Inside Look

Power of Challenging Food Rules in Bulimia Recovery

bulimia recovery Oct 12, 2023

Food Rules!


When it comes to helping clients on their journey to recovery, talking about food specifically is one of my absolute favorite parts of working with individuals in their recovery process. I genuinely love everything about food, from understanding how it's grown and cultivated to how it can play a pivotal role in healing. From the scientific aspects to the psychological ones, I find it all fascinating. To be honest, I probably own more books about food than I do about eating disorders and mental health. That's just the truth.

Understanding the Science and Psychology of Food in Recovery

For me, gaining knowledge about food science and learning to honor my unique body was a significant key to my own recovery. It transformed the way I perceived food—from being an enemy to becoming a hero. Right now, if you're struggling with bulimia or any other eating disorder, it's highly likely that you see food as a problem, not as a source of nourishment and joy.

As human beings, we tend to be safety-seekers and problem solvers. When we feel uncertain or anxious, we create rules or laws to follow. These rules give us a sense of control and help us avoid undesirable outcomes. They offer us a safe path to follow when we feel like we can't trust our bodies, appetites, or decisions.

The Problem with Food Rules

Most people dealing with bulimia, and other eating disorders, have developed food rules, whether they consciously acknowledge them as such or not. These rules are beliefs about what they should or shouldn't do with food. While these rules may provide a temporary sense of control, they also set us up for rigidity and distress if we happen to break them.

The Fight or Flight Response and Food Rules

The fight or flight response is the body's way of reacting to perceived threats, just like encountering a predator, in ancient times. The fight or flight response releases stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. While it's a natural survival mechanism, in the context of bulimia, it can be triggered by emotional reactions to food rules.

The fact is, you cannot fully recover from bulimia unless you address your food rules.

Challenging Food Rules: A Personal Journey

Let me share a personal example to illustrate the power of challenging food rules. At one point in my journey, I had two specific rules: never consume more than 1,200 calories in a day and never eat anything with real sugar. At the time, I didn't even recognize them as rules, but they absolutely were. The calorie rule stemmed from my fear of gaining weight if I exceeded that limit, and the sugar rule was driven by the belief that I couldn't be trusted around sweet foods. Do you notice the common thread here? Both rules were rooted in the fear of consequences and the idea that I would never be able to stop myself once I started.

One day, during a therapy session, my therapist posed a simple question: "Sarah, if you could eat anything you wanted today without anything bad happening, what would you eat?" In that moment, I hesitated, then said, "A Snickers Candy Bar." My therapist's response was unexpected: "That's what I want you to do today—go and enjoy a Snickers Candy Bar."

My initial reaction was skepticism. I believed that if I indulged in that candy bar, I'd gain weight overnight and spiral into an uncontrollable binge. I couldn't trust myself, or so I thought. My therapist challenged my fears by asking, "How much weight do you think you'll gain from a Snickers Bar?"

I replied, "At least 3-5 pounds overnight, maybe 2 if I'm lucky." I was unsure of the exact amount, but I was certain that I was right and my therapist was wrong. Out of a mix of defiance and determination to prove her wrong, I reluctantly agreed to her proposition.

I left the therapy session and headed straight to the nearest gas station. I needed gas, and I needed that Snickers bar. As I approached the candy section, my heart began to race—the fight or flight response was in full swing. In that moment, I reminded myself not to be afraid and decided to approach this like a scientific experiment to prove my therapist wrong.

I chose a jumbo-sized Snickers bar to really make my point. Back in my car, before even pulling away, I opened the candy bar. Surprisingly, I felt calm and told myself that I was doing this solely for the sake of the experiment. I might as well enjoy it.

To my surprise, I did enjoy it. It tasted delicious. But then something even more unexpected happened—I realized I had eaten about 2/3 of the bar and felt satisfied. This was unheard of for me; I usually had insatiable hunger, especially when sugary foods were involved. What's more, I didn't want to finish the candy bar, and I didn't have the urge to purge. It was a truly eye-opening experience.

The following morning, I approached my scale with trepidation. It had always been a reliable indicator of my perceived failures and successes. This time, I expected it to confirm my belief that indulging in a candy bar had led to a significant weight gain. I glanced down at the scale, bracing myself for the dreaded numbers, and... I had lost 2 pounds.

I couldn't believe it. I stepped off the scale and tried again. Same result—2 pounds lighter. I repeated the process multiple times that morning, and each time, the scale confirmed the same outcome. My mind was blown. I couldn't explain it. I had permission to enjoy, and I did just that. I ate until I was satisfied, and not only did I not gain weight, but I had actually lost weight. I couldn't wait to share this revelation with my therapist, and when I did, she smiled and said, "Sarah, now you know the truth. Your eating disorder lies to you."

The Power of Challenging Food Rules in Recovery

Many of our food rules are rooted in some semblance of truth that we've picked up along our journey. However, these rules become distorted and magnified in ways that lead us astray. They become the language of our eating disorder, trapping us in a cycle of fear and rigidity.

Challenging these food rules can be a transformative turning point in your recovery. It was for me. By facing my fears and disproving the false beliefs that had governed my relationship with food, I began to reclaim control over my life and my body.

Conclusion: Embracing Freedom in Recovery

Challenging and dismantling these food rules is an essential step towards finding freedom in your recovery from bulimia. These rules may have initially offered a semblance of control and safety, but they ultimately hold you hostage to your eating disorder's relentless grip. It's important to realize that these rules are not your allies; they are the very chains that bind you to a never-ending cycle of fear and compulsion.

My own journey through recovery taught me that breaking free from these rules is not just about the food itself; it's a profound act of self-liberation. It's about taking back control over your life, your choices, and your relationship with food. It's about rediscovering the joy, pleasure, and nourishment that food can provide when it's no longer viewed as a threat.

Recovery is a process, and challenging food rules is just one aspect of it. It requires patience, self-compassion, and professional guidance. Remember, you are not alone on this journey. Seek the support of therapists, dietitians, coaches and medical professionals who can provide the expertise and guidance tailored to your unique needs.

Moreover, emotional support from friends and family who understand and empathize with your struggles can be invaluable. They can offer encouragement, accountability, and a sense of belonging that is crucial in times of doubt.

As you work on breaking free from food rules, also focus on nurturing your overall well-being. Adequate sleep, regular joyful physical activity, and a balanced diet play essential roles in supporting your mental and emotional health.

Your path to recovery is deeply personal, and it's important to remember that everyone's journey is unique. While food rules may have played a significant role in the development and persistence of your eating disorder, they can also serve as a source of motivation to overcome it.

In conclusion, challenging food rules is not just a practical step in recovery; it's a profound act of self-empowerment. By doing so, you take back control, dismantle the chains of your eating disorder, and embrace a life where food is no longer the enemy but a source of nourishment, pleasure, and freedom. Recovery is possible, and the journey is worth every step you take towards a healthier, happier future.


With Love & Light,

Sarah Lee

Sarah Lee is a Certified Eating Disorder Recovery Coach with four professional certifications, including one from the esteemed Carolyn Costin Institute. Since 2016, she has run a private practice currently located in Dallas, TX, assisting clients globally along with mentoring newer recovery coaches.

Posted on October 12th, 2023.

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