Food Rule or Food Preference?

Learning to eat in a way that is best for your body can be tough to do. We are bombarded by nutrition information daily in the news and on social media, often times relayed by people who aren’t even nutrition professionals. We try to adopt healthier eating patterns, but this can backfire when we realize we are living in our heads more than actually listening to our bodies. We mistakenly believe the answer to living a healthier life is more self-control, more of saying “no” to ourselves…but this just isn’t the case.

Food rules are rigid guidelines we can impose on ourselves that determine what we can and can’t eat, when we can eat, and how much we can eat. An example of a food rule would be measuring out all of your food (whether with measuring cups or with calories) and refusing to go above a certain amount in a meal/day, or making a rule that you won’t eat sugar/gluten/dairy/etc. This could also look like restricting your eating to certain times of the day (looking at you, intermittent fasting).

Living with food rules can be problematic. Here’s why:

1. Food rules don’t take into consideration the signals your body is sending you.

Hunger, as I’ve discussed in this post, is a very important signal your body gives when you need food. Some of the food rules listed above will inevitably cause you to ignore your hunger and put you in “biological restriction mode,” leading to more intense cravings, thoughts of food, and eventually overeating.

I know what some of you are thinking — “I always eat when I’m hungry, I just won’t ever eat _________ (food).” However, we know that psychological restriction can have identical effects to biological restriction — your brain amps up the reward system for your forbidden food, and all you can do is think about it (and you’ll probably end up overeating it).

2. Food rules cause shame when they’re broken.

I find it fascinating how much we allow our eating behaviors to determine our value. Someone calls themselves “good” for skipping dessert and “bad” for eating a cheeseburger — however, neither has any impact on that person’s worth and identity. We can use food rules to create a sort of moral code, when in actuality, we have permission to eat all foods. If you don’t believe me, check out the words of Jesus in Mark 7:18–20:

“‘Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.’ (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.) He went on: ‘What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come…’”

Did you catch that? Jesus declared all foods clean. And this passage in its greater context is about how the religious leaders of the time were taking their own made-up rules about food and saying they were the way to please God. In reality, these people were neglecting the true word of the very One they claimed to follow. Jesus says about them, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”

Eating behaviors should not have the power to make us feel shame. What Jesus did on the cross gives us the chance to be declared righteous, good, and whole, and there’s no bonus for those who choose to skip dessert.

How to tell between a food rule and a food preference

The discussion of food rules can get a little murky due to the fact that we all have food preferences. We have certain foods we don’t like, certain foods we really like, certain times of day we like to eat, etc. These could present similarly to food rules; however, there is a huge difference between the two. Preferences are natural and can be life-giving, while food rules are destructive and shame-provoking.

So how can you tell the difference? Here’s the answer:

If you feel any anxiety or shame about going against your own guideline, it’s a rule.

If you could break your guideline without feeling anything besides minor annoyance, it’s a preference.

The distinction comes in the level of emotional disturbance you experience when you violate your standard. Here’s a personal example. I used to have a standard that I couldn’t eat more than one serving of dessert, and when I thought about going for seconds, I felt overwhelming shame and guilt. This was a food rule. However, I also have a standard that I do not eat cantaloupe. I really, really dislike cantaloupe, and always have (ask my family). When I think about eating it, I feel almost no emotion besides a general disgust. I could eat it if I had to; I’d just prefer not to. This is a preference.

Only you have the power to distinguish between a rule and a preference. If your preference really is to not eat dairy/gluten/fill in the blank, so be it. But make sure it’s not a food rule enslaving you to guilt and shame. Know that your preferences were meant to guide you to your truest self, not to make you into someone else by changing your body or giving you an alternate identity as a “healthy eater.”

On the flip side, following your preferences can actually lead you to greater health and true personal identity. In one of my favorite articles about the difference between rules and preferences, the authors make a fascinating point:

“Our preferences are like an internal compass. When we respect our preferences, we respect ourselves. We assert our humanity, express wholeness and freedom, and embody our inner wisdom.

Your preferences for food and all things deserve your attention and to be cultivated to the fullest.” — Jennifer Kreatsoulas

The body is insanely smart with its preferences. For example, women who didn’t typically eat red meat prior to pregnancy will sometimes find themselves with intense cravings for a hamburger during their time carrying a baby — and guess why? Iron needs are much higher in pregnancy, and red meat is really high in iron. Or you may have a lactose intolerance and because of this you don’t prefer milk. Or maybe you just really dislike cantaloupe. Following your preferences can help you discover a way of eating that really works for your body and enhances your life, and there’s nothing wrong with that (it’s part of intuitive eating!).

Once you’ve learned to distinguish rules from preferences, you can start to develop your own unique way of feeding your body that isn’t detrimental to your mental health. If you feel you have a lot of food rules, it’s best to focus on those before you develop your preferences. And the only way to get rid of a food rule is to challenge it — to purposefully break it, as many times as it takes to get rid of the surrounding anxiety. It might be a tough process, but it’s so worth it for your overall mental and emotional wellbeing.

How can I connect with you?

If you’re wondering how you to sort through food rules and preferences, I am here to help! I am now offering private nutrition counseling services and also have an intuitive eating skills group that meets weekly. Email me at abbie@mindfuleatsnutrition.com or find me on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter.

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Abbie Joy Womack

Abbie Joy Womack

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Ice cream lover. Dog mom. Registered dietitian. Downtown HTX city dweller.