Isn’t it time we did away with strict food rules and fads?

Portrait of Accredited Practising Dietitian Zoe Nicholson.

Isn’t it time we did away with strict food rules and fads?

Portrait of Accredited Practising Dietitian Zoe Nicholson.

Never eat bread. No food after 7 pm. Avoid dairy at all costs. Social media is awash with extreme rules and restrictions. They are the supposed ‘secrets’ to healthier eating, weight loss and a happier life.

But Accredited Practising Dietitian Zoe Nicholson believes that the real key to healthy eating lies in moderation. We ask her how we can tune into our bodies and tune out the extremes.

What does a healthy relationship with food look like?

Zoe: A healthy relationship with food is one where ideally you can enjoy any food in moderation without guilt or shame. You’re comfortable in the company of food. Eating in moderation means sometimes saying “yes”, sometimes saying “no”, sometimes eating more, and sometimes less. There are no extremes where you eat strictly to a calorie count or avoid certain foods – apart from food allergies or for medical reasons, of course.

You’re a strong supporter of Intuitive Eating – what is that about?

Zoe: This involves changing your relationship with food, learning that no food is basically unhealthy, and tuning back into internal cues for hunger, fullness and satisfaction. It also asks that you address how you feel about your body. This can be a complex process and many people might need the support of an experienced non-diet dietitian or a professional trained in Intuitive Eating principles.

Can you explain what you mean by ‘internal cues’? How can we listen to and learn from them?

Zoe: Our internal appetite cues include hunger, fullness and satisfaction. We are born naturally responding to these cues. Dieting or following external food rules are key reasons people stop listening to their internal cues. You can tune back into these cues through practising awareness of them while eating. Listen to your hunger and fullness signals, minimise distractions so you can pay attention to them – this is a central part of the Intuitive Eating process.

How do strict rules and restriction impact the way we eat?

Zoe: In my almost 20 years as a dietitian, I have seen how food rules and restrictions can lead to many people having an unhealthy relationship with their bodies and food.

Rules and restrictions can lead to a loss of control, or bingeing on the very foods they’ve been working so hard to avoid. This can result in a cycle of shame and guilt. Restricting food is also a key risk factor for developing an eating disorder.

Often, people are told to lose weight and follow a strict eating plan to help a health condition such as diabetes or polycystic ovary syndrome. But this can be really difficult to keep up in the long term if there is no leeway or flexibility.

For some people, food rules or restrictions don’t have a negative impact. But if you find yourself being overly strict and you’re struggling in these areas, one way to change this is to stop the restricting and get rid of the rules.

What are some examples of food rules and restrictions?

Zoe: Common ones include not eating (or limiting) bread or other carbohydrates, not snacking, only eating after a certain time, avoiding anything with added sugar or thinking you shouldn’t be eating something.

Food rules and restrictions seem to be promoted everywhere online – what is driving this fad?

Zoe: The message from our society says thinner is worthier and healthier. But humans come in all different shapes and sizes, including thin, muscular, round, solid and fat. All of these body types can be healthy.

For people with naturally bigger bodies, losing weight to meet society’s expectations (or to meet BMI criteria) is next to impossible, and they are pushed to go to extremes with food or exercise. There’s a belief that they must lose weight not only to be healthy, but to be acceptable as a person.

Finally, extremism is what sells. We all know it sells books, but it also sells social media personalities (who sell books) – it attracts followers in the millions.

Is it possible to resist this big sell? Do you have any tips?

Zoe: If you follow someone on social media who promotes food and exercise rules that appear extreme, ask yourself some questions: Are they making a significant profit from this? Do they have your best interests in mind? What is their natural body type? (Most of the people who promote extremism in food rules or exercise regimens already fit our culture’s ‘ideal’ body type.)

If you’re struggling with body image or your relationship with food, then it might be a good time to do a social media detox. Stop following anyone who makes you feel ashamed or guilty. Instead, fill your feed with people who celebrate difference, diversity and the absolute joy of food.

Explore more on Zoe’s website, Love What You Eat.

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Words by Zoe Nicholson and Muriel Reddy. Photography by Brett Rawlings.

Published September 2023

This article is designed to be informative and educational. It is not intended to provide specific medical advice or replace advice from your medical practitioner.

Jean Hailes for Women’s Health gratefully acknowledges the support of the Australian Government.

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