Food Flexibility in Recovery

Eating disorders are often accompanied by numerous stringent food rules. I frequently hear the individuals I work with talking about eliminating certain categories of foods or avoiding foods with certain nutritional content. These rules result in consuming a restricted range of foods, or food inflexibility.

These food rules sometimes function as a source of comfort for someone in the midst of an eating disorder.

When the world feels like chaos, following structured limits around foods offers consistency.

People know what to expect when it comes to their food and feel satisfied when they are able to stick with their plan.

Yet, although it might appear that these food rules are advantageous, they are detrimental in many ways.

Following specific food rules takes time. It takes energy. It takes dedication.

 Of course, it’s not harmful to be this passionate about something. It’s not detrimental to enjoy cooking, cultivating recipes, or feeding your family.

However, what I often see with individuals with eating disorders is that food rules are significantly interfering with their quality of life.

Some people with eating disorders spend multiple hours of their day planning the foods they are going to eat. Identifying what specific ingredients will go into said foods. Organizing their day around when and how much they will eat. Avoiding social events in order to prepare foods or reduce the temptation to eat outside of their approved foods.

Spending more time thinking about eating, or not eating, food than other things in their life.

So for individuals with eating disorders, I ask, what are you missing out on due to food inflexibility?

 Are you missing out on enjoying deep conversations with friends and family?

Are you missing out on spending time advocating for causes you are passionate about?

Are you missing out on pursuing academic or career endeavors that excite you?

Are you missing out on exploring new avenues that might interest you?

 Most individuals with eating disorders overwhelmingly respond, “Yes”.

I haven’t devoted time to relationships.

I haven’t pursued my passions.

I haven’t invested time towards professional goals.

I haven’t embarked on new adventures.

In the depths of an eating disorder, this makes sense. While pursuing new relationships, careers, and passions can be risky and often require stepping outside of your comfort zone, food rules are a safety net that shelters individuals from experiencing uncomfortable emotions.

However, I so often hear individuals with eating disorders talking about feeling isolated, lonely, and disconnected from their family and friends due to avoiding social interactions and opportunities for connection that involve food.

Feeling behind in their occupational or education goals due to the time and energy they’ve spent devoted to following food rules and obeying their eating disorder voice.

Feeling restricted in their life experiences due to anxiety about what food might be involved while traveling abroad, volunteering for an organization, attending an event, and the like.

Reflecting on how food inflexibility interferes with their values, goals, and aspirations, people are able to recognize how following guidelines that once provided comfort now cause more harm than good. Adhering to food rules hinders quality of life, stunts personal growth, and keeps the door to new opportunities closed.

I encourage you to think about how might food inflexibility be interfering with your values and future goals. What might you be able to accomplish if you set yourself free from food rules?

 Cultivating food flexibility is central to recovery.

Expanding the variety of food consumed is associated with better long-term outcomes and healthier, happier, more vibrant living.

How might you take steps today to let go of food rules, allow all foods to fit, and embrace the freedom that is recovery?

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About the Author: Courtney Simpson

Courtney Simpson, MS, is a predoctoral psychology intern at the UC San Diego Eating Disorders Center ( Her research has focused on developing interventions that prevent eating disorders and exploring the sociocultural factors that contribute to eating-related conditions. Courtney is passionate about working clinically with individuals experiencing eating disorders and holding hope for full recovery.

Charlotte Kurz1 Comment