Are Food Rules Causing Your Binge Eating?

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If you think you may have an eating disorder it is important to seek advice from your GP or health professional. The information in this blog post is intended for information purposes only and is not a substitute for personalised clinical advice. 

scrabble tiles spelling "rules"

Do you count everything you eat? Can’t eat before a certain time? Try to stick to a calorie limit? If so, you probably have a number of food rules that have crept into your life. These rules often begin with the best of intentions but can end up being more and more restrictive. What’s worse, they might even be making binges more likely.

In this post, I’ll explain what food rules are, why they might actually be reinforcing binge eating, and how to challenge these rules to adopt a more flexible approach to eating.

Defining Food Rules: What Are They?

Food rules can cover an enormous range of behaviours related to eating. These self-imposed rules dictate how, when, and what we eat. They can be broad or highly specific, but they all share a common goal: to try and control our eating.

Types of Food

One of the most common food rules I see people try and stick to is restricting the types of foods they allow themselves to eat. Examples include avoiding carbohydrates, banning “junk” foods, and avoiding fats. Sometimes people find themselves with lists of foods that feel “safe” and foods that they fear and consequently avoid.

These foods may or may not follow the stereotypical idea of what is healthy food. Avoided foods might look “irrational” on the surface, but if we examine it closer they will be driven by a belief or fear. For example, someone might avoid eating foods with salt. Salt will not provide us with any energy, but the fear may be that the number on the scale could increase if it causes us to hold onto water.

Calorie Limits

Just as common is calorie counting. Do you set yourself strict daily limits on what you allow yourself to eat? Whether it’s 2000, 1500, or 1200, all of these would be examples of a food rule around calorie intake per day. Sticking rigidly to a calorie limit means we ignore our bodies’ natural hunger and fullness signals. Also, it doesn’t take into account variability in energy needs. We are more or less active on different days. For women, the time of the month can play a role.

It doesn’t matter if you find yourself not sticking to it, having the rule in the first place may actually be contributing to the problem.

Times You Eat

Placing restrictions on the times you allow yourself to eat is another common food rule. The most common pattern I see is trying to delay eating until later in the day. For example, “I won’t eat before 12 pm”.

You might be following a time-restricted (or intermittent fasting) plan. For people who don’t struggle with an eating disorder, many find this approach helpful. However, if you are bingeing, it is not the time for IF. You need to repair your relationship with food first before any plans like this are likely to benefit you.

black wall clock next to a green cooking apron

How You Eat

Sometimes people develop rules about the way in which they eat too. For example, chewing a certain number of times before swallowing, eating off smaller plates, eating food in a particular order. Strict rules about how you eat can make you more preoccupied with food and increase your likelihood of bingeing in the long run.

Food and Exercise

This rule is often closely related to calorie counting. People often tell me they feel like they have to “earn” their food through exercise or need to “make up” for food they have eaten by working extra hard in the gym.

This has many unintended consequences, the main ones being that it reinforces the idea that we can’t trust our body and can create an unhealthy relationship where food is viewed as either a reward or something to be punished for.

Social Rules

Lastly, rules relating to social settings and relationships with others. Sometimes these rules can feel the hardest to admit (even to ourselves). These rules can include eating less than people around us, not being the last one to finish a meal, or avoiding eating in front of other people.

These rules keep us thinking about food when we are trying to enjoy ourselves and connect with others. They can also lead to feelings of isolation and anxiety about eating in public.

woman reading menu struggling with food rules

Why Rigid Rules Leave You Vulnerable to Bingeing

Food rules can trip us up in multiple ways. I tend to break these down into biological and psychological reasons.

On a biological level, following rules that involve limiting the number of calories that you allow yourself to eat, delaying eating until later in the day, or limiting the number of carbohydrates in your diet is highly likely to disrupt our blood sugar levels.

When our blood sugar levels drop too low the human body reacts by increasing hunger and making us think about food. This is an adaptive response, the more we try to fight our bodies’ natural mechanisms to regulate, the more likely we are to binge.

