Food Rules: My Steps to Liberation

Potential Trigger Warning:  Anything and everything can be a trigger.  But this is a forewarning, I do intend to get semi specific here, particularly on the concept of food rules, and some of mine.  It is up to you to decide if you are in a place mentally in this moment to be able to cope with this.  If not, be gentle with yourself and respect that.  I won’t be offended.  There is no shame. ❤

Hello all 🙂 !

It’s been a while, yet again.  For me it’s been a rumble tumble couple of weeks.  In a certain sense, it’s been completely empowering, while in another sense it’s been totally debilitating.  But let me catch you up.

Where did we leave off?

Oh, yes, Halloween (Please excuse my low quality Instagram photo)!

Happy Halloween from work! #yesileftthehouselikethis 🎃🎃

A post shared by tiffany (@cookiecrumbsandcarrottops) on

So perhaps it was a low quality, hot glue gunned costume, but my gum ball machine ended up winning me the first prize at work!  Aka, I was more than reimbursed for my still bitter about costs of creating said costume, so I guess I can let it go (although if holding onto the grudge might get me another Starbucks latte, I’m willing to hold onto it!)

Halloween was relatively uneventful otherwise for me.  I discovered that while not near as big a fan as I once was of Peanut M&Ms, they still are pretty tasty in a chocolate/peanut pinch.  I also discovered that I can’t stand Snickers, upon trying them for the first time (a fact that my Snicker -loving dietitian can’t seem to come to terms with… it’s okay.  Breathe.  We can still love peanut butter together!).

Since then, we’ve created a list of all my food rules, as the only way to become an intuitive eater is by being able to listen to your body not only about how much you should eat, but also about what type of food you’re craving at the time.  Hence, food rules, telling you what you can eat with what, or when you can eat one thing, or what you can eat later if you already ate x, y, or z, today kind of make that whole mindful, intuitive thing impossible.

Let me tell you guys: it’s an incredibly long list.  Like multiple pages.  You’d think, after going through hospital once, residential treatment once, and outpatient for quite some time, I would have made my peace with them.  Yeah, not so much.

Food Rules (Yes, even the R gets a capital, because it’s that important of a concept), are one of the key facets of an eating disorder.  Our every day existence is governed by rules, some of our own creation, and others that we adopt, either upon hearing it from someone else, or by doing something enough times that it becomes scary to do, or not do it.  And I say every day existence, because the food rules often lead to exercise rules, or vice versa, and extend far beyond the confines of a 9 inch dinner plate.

For me, the process to creating a food rule is a complex, and yet incredibly simple one:

  1. Hear someone else’s food rule.  Bing.  This is almost a no brainer.  I’m a complex, multifaceted person, but when it comes to this guy, I’m like a dog and a squirrel, or a pigeon and something shiny.  Stop whatever you’re doing, and become totally obsessed and distracted by said object/concept until it disappears.  Except a rule is an idea not an object, so it never disappears, and I can’t just chase it up a tree.

This is why eating disorder books, even if recovery focussed can be incredibly dangerous for many people.  Let me set the stage:

Page ___: “For me, my decent into oblivion started small, with the little things.  I decided that ______ was bad, and so therefore, I no longer ate it……. and eventually I was down to _________ pounds.   Since then I have realized that this is a totally unbalanced and unrealistic approach to eating. ”

This doesn’t matter because x+y=z, ____+_____ = bad, or _____+ ______ = weight loss/gain so therefore, THOU SHALT NOT _______. Food rule= bing!

Did that make sense?  Fill in the blanks for yourself, I’m sure you can do it!  Eating disordered or not, because even people that don’t have an eating disorder have some disordered eating, or things that they avoid for reasons other than personal preference.

