Food Preferences Versus Food Rules: How to Tell the Difference

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Navigating our food decisions, thoughts, and behaviors is outright exhausting. I can remember the early days and years of recovery feeling so wrung out by the end of the day from the sheer energy it took to choose, create, eat, and digest meals and snacks. All of my energy was directed at eating in some way, shape, or form. The barrage of what, when, and where to eat banged around my brain constantly. The "games" of If I eat this, then I can't eat that, blah, blah, blah, rarely turned off.

Yet, strongly competing with all this "noise"--the constant calculating and planning and worrying--was my heartfelt desire, or intention, to be whole and free for myself and my family. 

Like an internal compass, this intention for wholeness and freedom has guided my healing path in empowering ways. Early on it took diligent practice to proactively confront fear and make choices that aligned with my intention instead of mindlessly giving in to habitual eating disorder patterns. I thank my Yoga practice for assisting me in fostering the internal awareness required to wake up to destructive habits and then cultivate the courage and strength to integrate new life-sustaining patterns.

One very crucial awareness I committed to developing was the difference between my food preferences and food rules. 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, as you know, 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. The rules and our reactions to them 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. Luckily, these prisons of ours lock from the inside, meaning we have complete and total power to unlock the cell door and take a chance on living self-directed rather than rule-bound. 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. I can also attest to the fact that it is possible to leave the prison 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. We are way more than the eating disorder, and we have preferences for a variety of aspects of life, we just need to create time and space to reconnect to them.

When we live from the place of preference, we are in our center, tuned into our inner wisdom. When we live from preference, we assert self-assuredness; there's little need for debate. We know what we know to be true because there's nothing to argue about. It is what it is--literally!

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

  • When making a food choice, observe in yourself your reaction. 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. If, on the other hand, 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 is not much altered, you are likely in the preference space. Observe your reactions to gauge which is at play. 
  • Then, "find the ground," meaning, get grounded, centered, present to the experience and 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. 
  • If you determine you are in a "rule space," take 5 to 10 (or more!) slow purposeful breaths to interrupt the spinning thoughts and then proceed when you've gained some clarity about the best choice to make for yourself.
  • 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. Perhaps write down your preferences as you encounter them to reinforce these self-directed aspects of yourself.
  • 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 in and of itself may be process that takes you time and patience. A few quiet, purposeful breaths can do wonders in allowing our inner wisdom to come back online. Trust you will get there.

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. We express wholeness and freedom. We embody our inner wisdom. Your preferences for food and all things deserve your attention and to be cultivated to the fullest.