The Appeal of Food Rules (and a better question to ask…)

Counting macros, restricting calories, eating vegan, vegetarian, keto, or Paleo, gluten-free, sugar-free, dairy-free, “clean eating,” Whole30, 80/10/10, low-fat, no food after 7, intermittent fasting…

What do all of the above have in common? 

The answer is rules. Whether you consider the previously mentioned eating frameworks to be diets or not, they all are characterized by rules. These rules impose limitations on the freedom to eat, either in quality (type of food), quantity (amount) or timing of food. Food rules are the “stuff” of dieting. “Eat this, not that, and then you will ______________.” Fill in the blank: be beautiful, lose weight, feel better. Whatever a person uses to complete the sentence, they are hoping that the food rules will fulfill a desire in their lives.

I was diagnosed with anorexia when I was fourteen, and I started treatment a few months after my fifteenth birthday. However, I didn’t consider myself fully recovered (thriving in food freedom) until I was twenty years old. Throughout those five in-between years, I was in what I call a quasi-recovered state: I wasn’t (clinically) enough of a danger to myself to be hospitalized, but I was far from healthy. Aside from a few glorious months here and there when I was living and loving life, I was depressed, anxious around food, and in a relentless cycle of yo-yo dieting. While I wasn’t restricting my food intake enough to reach a dangerously low weight, I was completely consumed by thoughts about food, weight loss, and fear of losing control. What I didn’t realize is that my food rules and defunct approach to eating was exactly what I was afraid of. I was completely out of control.

I was talking with a friend a few years ago who had similar past struggles, and we started discussing this whole idea of food rules. It was in that conversation that I realized that even though food rules make eating more complicated, time-consuming, and tedious, they present a comforting, albeit false, sense of security. Many women today would say that they are afraid of gaining weight, wearing a bigger pants size, or increasing their level of body fat. By following a particular paradigm of food rules (whether under the formal title of dieting, or not) they feel that they will be helped in controlling their food intake. In effect, food rules seem to make eating easier (“Follow this one food rule, and you’ll never have to diet again!”) while at the same time averting the perceived dangers of careless eating. At the end of the day, as most dieters would admit, these food rules eventually backfire, ultimately leading to binge eating, weight gain, and a hefty side dish of guilt and shame. It’s an ugly paradox: what we think will help us actually hurts us.

While most women would probably agree that a person’s internal characteristics (character qualities, morality, ethics) are a lot more important than a person’s external characteristics (appearance, beauty, fitness), that is not actually how most women live. Most of us instead spend hours upon hours thinking about food, eating, clothes, fitness, exercise, and food rules, and all at the expense of thinking about and acting on the things in life that matter much more than our physical bodies. This isn’t because we necessarily want to have these values, but they are ingrained in us from a young age, and we are constantly bombarded with distracting messages in the media. We find ourselves not doing the things we want to do, to instead do the things we hate (Romans 7:15-20).

So, how do we start rejecting the lies of diet culture, and realign our hearts with the values of God? It starts with asking different questions.

Instead of questioning which new dieting methods to try in order to maintain a trim waistline and supposedly make our lives better, the best question to ask is one of identity. Instead of asking what rules you need to follow, the question should be, “Who was I made for?”

I was listening to a sermon the other day, and the pastor was explaining that a life made simply for rules is completely and utterly meaningless. Life is more than rules and regulations for the sake of restriction. Likewise, life is more than food and drink (Luke 12:22-23). Rather, life on earth is for loving, serving, and worshipping our good God, who created us through his infinite and incomprehensible wisdom, according to the ordinances he instated at the beginning of time. Period. He called us to taste of his goodness, and embrace his design for the human form, using it as a holy vessel for carrying out his will.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t “feed the hungry” very well if I’m overcome with guilt and shame for the brownie I ate after lunch. With food, often times, rules have the appearance of wisdom, but at the end of the day are completely useless in preventing us from engaging in self-destructive behavior, (Colossians 2:23). Here’s an example: creating a rule for yourself to avoid dessert and subsequently prevent overeating might seem smart at first. However, as I explained in my last post, Some Thoughts About Cravings, these food rules almost always backfire, and instead of successfully avoiding desserts, we binge on them.

[If you can relate to this experience, I feel for you. The struggle with food is scary and isolating, and I’ve been there, too. But there’s hope — you don’t need to struggle alone. I encourage you to make an appointment with an intuitive-eating informed health practitioner you trust. If you don’t know one, I’d love to fill that role. You can schedule an appointment here.]

So, rather than seeking out new food rules, we can overcome this eating-related distraction (and any associated guilt or shame) by instead seeking our true identity in Christ Jesus. The God of the universe calls us fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14). He invites us to enjoy the blessing of delicious food (Ecclesiastes 2:24), and in his mercy and grace, promises that we don’t need to worry ourselves with the petty concerns of human flesh (Matthew 6:25-32). Instead, he calls us to seek his kingdom, loving his children and honoring him with our lives. Then he will provide for our earthly needs — in food, and drink, and clothing, and beauty.

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?[a] 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:25-33)

Friends, don’t limit yourselves to lives bound by futile rules. You were made for so much more.


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