that I have to stop until the next time. At some point, the treat is always over. Sometimes I dread that point even while I’m enjoying the food. It’s a journey – a really worthwhile one.
With physical exercise, I also have a way of sidestepping my rule-based thinking, but still getting out there.
I also go for a walk or a run every day. Not because a voice in my head says i ‘should’. But because I love the lane I run in, and want to see what’s flowering this week in the hedgerows, and because running and being outdoors makes me feel alive.
*ps: I meant to say, I do have some food rules which are useful. I don’t buy food from petrol stations. I don’t eat the bits of skin that I pick off my feet absent-mindedly. If there’s a choice, I always don’t choose the sandwich. I don’t drink caffeine, because I used to yell at the kids even more when I was high and crashing all the time. I don’t bring my phone to the table. I eat outside when I can. I brush my teeth twice a day… How about you? I bet you have a lot of bottom lines that are supporting you too. They aren’t all bad. But my point is, when you go on an eating psychology journey, you get to choose which ones to keep, and which baggage to set down.