Instead, we need to eat regularly to provide our bodies with a predictable source of food, and aim to keep blood sugars stable. Some people find meal planning helpful to get started with this.

Food rules also cause psychological triggers to binge. If you’ll excuse my language, the best way I can describe this is that food rules trigger the “fuck it” mentality.

You’ve worked hard all day, eaten green leaves and protein. Your train is delayed on the way home and you “give in” and get a chocolate bar whilst you wait because you are starving hungry. Initially, you feel good, relieved even, but soon the guilt creeps in. “Fuck it, I’ve messed up now anyway so I might as well just eat what I want and start again tomorrow”. Sound familiar?

Strict and rigid food rules are impossible to stick to in the long term. They set us up to fail and inevitably end up with us feeling like we have failed. Over time, the physical and emotional strain of constant restriction can become overwhelming, leading to uncontrollable eating episodes. The guilt and shame that follow a binge often reinforce the cycle, making it difficult to break free.

Identifying if Food Rules Are Leading You to Binge

Are food rules contributing to your binges? The first step is awareness and recognition. Read over the list of different types of food rules above. Do any of these sound familiar? Do you notice any other food rules that haven’t been mentioned here?

Write down all the food rules you notice in your life. Keep this list accessible to you for the next week. Every time you notice a rule, add it to the list.

Look at your list and ask yourself these questions:

  • How would I feel if I broke a food rule?
  • Do I frequently feel anxious or guilty when I’m eating?
  • Do I spend a lot of time doing mental maths trying to make my food rules work?
  • Are my food rules impacting my social life?
  • How often has trying to follow a food rule triggered a binge?

Put aside a week to monitor your food intake and associated thoughts and feelings. Most of us follow patterns of behaviour without consciously examining them. Self-monitoring is a tool to understand our patterns and give us valuable information about how to change.

Challenging Food Rules

Breaking free from the grip of food rules requires a shift in mindset and behaviour. Start by questioning the validity of your rules. Are they based on sound nutritional advice, or are they arbitrary and restrictive? Do these rules make logical sense? Do you want to keep trying to follow them?

Look back at your list of food rules. Now re-organize them to put them in order of most difficult to change to least difficult to change. Don’t worry for now if you have a very long list.

Gradually introduce flexibility into your eating habits by choosing the food rule at the bottom of the list and tackling it.

With each time you expose yourself to “breaking a rule”, your anxiety should decrease so long as you don’t compensate elsewhere. It’s really important that you (and your brain) learn that you can break the rules without the feared outcome happening. If you tackle a rule but restrict elsewhere, your brain only learns that you can break a rule if you make up for it, and this keeps your anxiety about food and weight high.

Ladder showing a hierarchy of food rules rated with anxiety levels

For example, on my list here the food rule that feels easiest to change is “don’t eat past 6 pm”. To address the rule, I could start by consciously planning an evening snack every evening for a week. After the week is over, I can review: how anxious do I feel about this rule now? Has my anxiety reduced?

Work your way up the list one step at a time. To kickstart the process it can also be valuable to follow a “do the opposite” approach, which involves doing the opposite of whatever the eating disorder rule would try to get you to do. For example, if you have a rule that you can’t eat dessert at a restaurant, you arrange a restaurant meal for the purpose of exposing yourself to having dessert. Or if the eating disorder tells you not to eat a chocolate bar, go and grab a chocolate bar for your snack.

At some point, you might find it helpful to introduce new and adaptive guidelines. For example, “I will eat in response to my hunger and all varieties of food”.

Final thoughts

Understanding the detrimental impact of food rules on binge eating is the first step toward recovering from both binge eating disorder and bulimia. By recognizing and challenging these rules, you can pave the way for a more balanced, enjoyable approach to eating. Embrace flexibility, listen to your body, and prioritize nourishment over restriction. This journey may be challenging, but the freedom and peace that come with a healthy relationship with food are well worth the effort.

About

Welcome. I'm Dr Jenny Davis, a Clinical Psychologist with a special interest in eating disorders. I'm passionate about helping people recover and build a healthy relationship with food. 

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