Side note:  Is anyone else now thinking about that episode of friends where they make fun of Chandler’s last name (Bing!)?  Just me?  Really?!  Moving on…

For me there were two sources of a few of my food rules, one being Portia de Rossi’s book “Unbearable Lightness”, and the other, Andie Mitchell’s site Can You Stay for Dinner? Now don’t get me wrong, I think both of these can be an incredible resource as well!  Andie’s outlook of eating things with real ingredients, incorporating dessert, and eating to satisfy ones tastebuds is commendable (not to mention her delicious recipes!), but for me it was the numbers, the calorie counts, the how many servings of protein, fat, carbs etc you should have in a salad, that got me.  And as for Portia’s book, it was so therapeutic in most respects because it felt so relatable!  I was reading it and I was like, YES!  Thank you for describing how I’m feeling in a way that only one who is suffering can understand!  But for me, it was the ways in which she body checked herself to see if she was “fat” or “skinny” that became my “markers of fatness”.  I won’t describe them here, for not wanting to trigger someone else, but I’m fairly sure I’m not the only one who’s experienced this phenomenon.

Once again, I hold no personal vendetta.  I will not condemn people who write recovery focussed books, blogs, or the like (hello?!  What am I doing?!), but it’s such a fine line.  And it’s one that I’m sure I as a writer will, if I have not already, trip over many times for other people.  My point here is not so much to condemn the writer, but rather to allow people to understand where rules stem from, and moreover to caution the READER to know where you’re at when you start reading a “recovery resource”, and be aware of the potential triggers that may lie within.  Being triggered is a part of the human experience, and a necessary part of the recovery process, but you have to be in a place where you are willing to challenge said triggers as well.

Moving on…

2) Being too repetitive with what I am doing/eating.  This one is huge.  For me, it does not take me doing something with great frequency to create a rule around it: it can be as little as twice, especially if it is two days in a row.  For example:

I eat a salad for lunch one day, because I’m legitimately feeling like a salad.  The next day I eat another salad because the one from the day before tasted so delicious.  The third day (particularly if there was a weigh in in between and the outcome is “favourable” ed-wise, or even if not “favourable” at least not grossly “unfavourable”), I might feel a little like a salad, but I feel more like a quesadilla, or a sandwich… but the salad is “better” for me because it has x,y, and/or z, OR because the salad is the ONLY reason I had a “favourable” outcome.  THOU SHALT EAT SALADS EVERY DAY FOR AT LEAST ONE MEAL! Bing.

This is a toughy, because something that started out as a legitimate preference and attempt to follow your natural cravings became disordered, and it’s one I’m still trying to navigate for various foods and behaviours.  I’d say this point is the number one way for me that most of my food rules, and in particular exercise rules (doing the same activity twice and seeing a “favourable” outcome), were created.

This is also where a lot of medical floors in hospitals fail eating disordered patients.  I actually created a lot more rules, and probably my number one food rule when I was hospitalized and they began the process of weight restoration.  Hospitals have budgets, and hospitalization for eating disorders is not the norm or a large percentage of their patient database (thank God.), so as a result, they can’t actually be super variety filled in what they give them.  However, at least for me, being fed the exact same foods day in and day out, with large frequency even throughout the day, led to a cornucopia of foods being labelled as “fat foods” or “weight gain foods”, and to this day it causes me so much anxiety to consume them that I might end up in a ball on the floor, or compensating to the extreme in some manner just because I ate them.

Hence, this is one of the main reasons that eating a variety-filled diet is so important in eating disorder recovery.  Not only does this give you the maximum nutrient profile and range of benefits from all types of food (as all foods have different nutrients, and macronutrients that are all beneficial for you in their own ways), but it also discourages the creation of rules around food and behaviours.

HOWEVER, on the flip side:

3) Having so much variety, that it becomes scary to eat the same thing multiple times.  This… sigh. This is where I find residential treatment fails people, if it’s not handled properly.  The focus becomes so extreme on having variety, that it creates new rules.  Anyone who was at my treatment facility with me would have no problem seeing why I struggle to be okay with sandwiches and desserts, as they were things we had an extremely specific and low number of times per week.  I realize now, that this is because there’s so many other foods out there, and the idea is to expose you to as many as possible, BUT if the patient knows exactly how many times they’re going to have to face a bowl of ice cream or cake in a week, it’s almost impossible for them not to create a rule about it.  Same goes for sandwiches.  If you only eat them times per week, when I leave here, it doesn’t matter if I want a sandwich even one more time than that per week, because I can only ever have it times.

