“I Can’t Eat That” – Are Rules Based Diets A Bad Idea?

There are an awful lot of ways to set up a dieting approach, one of which – in fact, probably the most common – is to have a set of rules which tell you what/when/how you are and are not allowed to eat. For example, diets exist which specify that:

X, Y, Z foods are off limits

You’re not allowed to eat foods after or before X time

You’re only allowed to eat these certain foods

You can’t have X if you haven’t exercised today


Now, these are generally regarded as bad ways to diet, and for good reason. Diets like these tend to be the diets that people don’t succeed on, or at least they don’t succeed for very long. Because of this, you’ll often hear well-meaning health and fitness professionals or nutrition people explaining that this restrictive kind of diet is unworkable, unsustainable, and so to be avoided.

“You should never have off-limits foods” and “Your diet should never have rules” after all…

But what about this:

There are two kinds of dieting rules, there are empowering rules, and there are tyrannical rules, with the only differences being who sets them and how you view them. Tyrannical rules act like an external force against which you’ll eventually want to rebel.

Of course, you would, we all rebel against rules – down with the system and all that.

If a coach tells you that you’re not allowed chocolate while you’re losing fat, that’s an externally applied act of tyranny. You didn’t agree to it, you probably resent it a bit, and if you stick to it that’d be little short of a miracle because while you’ve paid for this professional’s help and you know it might help you achieve a goal, when you get right down to it some other person is taking away a thing you like and that’s just not cricket.

This is what happens when people do diets from books, from TV shows, from blogs, from unscrupulous coaches or from the part of their brain that has internalised the messages put out from all of the above. Sure, when someone says they’re giving up takeaways for the New Year it’s them that set the rules, but they aren’t exactly happy about it, are they?

But what if you (either alone or in conjunction with a coach) decide that because you tend to overeat it and so you’d rather not have the temptation, you’re going to empower yourself to avoid chocolate for the next few months by setting a self-imposed rule that declares it to be off limits?

It’s no longer “I want this but I’m not allowed”, which is simply a recipe for midnight rebellion by fridge-light, it’s “I’m deciding not to have it because, while I know I enjoy it, I don’t want to have it right now. I know that I’ll want it later when I’m not thinking straight so, right now, I’m deciding for my future self that it’s just a no”.

That’s completely empowering. An external force (either someone else or the message of someone else filtered through your own brain) hasn’t taken something away because you’re not allowed it, you have decided that you’re going to push it away all by yourself, for your own reasons, despite the fact that you ARE still allowed it.

And best of all, it’s your rule – if you decide at one point to make an exception and have a chocolate bar then you haven’t failed because, well, it’s your damn rule and you can do whatever you want.

Rules like this – self-imposed rules which empower you to challenge your own behaviour, rather than externally applied rules against which you’ll want to rebel – can have a TON of benefits. You make the decision not to eat/drink/do the thing way in advance, saving decisional effort and mulling over of pros and cons.

You can more or less put on the blinkers and walk past the chocolate aisle safe in the knowledge that for the time being you’re going to forego it, but also safe in the knowledge that there’s nobody other than you holding you to this

This is why doing diets with names is a problem. If you’re intermittent fasting and you want breakfast, you can either fail or miss out on what’s on offer. If you’re just dieting and have a rule where you don’t eat breakfast to save calories, you can just sack off your own rule every now and then because you feel like it, compensating for the calorie intake later. No harm, no foul, because the rule was only ever a tool, and not a guiding principle

“Now you just hold on right there!” I hear the internet shout. “People should never cut foods out of their diet because it’s calorie balance and not food choice that dictates body composition. You can eat chocolate while losing weight!”

Well yes, but also no. Technically, on a biological level, this is completely true, it IS possible to lose weight while eating chocolate whenever you want it.

But here’s the thing – what if you want it all of the time? That means you have to moderate it, and so you sometimes say yes and sometimes say no. It also means that once you say yes you have to be able to stop.

For some people that’s easy, but let’s be honest here, for a lot of people it’s not.

It’s all well and good for fitness people to shout about how you can eat whatever you want, whenever you want while losing weight, simply by acting in moderation, controlling your calories and manipulating portion sizes.

But for many, that’s a pain, really difficult, or something close to impossible. It all depends on your relationship with food, your impulse control, your daily stress, and everything else. For many, a self-imposed rule (that you can break if you want to) which simplifies the whole thing is restrictive on one hand, yes

But on the other hand? Self-created rules can set you free…

"All in or all out" Rachael is a vibrant, no-bullshit-talking Scottish nutrition geek and coach helping women to lose weight without giving up their confidence OR their favourite foods.

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