What to Do About Eating Disorder Rules
Katy Harvey, RD, CEDRD
We operate our lives in a world filled with rules - some of them spoken, like laws or household rules; some of them unspoken like saying, “Good,” when someone asks, “How are you doing?” Much of the time the rules work in our favor, as they (hopefully) help our lives run smoothly.
Thus, it comes as no surprise that most people with eating disorders have a set of rules related to food. It feels natural to us to have rules to live by. They may not even be aware that they have these rules until we examine their decision-making process around eating. However, it becomes a problem when your self-imposed rules are limiting your life rather than enhancing it.
How do I know if I have eating disorder rules?
A good clue that a rule exists is if you feel guilty about something you ate. If there were no rule, there would be no need to feel guilty.
Another clue is if something that is true for everyone else seems to not apply to you. For example, if you believe it’s ok for everyone else to eat sweets but you’re not allowed, you’ve got a food rule going on.
Try writing down your decision-making process with food for an entire day. See what bubbles up. When you notice yourself hungry or wanting to eat, be curious if there are limitations or contingencies around what you will allow yourself to eat.
A normal eater would notice they were hungry and ask themselves, “What sounds good?” Then, if it’s available, they’d eat that food without guilt.
If your thought process resembles something like, “Cheese and crackers sound good, but that’s too many calories (or too many carbs, or too much fat, or whatever…) so I better pick something else instead.” — THAT’S food rule thinking.
Or if you are feeling hungry but tell yourself it’s not time to eat yet and force yourself to wait an hour until your planned eating time, THAT'S food rule thinking.
Or if you tell yourself you shouldn’t eat something because you didn’t work out today, THAT’S food rule thinking.
Crime and punishment
Breaking rules usually result in guilt and punishment. Rob a bank and you’re going to jail. Lie to your parents and you’re grounded. Again, usually this is helpful for our society as a whole. But not with eating disorder rules - because you didn’t actually do anything wrong!
Implied in the language we use around food is the notion of guilt and punishment. Some common examples include:
- “I was bad today and ate _____.”
- Referring to any food as a “guilty pleasure”
- Devil’s food cake - which is rich and more dense than Angel food cake. Good and evil playing out in the naming of our food.
Based on our societal framework for crime and punishment, it’s natural to feel as if you must punish yourself or “make up” for it if you break one of your eating disorder rules. If you were “bad” with food today, you might vow to be “good” with food tomorrow. Or you might try to offset eating of a “guilty pleasure” food by doing extra exercise.
Purging is another classic example - the notion that you took in something that was either “bad” or “too much” and that it must be gotten rid of.
Typically, the feared consequence of not punishing yourself is that you’d gain weight. This is usually at the core of the eating disorder’s rationale surrounding food rules — that if left to your own devices you’d be fat. And the underlying assumption that this would make you less worthy of love and acceptance.
The other side of the coin
The eating disorder rules aren’t all bad or wrong. In fact, they once served a very useful purpose - they made you feel safe. Let’s have compassion for this.
I’m reminded of Dr. Anita Johnston’s log metaphor which highlights how the eating disorder usually starts out as something that was helping you, but eventually, it holds you back. Watch her narrate it beautifully in this short video here.
Some journaling reflections:
- If food didn’t have calories, didn’t influence your health one way or the other - what would you eat? Make a list of these foods.
- How does making this list feel?
- What fears does it bring up?
- What evidence in your life do you have to support these fears?
- Describe 3 other fears you have faced and how you were able to do so.
You see, we all have fears. And much of the time fear serves a useful purpose - protecting us from danger. But the fears you have about food are exaggerated and unhelpful. Therefore, your food rules become unhelpful when they don’t actually keep you safe.
Rest assured, you don’t have to let go of all your eating disorder rules at once. That would probably make you feel like you were drowning.
Start small, and experiment with it. Play around with what it feels like to break an eating disorder rule and to not punish yourself. Sit with that discomfort - ride it out. Over time, your brain will start to see that the rules were unfounded and that you are just fine if you break them.
Katy Harvey, RD is a Certified Eating Disorder Registered Dietitian (CEDRD) from Kansas City. She has an outpatient private practice where she helps individuals heal their relationship with food, exercise and their body. She also blogs at Katy’s Blog.