What Are Food Rules (And How To Break Them)

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An individual's relationship with food is a personal, nuanced subject. It's often more complicated than what's on the plate in front of you—it's based on how you were raised, how you've been socialized to view food, and how accessible food is in different seasons of your life. These factors don't just impact what you like to eat, they go as far as to influence food rules in people's lives.

What Is a Food Rule?

According to Dr. Angela Youngs, Psy.D. "Food rules are beliefs we ascribe about the food we “should” and “should not” consume. These rules are often rigid and can influence how we feel about ourselves. When we label a food as good or bad, we also label the act of consuming it the same way. From there, we begin to internalize our own worth based on our eating behaviors. This can lead to a complicated relationship with food and our bodies."

Food rules are more common than you might think. Even small things like "not eating after 8 pm" can be considered a food rule. While not all of them are directly harmful, it's helpful to be aware of the food rules you uphold.

How Do You Make Food Rules?

Food rules come from a variety of influences. Some major contributors are your family, culture, what food you have access to, and societal messages you've been told. Each of these may show up separately, or there may be a combination of them that causes you to create strict rules around what you consume.

Upbringing and Family Opinions

How you experience food is largely attributed to what was modeled to you growing up. If you have a parent or family member that has a negative relationship with food, chances are, you will find yourself with the same mindset.

Research shows that a parent's food practices are passed down to their children. These practices include "pressure to eat, restriction, monitoring a child’s food intake, or the use of rewards for food consumption." All of these practices can result in the creation of food rules.

Examples of Food Rules

Most families have certain traditions they uphold that children often take with them as they become adults. Food and eating habits are no different. If your family ate (or didn't eat) a certain way, you may be inclined to continue to do so. Below are some examples of food rules that may be passed down through family members.

  • Clear your dinner plate
  • You need 3 square meals a day
  • Only eat when you're hungry
  • Avoid carbs
  • Only eat dark chocolate

Food rules can be all over the spectrum of what's actually helpful for your health and what's not. The important thing is understanding why you have the food rules you do and how they're serving your current nutrition and mental health needs.

Diet Culture

Youngs explains that food rules were created by diet culture. "There is an entire industry making money off of us believing our worth is dependent on our body size."

"More modern-day diet culture can be traced back to the industrial time period in the United States. During this time, the middle class began to emerge and immigration began to threaten the social status of the American middle class. As a way to assert dominance and protect social status, the thin ideal was born," she adds.

This ideal continues to this day. There is scientific evidence of people dieting despite being underweight, due to the pressure to be thin. Individuals who label foods as "good" or "bad" are generally basing those labels on what will (good) or won't (bad) meet the thin criteria diet culture has set.

Food Insecurity

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. Studies show that food insecurity influences the quality and quantity of foods that are consumed.

Youngs explains, "Food deemed “good” is often more expensive and not as readily available in all communities. In food deserts, which are usually found in black and brown communities, these “good” foods can be extremely out of reach. On the other hand, consider food categorized as “bad” or “to be avoided.” These foods usually are more affordable and available in all communities. Further, foods that are associated with people of color have historically been viewed “bad” or “unhealthy."

Many food rules tend to cater to a more affluent, often white, demographic. This is because the definition of "healthy" food is often geared toward white, western culture—there's a reason grilled chicken, brown rice, and a vegetable is the stereotypical meal in diets and "health food" branding.

It's not a stretch to note the health industry's discrepancies regarding racism and classism. There are historical health metrics and standards that have not taken accessibility into account, often resulting in racist, classist practices and standards.

How Do You Break Food Rules?

To break food rules, you must create a healthy relationship with food. Dr. Youngs suggests first identifying your food rules and then writing them down.

She says, "Consider how these rules impact your life. Are they stressful? Do they keep you from experiencing joy? What would it be like to abandon these rules? Engage in reflection and do so without judgment."

Practice Intuitive Eating

"Intuitive eating is also a great way to shift away from food rules," Youngs continues. "Our bodies are designed to let us know what we need. When we get lost in food rules, we can also become disconnected from our body and its cues. Try and notice your hunger cues and, when they show up, honor them." Studies prove that intuitive eating is a healthy way to manage weight, and a useful skill to prevent disordered eating.

Seek Professional Help

Youngs also advises getting help from a professional if you find that your food rules are overwhelming. "There are professionals available to help guide and support you as you embark on a new relationship with food and your body," she notes.

A Word From Verywell

Any type of food rule that is restrictive can affect you negatively. To overcome those rules it's important to examine the foods you hold close and determine how to form a better relationship with them. Intuitive eating and professional assistance are excellent stepping stones toward a positive body image and a healthy experience with food. If you continue to experience a negative mindset around food and your relationship with it, seek advice from a medical professional.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Are food rules bad?

    If you are making choices based on food anxieties, then a food rule is most likely unhealthy. Any type of eating plan that is restrictive has the potential to be negative.

  • Are there good food rules?

    Food rules are inherently part of diet culture. To have a healthier relationship with food is to get away from this mindset and to shift the focus away from "rules" when it comes to food, eating, our weight, and bodies all together.

  • How can I be a more mindful eater?

    Mindful eating is about listening to your body and using all of your senses to enjoy your food. Focus on each bite and what you see, smell, and taste while you are eating. Minimize any distractions in your dining area, chew slowly, and savor each bite as an experience. Let your body tell you when it is full or hungry, and choose what to do next based on that knowledge.

5 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Dragone D, Savorelli L. Thinness and obesity: a model of food consumption, health concerns, and social pressure. J Health Econ. 2012;31(1):243-256. doi:10.1016/j.jhealeco.2011.10.005

  3. USDA - ERS. Definitions of food security.

  4. Leung CW, Tester JM. The association between food insecurity and diet quality varies by race/ethnicity: an analysis of national health and nutrition examination survey 2011-2014 results. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2019;119(10):1676-1686. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2018.10.011

  5. Caferoglu Z, Toklu H. Intuitive eating: associations with body weight status and eating attitudes in dietetic majors. Eat Weight Disord. 2022;27(2):683-692. doi:10.1007/s40519-021-01206-4

By Brittany Hammond
Brittany is a Certified Personal Trainer and freelance wellness writer with work in Livestrong, Verywell Fit, and more.

Edited by
Lily Moe
Lily Moe for Verywell Fit

Lily Moe is a former fitness coach and current Editor for Verywell Fit. A wellness enthusiast, she can often be found in a hot yoga studio, trying a new recipe, or going for a long run in Central Park.

Learn about our editorial process