5 Steps to Distinguish a Food Rule From a Food Preference

depicting food rule: close up image of a bowl of popcorn

How do you know if you genuinely don’t like a food or if a food rule is preventing you from enjoying something? If you’re recovering from an eating disorder, this is often difficult to distinguish.

During my recovery, there came a time when I dedicated myself understanding the differences between my food preferences and food rules. Let me explain…

Food Rules vs Food Preferences

Food preferences, our genuinely natural likes and dislikes, are self-directed. No strings attached. Our preferences represent a pure inner wisdom programmed in our nervous systems.

Food rules are driven by the opposite of inner wisdom.

They are born of a variety of factors, including social and cultural messages, fear, control, and power.

Food preferences are neutral in nature. Although you may have a strong visceral reaction when you see or smell a food you naturally like or dislike, your body’s response comes from a neutral space.

Whereas shuttering or freezing in fear at the smell or sight of a food for which you have strict rules is not neutral. The reaction is charged with layers of emotions and triggers that initiate spinning thinking.

Food rules throw us off center, sending us away from self-directed inner wisdom into the jungle of eating disorder mayhem.

The ground beneath us is nowhere to be found as we obsess on rules- breaking them, keeping them, rationalizing them, creating new ones, etc.

Food rules (both those we internalize from social messages and the eating disorder programming) barricade us from wholeness and freedom.

Our rules are prisons.

Breaking out of Food Rules

Luckily, these prisons of ours lock from the inside, meaning we have complete and total power to unlock the cell door. I don’t make light of what it takes to even consider unlocking the prison cell in the first place, let alone opening the door and taking a step forward.

But I can also attest to the fact that it is possible to leave the prison of food rules and not look back.

So, how do we untangle the difference between preferences and rules? This can be tricky at first, particularly in early recovery when everything about us feels like a result of the eating disorder.

But, this is not true. You are way more than the eating disorder. You have preferences for a variety of reasons, we just need to create time and space to reconnect to them.

5 steps to distinguish a food rule from a food preference

To determine the difference between a food rule and preference, try this short yoga-inspired practice:

1. Tune in

Observe your internal reaction when making food choices.

This includes your physical response, breathing, thoughts, and emotions. If your body tenses; if your breathing turns shallow, fast, or is barely there; and/or if your thoughts and emotions jump on the eating disorder track, then you are working from the “food rule” space.

On the other hand, if your response to a food is more a instantaneous, natural like “Oh, I like that” or “No way, I don’t like that food,” and your physical, mental, and emotional state isn’t altered, you are likely in the preference space.

Observe your reactions to gauge which is at play.

2. Center yourself

Then, “find the ground,” meaning, get grounded, centered, and present in the moment.

To do that, connect with time and space through your feet and hands. Feel your feet on the ground. Sense the connection between your feet and the surface under them.

Trust you are steady and supported.

Rest your hands on a hard surface, your body, or press one into the other to create grounding in your upper body. You can do this seated or standing, or if you are in a private space, you can rest on your back and allow the floor to support your entire being.

Take a 3 to 5 slow purposeful breaths in this grounded position. Notice your inhale and exhale with each breath.

3. Rule? Take a breath

If you determine you are in a “rule space,” take 5 to 10 (or more!) slow purposeful breaths to interrupt the spinning thoughts.

When you’ve gained some clarity about the best choice to make for yourself, proceed.

4. Preference? Take a breath

If in the “preference space,” take 5 to 10 (or more!) slow purposeful breaths to simply notice your natural inclinations and honor that you do indeed exist outside the identity of an eating disorder.

You may want to write down your preferences as you encounter them to reinforce these self-directed aspects of yourself.

5. Not sure if it is a rule or a preference? Breath and trust

If you are unsure which space you are in, (rule or preference) notice that too.

Give yourself time to take 5 to 10 (or more!) slow purposeful breaths in this grounded position and see what bubbles up. There’s no right or wrong here.

Often, it takes time to reestablish our trust in our capacity to have preferences, and so distinguishing them from rules may take time and patience. A few quiet, purposeful breaths can do wonders in allowing our inner wisdom to come back online. Trust that you will get there.

Trust your compass

I recommend you repeat this exercise daily to get in the practice of differentiating between preferences and rules, with the intention of tuning into and honoring your preferences more and more.

Our preferences are like an internal compass.

When we respect our preferences, we respect ourselves.

We assert our humanity, express wholeness and freedom, and embody our inner wisdom.

Your preferences for food and all things deserve your attention and to be cultivated to the fullest.

Honor the process and work to untangle them from the food rules. It will be worth it.

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  1. says: Anne

    I would also suggest that if in doubt, try the food out – we only know preferences by trying them a few times, and sometimes riding out the associated anxiety of eating a new food.

  2. says: Janeen Richardson

    One of the best ways to differentiate a ritual from a preference I learned in treatment. My nutritionist told me, “If it gives you anxiety to think about eating xx {this way}, it sounds like a ritual.” For example, we were allowed one salt packet per meal and I requested more for a particular dinner. My team thought this was ritual behavior and asked me to think about whether or not it was. When they explained it to me the way above, I realized I could eat the food without the salt, I wouldn’t enjoy it as much but it wouldn’t make me anxious. When I compare that to rituals I know I for SURE have, like eating with a certain fork and being anxious when it isn’t available, it makes it more clear to me. Great article!

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