Food Rules: The good, the bad, and the ugly

To Thine Own Self Be TrueFood rules are a pretty contentious topic–some people live and die by them. Some feel that healthy eating habits (especially for those in recovery from disordered eating) can’t include them. Some like to reframe rules as “guidelines” and some seem try to delude both themselves and their audiences that their food rules are different and, no matter how restrictive they seem, they aren’t like that other person’s restrictive food rules.

If you’re on Facebook (or the internet) you’ve encountered a plethora of food rules: Whole30, Paleo, plant-based, vegan, raw vegan, “clean” eating, Weight Watchers, intermittent fasting, etc. etc.

I’ve tried more than my fair share of rules: raw vegan (cold all the time but felt great–possibly because the body’s response to starvation is a push of energy); Eat to Live (that way madness and–with 3 pounds of produce and a cup of beans a day–pooping lie); extreme calorie restriction; Geneen Roth’s (generally sane) guidelines; obsessive calorie tracking; and the one freeing but problematic rule: fuck it all. I’ve tried intuitive eating (and had a fair bit of success). I’ve done low(ish) carb (as an ethical vegan there is only so low one’s carbs can go). I’ve done low GI. I’ve paired both extreme calorie restriction and a more moderate intake with obsessive exercise. I’ve toyed with orthorexia.

What I’m saying is, I’ve tried a lot of rules. They’ve all, with the exception of intuitive eating, been a substitute for the control I was lacking in life, and a tool with which to punish myself.

I, like many of us, was never taught or modelled healthy eating/food patterns. So, when I’ve thrown off the shackles of culturally supported food bullshit, whether out of burgeoning self-love or politics (and, let me be clear, my self-love is intimately tied to–and a result of–my feminist politics) I have found myself floundering. What does a healthy relationship with food actually look like? What is normal eating?

This is a remarkably stressful question. Because, really, in this culture at least, there doesn’t seem to be a clear answer. If I were to try to answer that question it would look something like this: a pattern of eating that keeps you nourished without angst or worry.

But what does that look like in practice?

I’ve been working through Making Peace with Food by Susan Kano. It has been revealing and hope-inducing. From it, I have incorporated three rules into my life. Rules that feel sustainable. Rules that give me a framework within which I can eat with freedom and care for myself, by nourishing both my body and my soul. The rules I’ve incorporated are:

1. When you are craving something, eat it. Indulge that craving. Enjoy it whole-heartedly.
2. When you’re not craving something particular, eat health-promoting food (fruits and veg, whole grains, protein, etc.).
3. When you start feeling stressed or compulsive about food flip the script from “Can I resist to this?” to “Do I want this?” If the answer is yes go to number 1. If not, go do something else.

In order to embrace these rules I have had to (start to) accept that weight-loss might not be in the cards. That my choice might be sanity at this size or angst at, well, this size. And that I can focus on a healthy and nourishing relationship with food and I can focus on getting really strong, fit, and capable, and that the mental/emotional work is to accept that my body will do what it does within those habits.

And that sounds like a pretty damn good place to be.

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2 thoughts on “Food Rules: The good, the bad, and the ugly

  1. I love this post so much, especially this central question: What does a healthy relationship with food actually look like? What is normal eating?

    I recently added the tag line “a feminist wellness blog” to my blog. And ever since then, I’ve been pushing myself to define what that even means. There’s so much toxic information out there, from anti-woman body shame to sugar and chemical laden processed foods. How do we carve a path through all that dangerous noise?

    I like these rules because they are rooted in compassion and permission, rather than punishment and restriction.

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