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Food Rules; what are they and can they be harmful to your Mental Health?

Healthy Food

Food rules are guidelines or principles that individuals follow regarding their dietary habits and choices. These rules vary widely from person to person and may be based on cultural, religious, personal, or health-related factors. Food rules often dictate what types of foods are permissible or forbidden, how much to eat, when to eat, and how food should be prepared and consumed. Rigid adherence to food rules can sometimes lead to disordered eating patterns, psychological distress, or nutritional deficiencies, particularly when taken to extremes or when driven by unrealistic ideals.


Here are a couple of food rule examples:

“I must always finish everything on my plate."

This rule often stems from cultural or familial norms and may be intended to prevent waste, encourage gratitude, or promote healthy eating habits. However, while it can help instil discipline and mindfulness around portion control, it may also lead to overeating or disregarding one's own hunger and satiety cues. It is of course important to minimize food waste and appreciate the food we have, but it's equally important to listen to our bodies and stop eating when we feel comfortably satisfied, even if there is food left on our plate.

"Fat is bad - avoid fat or choose ‘low fat’ options"

This food rule can be traced tothe low-fat diet craze of the 1980s and 1990s.  Unfortunately, low-fat alternatives are not always healthier due to added sugars, nutrient dilution, interruption of satiety signals, imbalanced macronutrients, processed ingredients, and potentially misleading marketing. Instead of focusing solely on fat content, it's important to consider the overall nutritional quality and ingredient list of foods when making dietary choices.



There are a range of reasons why rigid adherence to food rules can become harmful:

Promotion of unhealthy relationships with food: Strict food rules can lead to a distorted relationship with food, causing anxiety, guilt, and shame surrounding eating habits. This can contribute to the development of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge eating disorder. 


Rigid thinking: Following strict food rules can lead to rigid thinking patterns, where individuals feel compelled to adhere to dietary restrictions regardless of their body's nutritional needs or personal preferences. This rigidity can prevent individuals from participating in shared meals or enjoying dining out with friends and family.  It makes it harder to enjoy social gatherings, try new foods, or respond flexibly to changes in their environment, this can lead to feelings of isolation and disconnection from others.


Neglect of hunger and satiety cues: Food rules may encourage individuals to ignore their body's natural hunger and satiety cues, leading to overeating or undereating. This can disrupt the body's ability to regulate food intake appropriately, potentially leading to weight gain, weight loss, or nutritional deficiencies.


Stigmatisation of certain foods: Food rules often categorize foods as "good" or "bad," leading to feelings of guilt or shame associated with consuming "forbidden" foods. This can contribute to a negative self-image and perpetuate harmful dieting behaviours.


Loss of pleasure in eating: Following rigid food rules may detract from the pleasure of eating, as individuals may become overly focused on calorie counting, portion control, or food restrictions rather than savouring and enjoying their meals.


Overall, while some food rules may be intended to promote health or address specific dietary needs, adherence to excessively strict or rigid rules can have detrimental effects on both physical and psychological well-being. It's important for individuals to cultivate a balanced and flexible approach to eating that prioritizes enjoyment, satisfaction, and overall health.  More specifically, food rules can contribute to the development or exacerbation of eating disorders. Eating disorders often involve rigid and obsessive thoughts and behaviours related to food, eating, and body weight. Strict food rules can lead to unhealthy relationships with food, distorted body image, and patterns of disordered eating


Furthermore, food rules can reinforce feelings of guilt, shame, and anxiety surrounding eating habits, all of which are common features of eating disorders. Individuals may become preoccupied with following their food rules, which can lead to malnutrition, weight loss, weight gain, or other medical complications associated with eating disorders.


It's important to recognize the potential impact of food rules on mental health and to promote a balanced and flexible approach to eating that prioritises physical and emotional well-being. Seeking support from healthcare professionals, such as therapists, dietitians, or physicians, can be beneficial for individuals struggling with disordered eating patterns related to food rules.

First published on Counselling Directory, 11/04/24

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