Don’t Hit Trees: The Problem with Food “Rules”

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When I was learning to mountain bike, the most terrifying part was trying really hard not to hit anything. Boulders, sharp tiny rocks, and trees all jumped out at me to try to bring me off that bike. I preferred the wide expanses of forest service roads to the narrow single-track, which forced me to center my attention on…not hitting trees. Which I did. More often than I care to admit.

I mentioned this to my coach at the time, and she told me that the best way to NOT hit a tree was to look exactly where I needed to go INSTEAD of looking at what I wanted to avoid. In movement, the body follows the eyes, and so if I am looking at the tree? Way more likely I am going to aim my body directly toward it. Once I started looking at the path I wanted to go, it made it more likely that I would find my way around that tree.

problem food rules
Photo: Flickr/ gkmediadesign



It’s really not so different with rules-based diet approaches that eliminate one or more foods when you’re trying to find the best way to eat in order to live a healthy lifestyle. At first, an “eat this, not that” list like you might see from a Paleo diet might give you a lot of clarity- it tells you what to eat and what to avoid. Seems like a good idea, and it can take away the stress of trying to figure out what foods fuel your body better than others. You may have some success with weight loss or feeling better in your clothes after trying out an eating approach like this for a few weeks.

The problem with food “rules” is that after a while, an “eat this, never eat that” approach can feel a bit like avoiding that tree. Instead of looking at where you want to go, you start staring at the tree. You see those foods you can’t have, and you are like “But I just really want (insert delicious food here)”. Sometimes it’s hard to stop thinking about that food. Because food is good stuff! And then before you know it, BAM. Delicious food is in your mouth. The whole thing you have been working on? Done. Because with a rules-based dieting approach, you’re either following the rule or you’ve broken the rule.

And the way we feel after derailing your hard work on your eating approach?

problem food rules


Eating is actually just eating. There’s really no secret conspiracy about food and which ones are “flat-belly foods” or anything like that. Sure, some people feel better eating some ways, and other people feel better eating other ways. That’s just people- we’re all individuals. But when we add words like “I screwed up” and “I failed” to our eating approach, we bring guilt and shame into the mix. And while those feelings may help us to screw up our courage or tighten or resolve for a new “Day 1”, they don’t sustain our commitment over the long term.

What you want to do is focus on eating for your real life. Do you like red wine? Sounds good. Do you like tacos? Sounds good. Unless your goal is fitting into a bikini for a figure competition, you can eat and drink things you like AND make progress toward getting fit and living a healthier lifestyle. Sure, if you want go faster, you’ll have to tighten up your game some more, but I don’t want you to hit a tree. And you don’t want to hit that tree, right? So let’s not even put it out there. Let’s ride that wide forest service road instead.

My job as a health and fitness coach is to help you stay on the course that you choose. I use a habits-based approach to eating so that you can find ways to confidently lose weight and get leaner without feeling like you’re deprived or stuck following someone else’s rules.

You can expertly tell me how you want to get there, and I can give you good directions and make sure you have a good time on the journey. But most importantly, you and I are both working together in the interest of making forward progress while avoiding crashes. Without crashes, we keep our momentum going, and that’s the most important indicator that you will have success in getting to your health and fitness destination.

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