And I graduated, so therefore I’m recovered!

I’m replacing old food rules with new ones! YAY!

No.  This is not recovery.  I managed to convince myself I was on a good path, because clearly these new rules are “healthy” ones right?  I mean if that’s what they’re “teaching” us to eat, and its supposedly so “balanced” this must be what I’m “supposed” to do.

x+y= z, remember?

3) Calories. Dear lord.  This is a topic that deserves books upon books, not just a single bullet.  For a vast percentage of the eating disordered population THIS (or counting macros) is the governing body of the food rules.  Never mind the eating disordered population, even the population in general governs their intake by these obscure numbers.  Why else would you be able to go to probably 60-70% of fast food/smoothie bar/chain restaurants and see the calorie count of their products either readily available in pamphlet form, or PRINTED DIRECTLY ON THE MENU NEXT TO THE PRODUCT!

Why do I never order whipped cream on my PSL?

Why did I have a mental breakdown yesterday upon ordering a smoothie from Jugo Juice?

Calories.  Calories are the devil.  And there is absolutely no way you can call yourself an intuitive eater if your intake for the day, week, or meal, must fit in an arbitrary box of numbers.  It is impossible to listen to what you’re truly craving, if you only allow yourself to crave something between the range of x and y.

Not to mention the fallacy of calories anyways.  Did you know in the US by law, the calorie count of a nutritional label has a margin of error of 20%?* Yep, 20% plus OR minus! AKA, YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU ARE EATING IN A DAY!  I know you think you do… I think I do!  But you don’t, and I don’t!  Because what if that tablespoon of peanut butter was minus 20%, or that wrap was plus 20%, and the carrot sticks you measured on your weigh scale were less energy dense due to growing conditions?  You have no idea!

I must move on, because this in itself is another post coming in the near future.  Stay tuned.

So how do we break the cycle?  How do we crush the food rules to a pulp?  How do we make the bridge to intuitive eating, to listening to how much our bodies want and what our bodies want, and eating to satisfy that need?


If you were looking for a solve-world-peace-type answer, you don’t get one.  I’m not a magician, I’m a recovering anorexic who can also pull bunnies out of her hat!

Actually I can’t.

Wow, sidetracked.


The first step is obvious.  Acknowledge you have them.  And the best way of doing this, in my experience is to eat.

No I’m not kidding.

Eat something.  Or rather, when you’re hungry, go to your kitchen and look for something.  And then realize all the thoughts that come into your head when you spot an item.  Guarantee if you probe yourself, you’ll realize those thoughts you have when you’re trying to decide what to have are rules, or at least they stem from them.


Oh it’s getting exciting…

WRITE IT DOWN!  Do it!  In that instant, before you forget to do it!  Before you forget you have a rule about it.  DO IT NOW!

I’m going to share with you my list.  And chances are it will grow, and keep growing as I try to eat more things.  That’s what it’s doing on an almost daily basis at the moment.  And YES!  I remember what I wrote… You know.  About how it’s super easy to adopt other people’s rules.  Which is why I have hemmed and hawed about it… do I write out my list?  Do I add fuel to the ED fire?

Yep.  Because as I have mentioned.  Triggers are a part of life.  And if I do trigger you, that is a great thing to explore in your therapy session!  Or your dietician appointment!  Or just within yourself.  If I do trigger you, you have a chance to realize that you have the same rule, and QUESTION IT!  QUESTION yourself!  Why do I have it?!

Plus, my list here is more than a list.  It’s also ideas for how I’m going to/have already challenged it.  And reasons for why the rule itself is ridiculous.  Try not to do the all too easy strikethrough as you read the more balanced side of the equation.

STEP 1: Acknowledge you have FOOD/EXERCISE RULES! (Write it Down)

Food Rules Challenge Why is it STUPID?
not allowed 3 carb exchanges at one meal    
fun food can only be 80 calories eat coconut blondie with lunch (couldn’t know exact calorie count) A fun food is something you enjoy, and enjoyment can’t be measured in calories.

