Skip to main content

It's time to break up with your food rules

I am a huge proponent of guidelines. By definition, a guideline provides boundaries. A guideline provide direction to take action. In contrast, a rule tells you what you are and are not allowed to do. Rules must be followed or else there will be negative consequences. Rules bring anxiety and stress.

Most of the time, there are no real consequences to breaking a guideline. However, rules are typically set as a way to enforce the right way that things should be done. If not, there are serious consequences.

In your everyday life, you likely adhere to both rules and guidelines - at work, in society, at home, with your family, etc.. For example, when you race in an athletic event, there are rules to ensure safety and fair play. At work, you may have guidelines to ensure a positive, safe and supportive work culture.

But what about food rules? Do you constantly live life following rules as to how you should and shouldn't eat?

As a board certified sport dietitian, I don't believe in food rules. I couldn't imagine living my life with rules as to how I have to eat unless it was for medical reasons. Sure, I have healthy eating patterns that I adhere to on a daily basis but I also know that nothing bad will happen when I enjoy the occasional treat. Sadly, many athletes don't live this way.

With good intentions, you may be adhering to food rules as a way to eat better and to improve performance. For example, a rule to always refuel after a workout is great advice. But a rule of "no carbs after 7pm" or "fruit is off-limit" is worrisome. When you live with food rules, every food-related situation or decision becomes stressful and brings anxiety and stress. Seeing that athletes often take guidelines too the extreme, there can be great consequences to adhering to food rules.

Following strict and unrealistic rules can result in physical, emotional and psychological issues, including nutrient deficiencies, hormonal disturbances, anxiety, depression and obsessive thinking.
Food rules can result in extreme preoccupation with food and body image. This can be exhausting - mentally and emotionally. For an athlete, the stress you place on your body through training is more than enough for your body to handle. Food rules have no place in an athlete's diet.

Do you feel as if you are a prisoner to your self-imposed food rules? 

Is the thought of deviating from your strict food rules causing you great anxiety, fear, worry and stress?  

Food rules create structure, order and control. This is why diets, like Whole 30, work.....temporarily. Food rules keep you "on track" by taking out the guesswork of eating. At first, food rules make eating easy, but eventually they come with a consequence. Either you break your food rules and go back to unhealthy eating habits or you become even more obsessed with eating, which increases the risk for disordered eating, which may develop into an eating disorder.

Breaking food rules can be very difficult for you've likely become rather accustomed to your food rituals. During your break-up period, it is very important that you do not focus on your body as your body is likely in a state of undernourishment. You've probably become out-of-tune with your body signals. Your digestive tract may be compromised due to disordered eating. When you've ignored your body cues and signals for fear of breaking a rule, the first step in your break-up is giving your body the nourishment it needs to heal from the damage that has been done by restrictive eating and disordered eating patterns.

Eventually, likely with the help of a professional, you will be able to engage in healthy, structured and enjoyable eating patterns that are not rigid, strict, controlled or obsessive. Health should improve, alongside body composition and performance. Once the break up is behind you, you'll be on your way of creating a personalized style of eating, free of guilt, anxiety and worry.

Are you ready for a break-up?