Intuitive Eating can sound counterproductive to the years, or decades, spent trying to abide by rigid dieting or food rules. The same holds true for seemingly “healthy” (or clean eating) lifestyles— we’re inundated with nutrition advice that often shifts from harmless intent to a harmful and disordered relationship with food.
For dancers especially, maintaining supportive mealtime habits means breaking free from these strict food rules as part of a larger initiative to dismantle dancer diet culture and make peace with food (the first two fundamental values of The Healthy Dancer®. This blog post aims to explore the origins of food rules and offers practical strategies for dancers to break free from restrictive food rules.
What are food rules?
Food rules encompass any definitive limit that you or someone else (maybe even a health professional) places on a specific type or amount of food, food group, or eating behavior. Many food rules stem from societal norms, cultural expectations, or diet and wellness trends— media, friends, family, and studio chatter. A few common food rules that I hear from clients include:
- I will not eat white bread.
- White potatoes are unhealthy, I can only eat sweet potatoes.
- I will not keep peanut butter in the house because I have no control and will eat the whole jar!
- Dark chocolate is the only type of chocolate I can eat because it’s healthy.
- I will not eat after 7 PM
Understanding where these rules come from can empower you to critically assess their relevance— in other words, how is this food rule supporting my health and dance potential? With more than 50% of dancers struggling to eat enough, the reality is that food rules hinder a dancer’s ability to fuel.
Why are dancers susceptible to food rules?
Dancers exhibit a higher level of restriction and drive for thinness when compared to the general population— food rules are often a tool used to get there. Food rules offer a sense of control and for some, a degree of comfort. However, this sense of control is fleeting as inflexible eating patterns eventually lead to compulsive eating patterns (feeling very out of control around food).
Why are food rules problematic for dancers?
Food rules drive us further away from the ability to eat intuitively. The more we try to micromanage our eating patterns— relying on external cues to dictate what, how much, and when to eat— the more disconnected we feel from our bodies. Food rules embody eating as a form of self-control. On the contrary, healing our relationships with food embodies eating as a form of self-care.
Dismantling food rules to support a dancer’s food relationship
One part of intuitive eating encourages listening to your body’s signals and responding to its cues. Instead of adhering to external rules, we begin to notice hunger and fullness cues. But for dancers, the work isn’t so straightforward. Hunger cues are often unreliable and the idea of “breaking” food rules can feel out of reach as an overwhelming distrust persists, “I cannot trust myself around these foods!”
However, intuitive eating goes beyond just eating in response to physical hunger and when breaking food rules, we’re not opening the floodgates all at once. In fact, the work I do as a dietitian for dancers meets you where you are— prioritizing baseline nourishment so that when we’re ready to challenge food rules, we’re doing it in a way that leaves us feeling physically comfortable and mentally confident.
There is no one-size-fits-all strategy for challenging food rules and while some dancers might be ready to rebuild trust with many foods, others are not yet ready to tackle this. And that is okay! All dancers can build their toolbox for dismantling food rules. To get there, consider these actionable steps as a starting point
5 strategies to break free from restrictive food rules
#1: Identify your food rules and triggers
Take a moment to consider any food rules that may come to mind throughout your day. Perhaps you read online that white bread is “bad” or you swore to never touch “processed” sugar again. Can you identify a specific food that you avoid for the sake of health or performance? Do you only eat cauliflower pizza as a means to dodge the real deal? Explore the potential for food triggers— is there a food you’d love to eat, but feel, “Once I start, I’ll never stop!”
#2: Start with just one, build it into your balanced meal plan
Instead of diving into this head first, let’s take it one step at a time. Choose just 1 food. Gradual exposure to previously restricted foods can help in overcoming anxieties. Explore ways in which these foods can become accessible to you without feeling overwhelmed. Adding one food to your next grocery list is a start.
Flexible and proactive meal planning can help this process, especially if you’re at risk for baseline under-fueling. For example, cereal is a common challenge food that leaves many feeling unsatisfied after just one bowl. Adding additional ingredients to your bowl can build a more satisfying experience. Top your cereal with nut butter or sprinkle a handful of nuts and flax to boost the staying power of the meal.
#3: Strengthen your food-neutral lens
Food neutrality is a tool used within The Healthy Dancer® to lessen the polarizing mindset around diverse food choices. Rather than labeling foods as “good” or “bad,” we view foods through a multidimensional lens that embodies how food makes us feel, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Unraveling the nuance and confusion around food and nutrition often helps in this process. Here are a few helpful articles to dismantle common food myths:
#4: Build a mindful experience
We’ve set the stage for a more supportive mindset, now it’s time to challenge your food rules. Food fears, in particular, mindful eating offers an opportunity to fully engage in the eating experience. Consider the flavors, aromas, and textures. Does each bite live up to your expectations? If so, then continue eating and tune into your fullness cues. If not, then consider if this version of your food is worth the experience. Assessing your experience helps to reconnect you with your intention to eat the food until fullness and satisfaction. Avoid distractions like screens or work during meals, fostering a deeper connection with the act of eating.
#5: Seek support
Similar to learning a new style of dance, reintroducing your challenge foods often comes with discomfort. If breaking food rules feels overwhelming, consider support from a registered dietitian nutritionist who can provide personalized guidance.