Calories are unrealistic measures of energy, as each body processes calories differently, and you can’t know the exact energy content of anything (20% margin of error)

Calories are necessary.  They’re energy.  They fuel your body.  Don’t give them more power than that.

no more than 3 exchanges for a snack    
only one dessert per day eat coconut blondie twice in one day Dessert is not the devil.  Having dessert doesn’t negate the nutritional value of everything else you’ve eaten.

A carb is a carb, a fat is a fat, protein is protein.  Energy is energy.  Dessert is not “bad” anymore than salads are “good”.

Eating something you enjoy will satisfy you, making you less likely to overeat later.

Only one bread/bread type product per day grilled cheese with lunch, soup salad etc, and a bread type thing for snack Not one food will make you fat, and there are no weight gain foods.

Bread, especially whole grain breads, are full of good nutrients too.  And they’re delicious.

no more than one fruit serving at a time Smoothie on weigh in day

Make smoothie for snack at home

Fruits are carbs, just like any other.  Yes, they have sugar, but they are also packed with fibre and other good vitamins and nutrients for your body that just eating a teaspoon of sugar doesn’t give you.
stay away from paleo recipes- no big man’s world recipes cake batter dip/banana bread dip for breakfast + flavored latte The only reason this is a rule is because your eating disorder isn’t as practiced at counting it.  And we don’t want to count things anyways!

Paleo on a day is fine.  Just like another day you may eat more carbs.  If it sounds good eat it.  It won’t always sound good anyways!

no yogurt with dessert    
meal plan is a maximum of everything (ie no more than 2 pro, 2 fats, etc)    
No nuts, avocado, cheese, croutons, or anything substantial (ie not veggies or a very small amount of fruit) on a side salad    
No more than one exchange worth of nuts in meals (ie alot of bucket list recipes are automatically out)    
must use one of my coffee breaks (15 min) at work for a walk Instead of walking outside (and freezing your butt off):

•  walk around the inside of the grocery store looking for fun products

•  just play on your phone

Exercise does not have to equal food.  Be enthused to move, not to burn calories or make up for eating something.

There are many other more enjoyable things than a Canadian winter.

no ben & jerry’s or haagen daas… ever eat a scoop of ice cream (and no running in place:)) Ben & Jerry’s are delicious, and there is no good or bad foods.

Ben & Jerry’s has lots of real food ingredients, like nuts, dark chocolate, things you can pronounce on the label!


no mayo/butter on a sandwich if I’m using cheese or avocado    
any protein recipe that says “serve with a salad” or shows plating in pictures which has no CHO, just veggies, means I must serve it that way.  (ie, pork tenderloin with roasted grapes I made, had to be served with veggies not rice)    
fruit with meals instead of veggies=terrifying. If done, must eliminate another exchange somewhere, preferably a CHO    
root vegetables always become the starch (ie turnips, carrots, beets, etc), so no other starches with them (ie butternut squash pasta=terrifying, or if beets are picked as a veggie, must serve it with another veggie and protein as opposed to rice etc)    
smoothies plus anything is still terrifying    
no take out chinese, no no no Duh- Eat take out Chinese with friends or family when you’re all craving it. One meal doesn’t make a pound.  There are no such things as weight-gain foods, or fat foods, or anything like that.  Everyone eats take out from time to time, and it’s part of having a normal relationship with food.
lattes with flavour shots or other things mixed in (ie pumpkin puree etc) are meals/snacks in and of themselves and are not to be eaten with other things Have a latte with a meal. A flavour shot makes it taste more palatable at times.  That’s all it is.  I don’t even like things uber sweet, so for the few calories it adds, it’s not a big deal!  It’s all about the FLAVA!!
No cake-y things (muffins, banana bread, loaves, cornbread, doughnuts). Kind of acceptable if eaten as dessert in small amounts.  Definitely not snack.  If eaten at breakfast rest of day must be clean. Eat muffin for fun food with lunch OR for a snack (2 muffins OR muffin with nut butter OR muffin with latte OR muffin with yogurt) No one food makes you fat.  No one food makes you gain weight.
No doughnuts. Evil unhealthy gluttony food. Eat a donut from a bakery, as well as bake some cinnamon roll baked donuts from here Baked goods are not the devil. Having baked goods doesn’t negate the nutritional value of everything else you’ve eaten.

