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Shifting from Rules to Guidelines

Updated: Nov 8, 2021

In this four-part series, I am sharing guiding principles that have helped me navigate and find balance as I rewire with food. In my first post, I introduced Principle #1: Listen to what your body wants.

In this post, I want to examine our relationship to rules. Most of us don’t love rules, but if you are anything like me, you love making them. I’m talking about little rules, like times to eat, organization, or which direction the toilet paper roll faces. Rules create a sense of order and certainty. And our brains seek certainty by design, because it allows us to plan for an expected outcome. But what happens when the rules themselves create more challenges?

When rules get unruly

With LSI, we can find ourselves navigating a sea of rules imposed by our limbic system and our health care practitioners. Rules about what we should do or not do. Rules about what we should eat or should not eat. Keeping up with all the limitations can feel impossible and leave us feeling overwhelmed and stuck. When there are too many rules, we end up serving the rules more than they serve us.

Rules can also lead to black and white thinking, a thought pattern in which people think in absolutes, instead of seeing the complexity and dynamic state of reality. If obeying a rule creates certainty and safety, then breaking the rule can feel unsafe. Without realizing it, we can start to label the foods permitted on a diet or protocol as “good” and the off-limits foods as “bad.” We can start to label our digestive system as “hypersensitive” instead of recognizing that our systems might just need a little extra support on our path to healing.

In this way, rigid rules can create a feedback loop where foods labeled “bad” or “triggers” can lead to a limbic response, not because of the chemical properties of the food, but because of the cross-wiring that has developed. (This can be true even if there was once a physiological basis for avoiding a food that has since healed.)

Getting on board with guidelines

The good news is that once we start rewiring, many rigid restrictions can start to fall away. We begin to trust in our bodies’ resilience to handle things that once were threatening. This process can feel relatively simple when it comes to foods that we think of as “good.” For example, deciding to reincorporate bananas, onions, and kale into my diet was easy.

Things can get trickier when we start to reexamine food rules that were put in place to support our health. On one hand, we want to get to eat all the delicious, tasty delights we have been missing. On the other hand, we don’t want to throw away everything we have learned about clean, health-promoting foods. So, what to do? Enter Principle #2.

Principle #2: Replace rules with guidelines where it's practical.

This principle is about letting go of rigid restrictions and taking a more nuanced and balanced approach to diet. While a rule tells you what to eat or not eat, a guideline provides more of a framework for what foods to prioritize and what foods to include sparingly. Replacing rules with guidelines allows us to hold onto a value of healthy eating without encouraging perfectionism or fear-based avoidance. Guidelines create space for us to access our inner wisdom and determine what is right in the moment, as opposed to relying on rigid and unyielding rules.

For example, when I started rewiring, I adhered to a very strict diet. While this diet had many health benefits, the way I implemented the protocol created unnecessary fear. I started to see the foods excluded from the protocol as “bad” and “inflammatory.” These beliefs made it feel critical that I adhere to this strict and multi-faceted diet perfectly. If I cheated or missed an ingredient, I would worry about what damage I might cause and what consequences I would face. If you are brain retraining, you may spot the perfectionist and fortune telling POPs (unhelpful thoughts) here.

As I progressed in my healing journey, and started to consider letting go of the protocol, I recognized the fear and unhelpful beliefs that my brain had created. Once I let that go, I was able to take the helpful aspects with me and leave the rigidity behind. For me, replacing rules with guidelines means continuing to emphasize probiotic foods and foods high in healthy fats in my diet, but it also means including (in moderation) grains and other foods that I once entirely avoided.

Similarly, when I began brain retraining, I never imagined introducing wheat. I had read so much about issues associated with gluten that I had labeled the ingredient as “bad.” As I found myself able to eat a long list of once-forbidden foods, I started to give wheat a second thought. I began finding books and resources explaining that there are indeed health benefits to eating wheat for those who do not have sensitivities or celiac disease. As I discussed in my last blog post, I have since reintroduced wheat. Replacing rules with guidelines here means that I make sure not to let wheat replace vegetables and other nutrient-dense foods in my diet. I still pick the salad over the sandwich in most cases. But when my boyfriend makes a sourdough challah on Friday night, I now join in. And for that, I am immensely grateful.

Putting guidelines into action

Chris Kresser, a respected functional medicine practitioner, advocates for what he calls an 80/20 rule. In this approach, he recommends following a high-fat, nutrient-dense diet 80% of the time, and then eating as you wish the other 20% of the time. As Kresser puts it, “in some cases it’s better to eat the wrong food with the right attitude than the other way around.”

To me, the 80/20 rule is not a rule at all. It is a practical, concrete way of replacing rules with guidelines. It allows people to focus on including health-affirming foods, while still getting to enjoy a variety of foods and share in meaningful social occasions without feeling guilt or shame. The 80/20 rule also creates trust in the resilience of our body to thrive while enjoying a wide range of foods.

A final word of caution

This post is not meant to create a rule against rules! As I discussed above, rules can and do provide an important function. The point of this principle is not to banish all rules, but to ease overwhelming or unnecessary restrictions, bring in a sense of ease and balance, and reaffirm your capacity and resilience.

If it is safe and in your training zone, it is a good time to turn a rule into a guideline. And, some rules are rules for a reason. Each person, each limby, and each body is unique, and we must honor that. This is the purpose of the “where practical” part of this guideline. It is important to be true to yourself and make informed decisions that fit your circumstances. This may mean some rules stay rules for now or even forever. As with all principles I share, Principle #2 is simply an opportunity to reevaluate what works best for you.

Note: This post is not intended to provide medical advice. Please check with your medical care practitioner before making changes to your health protocol.


About Meredith

Meredith is a Certified Health and Life Coach and creator of Inner Compass Health—a coaching practice empowering highly motivated women who face life disrupting stress and chronic conditions to harness their innate capacity to heal and thrive. Meredith’s work is inspired by her own healing journey. Since childhood she experienced evolving health issues culminating in over a decade of debilitating daily symptoms. In 2019, Meredith left her high-stress job and took her health into her own hands. Through a devoted brain retraining practice, self-care, inner work, and a nourishing diet and lifestyle, Meredith found so much more than relief from her symptoms—she learned to listen to her own inner compass. Today Meredith celebrates her health through nature, food, dance, and travel.


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