How to Challenge your Food Rules

During my coaching I often work with my clients around:

Challenging food rules!

Internalized food rules may come from your childhood, or are collected over the years, through following various “lifestyle” plans that label certain foods and nutrients as off-limits, such as carbs, fats, gluten, or dairy.
You might believe that these food rules will keep you in line with dieting. So while some of the rules may have some degree of “nutrition” truth, they often are fed by exaggeration and urgent claims, such as “All sweeteners are bad, don’t eat any of them.” Or, “You just ate an hour ago, you shouldn’t be hungry.” 
Food rules tell you:

– what you can and can’t eat,
– when you can or can’t eat it,
– how you can or can’t eat it, and/or
– how much you can or can’t have.

You might worry that there are foods that will make you gain weight or you might fear losing control around them. 
Are these thoughts familiar to you:
Do you think carbs are bad? 
Do you think you should not eat anything after 6pm?
Do you think NO snacking between meals?
Do you think white foods are bad for you?

Let’s say your #1 food rule is Don’t Eat Carbs. No croutons on the salad; no bread or potatoes at any time of the day. But this Friday night, you find yourself out with friends, and everyone’s having beer and pizza. You hold out for a bit. Finally, you give in and grab a slice.
That means screw it, you’ve “blown your diet”, so you might as well keep eating. You start eating, can` t stop and overeat. 
If you have one food rule, you probably have several. That means there are lots of ways to “mess up” (and disinhibit). 

Eating by the rules almost always leads to overeating crap eventually, because once you deviate, there’s nothing left to guide you. Strict dietary rules tend to get broken, and this can be upsetting. Think about how crazy that sounds – we feel guilt, shame and bad about ourselves after actually enjoying a food.

That’s what diet culture has done to us. Does this resonate with you?

How about you try to challenge your rules and let hunger be your guide.
Non-dieters (or so-called “normal eaters”) eat when they’re physically hungry and stop when they’re physically full.
Start by paying attention to your own food rules and responses.
When, where, and how are you likely to say, “Screw it?” What might happen if you let go of that rule and really tuned in to your physical hunger and fullness cues instead?


You have to work actively to quiet your thoughts around food rules, challenge them and train your brain to go down a different path. Cognitive restructuring helps!
Try the following steps to challenge your food rules:

1. Take a few days to observe your thoughts around food, be aware of rules that come up during the day and write them down.
2. Order your food rules from easiest to hardest. Start with challenging the easiest first.
3. Challenge your food rules by questioning their validity and working on reframing your thoughts around them.

For every food rule ask yourself:

– Is there any scientific evidence to support your food rule? Be specific about what it is you will actually do and how you will gather evidence. Are you going to conduct a survey? Do research? Or plan to behave in a certain way and see what happens? 

– Does this food rule sound realistic and/or sustainable?

– Can you logically find fault in this food rule?

– Try to reframe and replace your thoughts around the food rule. So, if the thought is, “All sugar is toxic and will give me diabetes.” Maybe you could reframe it to “Sugar can add a palatable taste too many foods. I know that eating sweets every now and then won’t give me diabetes.”

Avoid Black and White Thinking – Generally food rules are very black and white. How can you see it in the gray? Give yourself some grace and remind yourself that nothing needs to be all-or-nothing.

Allow yourself to eat all foods, including foods you like, foods that are (used to be) off limits, and foods that make you feel good. Allow yourself to eat as much as you need to, especially in the beginning, as you work to re-establish trust. 

With these tips, you will eventually find that the thrill of restricting and misery of out of control eating (as evidenced by the “white” and the “black”) is no longer enticing. 

Challenging your food rules is hard. Be patient with yourself, celebrate small successes, and try not to be hard on yourself if you feel like you did not challenge your rules “perfectly.

If you need help with this process, please reach out! 

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