A carb is a carb, a fat is a fat, protein is protein. Energy is energy. Dessert/sweet treats are not “bad” anymore than salads are “good”.

Eating something you enjoy will satisfy you, making you less likely to overeat later.

No pasta with garlic bread    
No banana ice cream (because more than ½ a banana at one time is really really scary) Make banana ice cream for a snack, use a whole banana in a smoothie Bananas are more nutritionally dense than other fruits (hence the fear), but along side of that comes the fact that they are full of vitamins and minerals, are full of fibre, and are high in tryptophan, which is converted to serotonin in your brain (aka the happy-mood neurotransmitter).  Plus they’re just the most delicious fruit known to man.  Obviously.
No gum Have a piece of gum on a travel day (as I tend to want it only on car trips) Seriously?  We’re talking about such a small calorie concentration, you probably burn more chewing it than you do eating it!
No mexican type meals like quesadillas, fajitas, tacos etc, AND tortilla chips Tacos with Chips


Carbs are not the devil any more than any other macronutrient.   Some meals are naturally more carbohydrate dense, but one meal does not determine your weight, shape, size or otherwise. Plus certain foods naturally go together and are delicious as a pairing.
No wraps with a carby filling (ie sweet potato or rice, etc) Breakfast burrito with sweet potato Carbs are not the devil any more than any other macronutrient.   Some meals are naturally more carbohydrate dense, but one meal does not determine your weight, shape, size or otherwise. Plus certain foods naturally go together and are delicious as a pairing.
No full sandwich with soups (and soups must be vegetable, no significant protein or CHOs in them)    
Exercise must be for one hour or it doesn’t count, doesn’t burn enough, etc


No whole baked sweet potato at a time.    

So you have your list.  Now what?

I have an inkling on how to get rid of food rules.  It’s that damn thing that we all hate… exposure therapy. And repeated exposure therapy.  See for the past few months it’s been like, “Okay, I’ll challenge a fear food!” and I did.  Yay, me.  But I did it once.  And the rule never went away.  Like last week, I ate a bagel:


And that’s pretty huge, and awesome and whatnot, but I did it once.  And I kind of skimped the rest of the day.  And based my following food choices on the bagel.  And guess what?  One week later… I’m still here!  But I’m still afraid of the bagel.

See, it’s not enough to just do something once.  You gotta do it over and over and over and over and over, until it’s no longer scary to do it.  AND you gotta not get in the way of your rule-creating self, and be all predictable about it because, see point 3- you do it a specific day, or a specific number of times and… say it with me… bing!  You’ve created another rule to replace the old one and are simply trying to convince yourself you’re okay with something that you’re actually not.  Realize what you’re doing.  Don’t judge yourself for it, but be aware that it’s happening and that it’s not sustainable long term.

STEP 2: Repeated Exposure Therapy (or Opposite Action)

I’ve challenged bagels before, when I first got out of residential treatment.  My old dietician and I decided I was going to kick it in the butt by eating a bagel every day for a week.  EVERY SINGLE DAY.  And if I still was scared of it by our next session, I was going to do it again.  EVERY SINGLE DAY.

And you know, I was in a fairly good state of mind, so it went relatively smoothly.  I had a bagel every day for a week.  We got to my next appointment and weighed in… and I had actually lost weight.  WHAT?!  I ate bagels and lost weight!  In that instance I convinced myself, okay, bagels are fine.  Bagels are not scary.  Bagels are good.

Sunshine and lollipops right?

Yeah… I’m leaving out a piece of the puzzle.

I left residential treatment and was fairly convinced that I was on the up and up with my eating disorder.  I was in charge.  Except for that oh so important little piece that I preferred to live in denial about.

