Arbitrary food rules are ubiquitous in our society, thanks to diet culture and skewed views of what “healthy eating” actually is. These rules often manifest as specific commands and sweeping maxims about what, when, and how we should be eating.
Some of these food rules are well-intentioned suggestions, and can indeed be genuinely helpful—to some people, some of the time—when used as guiding principles, as opposed to hard-and-fast rules. But a lot of food rules are, frankly, total B.S. They’re unnecessarily restrictive, unrealistic, or unscientific—and, often, potentially bad for your relationship with food.
The problem is that rules are by definition one-size-fits-all, while we know that healthy eating is anything but. Our different bodies, nutritional needs, tastes, cultures, medical histories, food access, budgets, and lifestyles all factor into the best food choices for any one individual. So it naturally follows that rigid, generic rules about eating aren’t going to work for everyone.
With that in mind, we talked to a few R.D.s about the food rules they wish people would realize they can actually toss out—or, at the very least, be a helluva lot more flexible about. We also asked them to explain why, exactly, they think these rules are worth ignoring (besides the fact that rules just suck). Get ready to add some items to your Things IDGAF About list.
1. “Avoid processed foods.”
“This rule is incoherent, and not necessarily helpful for making the best food choices,” Marina Chaparro, R.D., M.P.H., certified diabetes educator, founder of Nutrichicos, and author of Diabetes & Pregnancy: A Real Guide for Women With Type 1, Type 2, and Gestational Diabetes, tells SELF. There’s a ton of hubbub in the food world around the word “processed,” but all it really means, according to the Food and Drug Administration, is that the food has been combined with at least one other ingredient, or changed in any way from its natural state (for instance: canned, mixed, cut, or pasteurized). So “unless you’re eating a raw [whole] food diet where you don’t cook anything, you are consuming processed foods,” Chaparro explains. That includes nutrient-rich foods like yogurt, whole wheat bread, almond butter, and smoked salmon, she points out. “Instead of avoiding processed foods, I would focus on teaching people how to read a label and not generalizing food as good or bad.” (Thinking about some foods as “good” and others as “bad” is essentially assigning food a moral value, which can make you feel like a bad person for eating something that seems “too processed” or otherwise unhealthy.)
2. “Shop the perimeter.”
If you haven’t heard of this food rule before, here’s the gist: This grocery shopping principle is meant to steer people toward adding more produce and fresh foods in their diets. Those are typically in the aisles on the perimeter of a store, whereas other items (like packaged snacks and frozen foods) tend to be in the middle. Adding more produce and fresh food to your shopping cart when possible can be great. However, this rule also implores folks to keep packaged and shelf-stable foods out of their carts, Cara Harbstreet, M.S., R.D., L.D. of Street Smart Nutrition, tells SELF. “In reality, this is an unrealistic way to shop and cook for many people, who turn to the convenience, affordability, and flavor of foods found in the inner aisles,” she says.
What’s more, “If you only shop the perimeter at the supermarket, you’ll miss out on rice, oats, beans, and so many other nutritious foods,” Marisa Moore, M.B.A., R.D.N., L.D., culinary and integrative dietitian, tells SELF. “Though I get the intent, it is limiting.” It also makes it seem as though frozen fruits and veggies—some of Moore’s favorite time-saving staples, located in the center aisles at her market—are not even worth considering, when the reality is that they’re packed with nutrients and often more affordable than their fresh counterparts.
This rule is especially unfeasible in the coronavirus era, Harbstreet points out, when many people want or need to limit their trips to the store due to COVID-19. Her advice? “Toss this outdated advice and curate a shopping list based on what you need—packaged and shelf-stable foods included.”
3. “Don’t eat after X o’clock.”
Some people stop eating at a certain time because they’ve heard eating before bed is bad for you. But unless eating before bed gives you indigestion, it’s not really inherently worse for your body, as SELF has previously reported. More to the point is the reality that for many of us, our schedules are just not conducive to finishing eating by 6, 7, or 8 p.m. “Many people are eating dinner very early and going to bed super late, so it is natural to need [food] because your body still needs energy while it is awake,” Dalina Soto M.A., R.D., L.D.N., bilingual dietitian and founder of Nutritiously Yours and Your Latina Nutrition, tells SELF.
Others implement a cutoff time to thwart their late-night cravings for snacky, “bad” foods. “The interesting thing is, this arbitrary rule might actually be contributing to your late-night cravings,” Vincci Tsui, R.D., anti-diet dietitian and certified intuitive eating counselor, tells SELF. “We all know that the more we tell ourselves that we can’t have something, the more that we want it, right?” When you give yourself permission to head to the kitchen at any hour, late-night snacks can become less “naughty” and enticing.
4. “Don’t emotionally eat.”
The fact is that eating often is emotional, Lindsay Birchfield M.S, R.D., L.D., health and body activist and dietitian at Creating Peace With Food and Rooted Heart Health Care. “We eat to celebrate and we eat to mourn,” she says.
