Labeling food as good/bad or healthy/unhealthy is an example of a food rule. Food rules have seemingly become “normalized” in our culture as being helpful. They are often suggested for dieters to use because they provide “limits” that often help the eater feel more in control.
|Labeling Food: Categorizing foods as unhealthy/healthy, bad/good, legal/illegal, fattening/nonfattening, safe/dangerous usually backfires. The intent of labeling foods is to help people get control of their eating for the sake of losing weight, for example, and thus categorizing foods as either fattening or nonfattening provides a sense of control. However, deprivation often increases desire.|
Some possible benefits from food rules include:
- Focusing on the “rules” is a great distraction from focusing on more distressing issues
- Helps you feel safe or in control.
- Produces a “high” when you are successful at following the “rules” which in turn, perpetuates the eating behaviors while feeling self-righteous or disapproving of your previous eating behaviors.
The downside is that these behaviors often promote rigidity and limits and individual’s choices with food, eating, health, exercise and weight. Simple, healthful guidelines become complex, demanding and powerful.
Another problem is that deprivation often increases desire. When the individual gives in to this desire and eats the “forbidden” food, feelings of guilt or shame are the result often leading to overeating or other compensatory behaviors, such as increased restriction or excessive exercise.
And the cycle continues… Eventually, a person begins to feel as if they cannot live without the strict rules and eating continues to become more rigid and disordered.
Therefore, following are some of the costs an individual suffers by relying on food rules:
- Food rules prevent the development of confidence in your own body, skills and judgment
- Rules exacerbate dieting behaviors and rigidity with food, exercise and weight
- Rules increase your sense of guilt if a rule is violated
Negative thoughts and perceptions about food, weight and eating patterns make it difficult to successfully change certain behaviors. You may be overly critical of yourself, have a low self-esteem, or view foods as being either bad or good – which can all sabotage your efforts of achieving peace with food and your body.
| Following are some examples of food rules:
Most would proclaim they want to stop this fight with food and their body, but having unconditional permission to eat feels very scary. One of the most effective solutions for eating problems of all types is to begin to return all foods to a neutral status – to stop and give yourself permission to eat all foods, trusting you will find a healthy balance.
Legalizing food and eating requires action. There are 3 things you will need to do:
1. Have a plan. Make a plan to bring forbidden foods into your home; (with support), you want to begin to expose yourself to foods you crave.
When you begin to expose yourself to foods you enjoy, it’s helpful to have a plan that includes: where to start, how to challenge negative thoughts, who can support you, etc. Remember your goal is to stop the food fight and find a peaceful relationship with food and your body. You cannot do that if you continue to evaluate food in terms of “good” vs “bad” or in terms of “fat” and “calories.”
2. Replenish supplies of favorite foods. When it feels safer, begin to have your favorite foods around, so you don’t feel deprived.
One suggestion is to make a list of food or foods you would like to reclaim. Then, you may want to start with the least feared item on your list. Then, I guide my clients through a “step-by-step” plan for experimenting with reclaiming this food. In this plan, we identify what are the irrational thoughts about the food, i.e. carbs will make me fat or sugar is toxic. Then, we identify what you will do to try the food. For example, if ice cream is forbidden and there’s a risk you will binge on a half gallon of ice cream if it is brought into the house, then plan to go out for a small dish of ice cream with a supportive friend. We discuss a plan for dealing with the irrational thoughts, i.e. education on how your body uses carbs for energy and finally evaluate how the plan went. Finally, we evaluate why your plan worked or didn’t work and what to do different next time.
3. Create a pleasant food atmosphere in your home. This step is critical for setting you up for ongoing success.
Examples of changes you may need to make include: promising not to “yell” at yourself for eating foods you enjoy; eating slowly and mindfully at a table so you can truly savor your food; and/or use a realistic meal plan that helps you see the big picture of how these foods can fit while helping you achieve your goals with food, wellness and weight. Journaling your food intake along with thoughts and feelings can be helpful at recognizing that you didn’t “blow it” when you enjoyed a small piece of dessert.
The point of all this is re-learning to trust yourself and your body with food and eating again. Food does not need to have all the power and deserves to be on the plate – not on a pedestal.