Food rules: What are they & can they be harmful to mental health?

Food rules are guidelines or principles that individuals follow regarding their dietary habits and choices. These rules vary widely from person to person and may be based on cultural, religious, personal, or health-related factors.


Food rules often dictate what types of foods are permissible or forbidden, how much to eat, when to eat, and how food should be prepared and consumed. Rigid adherence to food rules can sometimes lead to disordered eating patterns, psychological distress, or nutritional deficiencies, particularly when taken to extremes or when driven by unrealistic ideals. 

Examples of food rules

Here are a couple of food rule examples:

“I must always finish everything on my plate."

This rule often stems from cultural or familial norms and may be intended to prevent waste, encourage gratitude, or promote healthy eating habits. However, while it can help instil discipline and mindfulness around portion control, it may also lead to overeating or disregarding one's own hunger and satiety cues. It is of course important to minimise food waste and appreciate the food we have, but it's equally important to listen to our bodies and stop eating when we feel comfortably satisfied, even if there is food left on our plate.

"Fat is bad - avoid fat or choose ‘low fat’ options"

This food rule can be traced to the low-fat diet craze of the 1980s and 1990s. Unfortunately, low-fat alternatives are not always healthier due to added sugars, nutrient dilution, interruption of satiety signals, imbalanced macronutrients, processed ingredients, and potentially misleading marketing. Instead of focusing solely on fat content, it's important to consider the overall nutritional quality and ingredient list of foods when making dietary choices. 

Can ridged food rules become harmful?

There are a range of reasons why rigid adherence to food rules can become harmful.

Promotion of unhealthy relationships with food

Strict food rules can lead to a distorted relationship with food, causing anxiety, guilt, and shame surrounding eating habits. This can contribute to the development of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge eating disorder.

Rigid thinking

Following strict food rules can lead to rigid thinking patterns, where individuals feel compelled to adhere to dietary restrictions regardless of their body's nutritional needs or personal preferences. This rigidity can prevent individuals from participating in shared meals or enjoying dining out with friends and family. It makes it harder to enjoy social gatherings, try new foods, or respond flexibly to changes in their environment, this can lead to feelings of isolation and disconnection from others.

Neglect of hunger and satiety cues

Food rules may encourage individuals to ignore their body's natural hunger and satiety cues, leading to overeating or undereating. This can disrupt the body's ability to regulate food intake appropriately, potentially leading to weight gain, weight loss, or nutritional deficiencies.

The stigmatisation of certain foods

Food rules often categorise foods as "good" or "bad," leading to feelings of guilt or shame associated with consuming "forbidden" foods. This can contribute to a negative self-image and perpetuate harmful dieting behaviours.

Loss of pleasure in eating

Following rigid food rules may detract from the pleasure of eating, as individuals may become overly focused on calorie counting, portion control, or food restrictions rather than savouring and enjoying their meals.

Are food rules helpful?

Overall, while some food rules may be intended to promote health or address specific dietary needs, adherence to excessively strict or rigid rules can have detrimental effects on both physical and psychological well-being.

It's important for individuals to cultivate a balanced and flexible approach to eating that prioritises enjoyment, satisfaction, and overall health. More specifically, food rules can contribute to the development or exacerbation of eating disorders. Eating disorders often involve rigid and obsessive thoughts and behaviours related to food, eating, and body weight. Strict food rules can lead to unhealthy relationships with food, distorted body image, and patterns of disordered eating

Furthermore, food rules can reinforce feelings of guilt, shame, and anxiety surrounding eating habits, all of which are common features of eating disorders. Individuals may become preoccupied with following their food rules, which can lead to malnutrition, weight loss, weight gain, or other medical complications associated with eating disorders.

It's important to recognise the potential impact of food rules on mental health and to promote a balanced and flexible approach to eating that prioritises physical and emotional well-being. Seeking support from healthcare professionals, such as therapists, dietitians, or physicians, can be beneficial for individuals struggling with disordered eating patterns related to food rules.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Abingdon, Oxfordshire, OX14
Written by Karen Baker, MBACP | Disordered Eating, Bereavement and Loss Counselling
Abingdon, Oxfordshire, OX14

Written by Karen Baker, MBACP | Disordered Eating, Bereavement and Loss Counselling

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