Eating for emotional comfort is problematized, but in reality it’s a lot like most other coping mechanisms: a tool intended to help you get by, handle stress, and feel better. “[Emotional eating] is simply another way of seeking comfort when needed,” Kimmie Singh, M.S., R.D., founder of The Body Positive Dietitian, tells SELF. “Part of having a healthy relationship with food includes having permission to eat emotionally when it is helpful,” Singh explains, adding, “delicious food can be a great source of pleasure and comfort when experiencing painful emotions.” This is especially topical in the coronavirus pandemic, which has disrupted many people’s dynamics with food in major ways, including limiting people’s access to food, triggering disordered eating behaviors, and prompting many to seek comfort in the form of something that tastes good.
That said, eating should not be your only coping mechanism. Singh recommends seeking support from a mental health provider if you are struggling to access other tools. Finding a mental health provider who’s affordable, accessible, and understanding in the way you need can be hard in “regular” times, much less right now. Here’s some insight into finding the right therapist for you, a few more tips on that very subject, and some tips for having a good teletherapy appointment too.
5. “Cook from scratch to eat healthier.”
“There’s this idea that in order to eat well and to be healthy, everything has to be made from scratch, and it’s just not true,” Moore says. Prepared, premade, and frozen foods can actually make nutritious choices more realistic for people, Veronica E. Garnett, M.S., R.D., Health at Every Size and Fat-Positive registered dietitian and culinarian, tells SELF. Garnett recommends “nutritious and delicious time-savers” like rotisserie chickens, quick rice, salad kits, and microwavable bags of frozen veggies, for instance. “When you feel like it and have the time, definitely make your scratch-made favorites,” Garnett says. “But know that there is absolutely nothing wrong with getting help from the grocery store.”
6. “Don’t overdo it on the sugary fruit.”
“This is such a commonly held belief—that fruits are too high in sugar and must be ‘bad’ for you,” Erica Leon, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.N., nutrition therapist, certified eating disorder registered dietitian, and founder of Erica Leon Nutrition, tells SELF. Yes, fruit contains sugar. But it also provides fiber and a variety of essential vitamins and minerals, Leon says—not to mention, juicy flavor. That fiber helps fill you up, while slowing the rate at which your body absorbs the sugar in fruit, Leon explains—which helps to keep blood sugar and energy levels more stable than, say, an equivalent amount of table sugar. Eat the fruit.
7. “Drink a glass of water when you’re hungry.”
Thirst calls for hydration; hunger calls for food. “This rule is used to suppress hunger, and while it may keep you temporarily full, the body will eventually figure out that no energy is coming into the body,” certified intuitive eating counselor Carolina Guízar, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.N., founder of Eathority and cofounder of Latinx Health Collective, tells SELF. And now you’re really hungry. “The longer you delay feeding your body, the hungrier you will be, and it can set you up for eating in a way that feels ‘out of control,’” Guízar explains. What’s more, “This habit has the potential to diminish your body’s trust in you to nourish it regularly.” So by all means, stay hydrated. But when you’re hungry, eat.
8. “Always choose the whole grain.”
Whole grains are an awesome thing to include in your diet—generally offering more fiber, protein, and hearty texture than their refined counterparts. But that doesn’t mean we need to condemn refined grains for eternity. “Eating regular pasta or white rice and not the higher fiber alternative doesn’t mean your meal is not ‘healthy,” Yasi Ansari, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and assistant director of performance nutrition for UC Berkeley Athletics, tells SELF. If you really want the white bread, for instance, how satisfied are you going to feel after eating the whole grain one? Anyhow, what’s more important nutrition-wise is the balance of your meal as a whole. “There are a variety of ways to add more protein, fats, and fiber to your meal to pack in more nutrients,” Ansari explains—think beans, veggies, nuts, dairy, and meat or plant-based protein.
9. “Cut your carbs.”
In the diet industry, macronutrients come in and out of fashion, even though “all of our macronutrients are vital for biological processes,” Birchfield explains. Recently, the influence of diets glorifying fat and demonizing carbs (like keto or paleo) has led to a broadly held assumption that fewer carbs are better, across the board. Not so! “Carbs are great and should be treated just like any other macronutrient,” Ansari says. “They provide us with efficient and easy-to-use fuel that our body needs for both mental and physical performance,” including essential body functions, daily activities, and exercise. Without enough carbohydrates from foods like grains, fruits, starchy veggies, beans, and legumes, “we run the risk of our energy tanking,” Ansari says—making it really hard to be at your best in daily life. And, Ansari adds, carbs often contain fiber, vitamins, and minerals your body really needs.
10. “Always sit down at a table to eat.”
Prioritizing sitting down and being present enough to really enjoy your meal can help make eating a more pleasant and meaningful experience, Guízar says. But, “While it would be nice for us to always have time to sit down and savor our meals, it is simply unrealistic to do this all the time,” she says. “The reality is that [some] meals will be messy and rushed, and that is okay.” If this sounds like your day-to-day, then don’t hold yourself to a standard that doesn’t fit your lifestyle, or makes you feel bad when you don’t meet it. Standing up at the counter, at your desk between Zooms, on the go as you head into work as an essential employee—”It still counts as a meal,” as Guízar says.