Wait, What Is a ‘Food Rule,’ Exactly? An RD and Psychologist Share Warning Signs To Look For

Photo: Getty Images/ istetiana
If you’re interested in the anti-diet culture space (or are just curious about food and nutrition), you may have heard the term “food rule” before.

And for those who haven’t heard it or don’t know what it means, it can sound a bit confusing! Are food rules helpful or unhelpful? Do they include foods you’re allergic to? What’s a food rule versus a food preference, and is it more of a want or a need?

Ahead, a psychologist who specializes in eating disorders and an anti-diet dietitian answer those questions and share helpful information.

What “food rule” means

Pay attention to all the keywords in this definition: “A food rule is an inflexible, self-imposed guideline on what or how you must or must not eat,” says Christine Byrne, MPH, RD, an eating disorder dietitian and the owner of Ruby Oak Nutrition. “Food rules are different from food preferences.”

Experts In This Article

One way to separate a food rule from a food preference is by considering whether the message comes internally or externally. “I would define a food rule as an external idea or belief that shapes what and when you eat,” says Breese Annable, PsyD, CEDS-C, a psychologist who helps people heal their relationship with food and their body, and the owner of Living Balance Psychotherapy. “Internal cues change day to day so they lead to flexibility in what and when you eat. However, a food rule tends to be fixed, leading to rigid ways of eating.”

In the middle of a food decision, it may be helpful to ask yourself a question like this: Do I want to make a certain choice because it will make me feel better and happier, or because society makes me feel like I “should”?

Signs of a food rule

Identifying a food rule can be trickier than you may think. “Food rules can be hard to spot because we make food decisions all day long for many different reasons,” Byrne says. “Plus, it’s okay to make food decisions based on physical health as long as you’re not compromising your mental health or your relationship with food.

With that said, here are some red flags she and Dr. Annable mention:

A societal idea versus a bodily cue

To add to her earlier definition, Dr. Annable adds another hallmark feature of a food rule: having a basis in an external idea, not an internal cue. For instance, many influencers try to tell you how to eat but remember, your body knows its needs better than they do.

Dr. Annable also clarifies that “shoulds” from food rules differ from “shoulds” from allergies, sensitivities, or intolerances. The latter is “guided by the feedback that your body is giving,” she explains. “So ultimately, your body is deciding that it doesn’t respond well to the food—an internal cue—rather than you or someone else deciding that the food isn’t okay.”


Byrne says this is the biggest sign she’s noticed. Essentially, “inflexibility” in this context refers to how you feel about not following the rule.

For example, do you refuse to eat at night, even if you’re starving or out getting ice cream with friends? Will you feel guilty if you eat a cookie your friend made you if you already had a dessert that day?

Feelings of guilt, shame, or anxiety

Food rules may trigger these feelings in a variety of situations, Dr. Annable says, such as:

  • Eating a food that doesn’t fit the rule or plan
  • Eating at a time that doesn’t fit the rule or plan
  • Worrying about how the food will affect your body weight or size

Effects on your life and time

Food rules may also require calculations of when and what you’re “allowed” to eat, which can take up a lot of brain space and power.

They can interact with your relationships, too. Dr. Annable explains you may struggle to eat during social events or even avoid them altogether because the foods offered don’t fit your rules.

Examples of food rules

First, it’s important to note that flexibility is the biggest thing that separates a food rule from a recommendation or guideline. Byrne shares the example of eating several servings of fruits and vegetables a day.

“This can be a fine goal, but if you’re so rigid with it that you’re meticulously measuring and counting every serving and feeling guilty on days you don’t hit your goal, that’s a sign that it’s become a harmful food rule,” she explains.

Other examples of food rules include the following:

  • “Don’t eat past a certain time.”
  • “No snacking.”
  • “Avoid eating ‘too much’ sugar.”
  • “Always buy the fat-free version of something.”

Those examples only scratch the surface, though.

Helpful ways to go about deciding what and when to eat

Without rules, what do we have to guide us? The answer: more than you may think.

Consider what you like and dislike, what you are and aren’t in the mood for

This is where food preferences come in. What do you enjoy the taste of versus what do you find gross? How can you create shame-free goals?

“A food preference honors your likes and dislikes when it comes to food—for example, choosing to omit mushrooms from a dish because you don’t like them, or choosing to add blueberries to a smoothie because you love them,” Byrne says.

Eat intuitively

Another key piece is eating when and how much feels good (keeping in mind no one is “perfect” at this, and that’s okay!).

As you eat, listen to your body. Do you feel hungry? Full? Satisfied?

“Think about it like having a radio signal that's free of static or noise,” Dr. Annable says. “When those signals are clear, you can eat when your body gives subtle signs of hunger and subtle signs of fullness.”

She encourages permitting yourself to eat for pleasure, satisfaction, and even comfort daily.

…and possibly adding gentle nutrition

If you feel like you’re at a stable, feel-good place with your relationship with food, you might want to consider incorporating “gentle nutrition.” It’s a principle of intuitive eating that’s all about mindfully adding nutrient-rich foods without restricting other foods or micromanaging your intake. But no pressure to do this, dietitians say (seriously).

If you do opt to aim for this, however, be mindful of your intentions and mindset. Byrne encourages gentleness and flexibility. “For example, eating an apple with your morning bagel because you’re trying to eat more fruits and vegetables, but not beating yourself up on days when you don’t have any fruit at breakfast time.”

Consider seeing an RD when you’re starting or want extra support

While Byrne’s and Dr. Annable’s insights are a wonderful start, many folks need extra or more individualized help. That’s understandable! Navigating diet culture and embracing a more flexible, intuitive way of eating is difficult.

The good news is you’re not alone in this journey!

“If you have a difficult time connecting to these cues, it can often be a good idea to work with a registered dietitian who specializes in disordered eating/eating disorders,” Dr. Annable says.

Forewarning: They may be somewhat directive in their approach at first, but not in the same rigid, shame-based way. “Even though a dietitian may give guidelines of what and when to eat—an external source guiding your eating—this is only a stage in the process,” Dr. Annable emphasizes. “Over time, with consistency and adequacy, you can develop a relationship with your body where decisions can be made intuitively and internally again.”

In other words, after spending some time doing your best with this new mindset and way of eating (which again, won’t be perfect!), and by giving your body what it actually needs, eating will probably become less complicated.

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