Think Values, Not Rules, When it Comes to Healthy Eating

I recently heard an interview in which the researcher said that children who grew up in homes where values were emphasized over rules were more original thinkers. This got me thinking about how to apply this in my own life (I have a toddler and a couple of cats…though I’m not sure they care much about my values), and I had a bit of a light bulb moment: Healthy eating choices (for me, my family, and you, too) might be easier to make if they come from your values rather than another set of easy-to-break rules.

Here’s an example: Say you’ve decided to completely cut sugar from your diet. It’s your new Eating Rule. Well, two weeks later, your mom bakes you a birthday cake because she didn’t know you weren’t eating sugar.

So what happens? You eat the cake. And then you feel guilty, because you broke your one important Eating Rule, and now you might as well eat all the sugar you can find, because you know pretty soon you’re going to have to come up with yet another strict rule (and you’re sure this new one will stick).

You can go on and on like this for years; it’s a never-ending cycle.

Instead, if you had come up with a statement to govern your eating habits that grew from one of your core values (say, valuing feeling energetic), you’d be more likely to stick with healthy eating. You want to feel more energetic? Well, maybe you decide to limit sugar to special occasions, or to switch out your nightly brownie sundae with extra hot fudge for a single fudgesicle. You may also decide to start adding more vegetables and fiber, because you value the way you feel, not just how good you are at following rules.

The best part is, when you “mess up” and eat something (or some amount of food) that makes you feel groggy and gross, instead of beating yourself up for breaking the rules, you can circle back around to your original value (feeling good, treating your body well, etc.) and make the necessary tweaks, no guilt necessary.

Sound good? A few quick ideas to get started.

  1. Beware of rules masking themselves as “lifestyle changes.” Telling someone you’re eating “80/20” (80 percent healthy/20 percent whatever you want), eating “clean,” eating for your type, eating the way your personal trainer told you to, they’re all just rules. If you aren’t allowed to eat something, or are only allowed to eat it on a “cheat day,” it’s a rule. Bottom line: If you consider yourself “bad” or feel guilty for eating the wrong way, you’re stuck in the rules, and that won’t serve you long term.
  1. Never forget that rules are made to be broken. I promise you will break your own rules over and over again, and it will not feel good. Values are something that you develop and stick to for long periods of time, maybe your whole life. They evolve as you do, unlike rules. Bottom line: Making decisions based on your values will help you, making decisions based on rules will not.
  1. Take time to figure out what you truly value. Maybe taking good care of your body isn’t one of your values, but time with your family is. From here, you realize that if you don’t take good (or better) care of yourself, your time with your kids or husband or parents is going to be cut short, which may help motivate you to eat healthier (and maybe exercise more, too!). Bottom line: Don’t make a rule about your values; think about what truly matters to you and go from there.

See the value in basing your healthy eating choices on your values (ha!)? Give it a try and see if it makes a difference.

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