I had no control over my exercise.  I was still going food=calories, and calories+me+ ingestion= must do exercise to maintain weight/burn off the stuff I ate.

Healthy relationship right?  Calories in must equal calories out.

Not only is this belief disordered and simplistic, it is also not correct.  There are soooooo many other factors that come into play (Once again, post about calories coming soon!).  AKA, the relationship is not that mechanical!  AND you can’t be an intuitive eater, and liberate yourself from food rules if you have exercise rules too, or other means of compensation for eating something.  That in itself, is a rule!

STEP 3: Do not engage in compensatory measures, food wise, or exercise wise.

I can guarantee you that if you do, the fear will never disappear.  OR, in other words, you’ll create another rule to replace the old one: “I can only eat a bagel, if I do x, y, or z.” Bing!

STEP 4:  Be okay with imperfection, slips, and difficulties.

Challenging a belief, any belief, is hard.  Changing a behaviour is hard.  When something is engrained in your brain, you’re not going to sail through doing the opposite without resistance and mistakes.  You’re going to compensate.  You’re going to struggle.  It’s impossible to eat perfectly.  It’s impossible to be a perfect anorexic.  It’s impossible to be a perfect bulimic.  It’s impossible to have a perfect body.  And likewise, it’s impossible to have a perfect recovery!

Hence, my rumble tumble couple of weeks.  I get down to the core of things, my cardinal beliefs, and I have to own up to them and challenge them.  Cue the anxiety.  The debilitating anxiety that one day took me so far beyond my comfort zone I almost threw up, was curled up in a ball for a good chunk of the day, couldn’t breathe, think, or socialize.  I was in my own world.   I was in the worst anxiety high that I’ve had since I was first hospitalized years ago.  It was hell.  But I got through it.  I still ate.  I slipped, don’t get me wrong.  I compensated.  But I’m not perfect.

You’re going to slip up.  Accept it.  Be gentle with yourself, and acknowledge that it’s hard.  But, don’t let it stop you.  Pick yourself up, and do it again.  Eat the bagel, engage in the behaviour, but the next morning, eat the bagel again.  Do it over and over.  And eventually, you won’t do that behaviour.  Be gentle with you.  And be proud that you tried.  And then be even prouder when you succeed!  BECAUSE YOU WILL!

STEP 5:  Keep the Momentum Going

Yes, keep challenging all your beliefs around food and exercise, and move through your list.  But also, remember that ED is a sneaky little beast.  Just because you’ve succeeded does not mean you’re done.  Keep the momentum going.

Chances are, if you stop being afraid of the food, and then you stop eating it for months on end, you’ll subconsciously become afraid of it again.  Like, I’m not scared of peanut butter (98% of the time, the other 2% of the time it’s some other food rule influencing it) anymore,  but I guarantee if I stopped eating it for 3 months (Pssshaw why would I do that?!) I would be again.  You have to keep eating everything.  Don’t narrow, don’t let your guard down.  Maybe years upon years from now, but maybe not ever.  Keep the momentum going.

And now some photo spam of all the things I’ve been challenging:

Coconut blondies from Top With Cinnamon, to challenge the

Coconut blondies from Top With Cinnamon, to challenge the “No more than one dessert a day” rule

Spiced Apple and Carrot Muffin by Hummusapien for my aversion to

Spiced Apple and Carrot Muffin by Hummusapien with my lunch for my aversion to “cake-y” things.

Amaretto latte with my lunch for the

Amaretto latte with my lunch for the “No flavoured lattes” rule.

And today's slightly less visually appealing but delicious double whammy! Paleo Banana Bread Batter by The Big Man's World for the

And today’s slightly less visually appealing but delicious double whammy! Paleo Banana Bread Batter by The Big Man’s World for the “No paleo” rule, and an amaretto latte (repeated exposure therapy 🙂 )

And that’s all I’ve got for you.  Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t.  But recovery, and relapse, and recovery teaches you a thing or two, and I’m hoping I’ve got a few tools in my toolkit, and a little bit more peanut butter on my spoon than before.

One thought on “Food Rules: My Steps to Liberation

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