Sometimes it can be difficult to tell the difference between a food preference and a food rule. If you find yourself gravitating towards certain foods or gravitating away from others, it’s important to know what motivates these decisions.
If you have a history of disordered eating or eating disorders, it can be hard to tell why you eat certain foods and avoid others. Is this really just a preference for a certain food or is this diet brain talking?
In this article we will discuss the difference between a food preference and food rule, examples of each, what affect food preferences and why food rules can damage your physical and mental health.
What does “food preference” mean?
Food preference refers to the attitudes people hold towards certain foods based on how much they like or dislike that food. This is mostly influenced by taste, but exposure to this food is also a huge factor.
A good way to determine someone’s food preferences is by providing a list of foods and asking them how much they like or dislike each food. Another way is to ask how often they want to eat this food.
Most people like foods that are sugary, high in fat or a mixture of both (think cookies and cake). This is pretty standard across the board.
But another factor is how familiar someone is with a particular food. For example, a Japanese woman may rank foods made with soy sauce higher than someone who grew up eating Greek cuisine.
So while taste plays a huge role in food preferences, so does culture and familiarly with certain foods.
If you only ate bland, unseasoned broccoli your whole life, you probably dislike broccoli. On the other hand, if you typically eat broccoli smothered in cheese and seasoning, you probably like broccoli.
Along with this, food preferences might change depending on the time of the day or based on what you just ate or haven’t eaten in a while. For example, if you ate pasta every night this week, you may begin to dislike it. But, if you haven’t had pasta in months, you may feel more positively towards it.
Food preferences are complex and change as time goes on and you are exposed to a larger variety of foods. To sum it up, food preferences are based on how much you like or dislike certain foods.
What does “food rule” mean?
Food rules refer to rules surrounding food that you or someone else has imposed on you. There can be several reasons you have food rules, but typically that have to do with health concerns or weight control.
Fad diets are a perfect example of a collection of food rules. For example, the paleo diet restricts you from consuming certain foods like grains, beans, dairy and sugar. All of these restrictions are considered food rules within the diet.
But food rules aren’t limited to fad diets. Some people self impose food rules in the name of health. For example, someone might avoid eating after 7pm because they heard it makes you gain weight or avoid drinking coffee on an empty stomach because they heard it was bad for your “hormones”.
Some food rules may be based on evidence-based advice and guidelines. But usually they are not based on any reputable science, which makes them more problematic.
To distinguish between a food rule and food preference, remember preferences are based on how much you like or dislike a food and food rules are typically based on a desire to improve health or control weight, not based on what you like.
What is an example of a food preference vs. a food rule?
Sometimes food preferences and food rules can be similar. The main difference is the intention behind the food decision. Why are you eating this food?
As mentioned above, food preferences are typically based on taste, familiarity, culture and past experiences with that food. Food rules are based around beliefs about what foods and diet practices are best for health or weight control.
Here are a few examples of food preferences:
- Avoiding dairy because it gives you a stomach ache
- Preferring rice over bread because that’s what you ate growing up
- Choosing turkey over roast beef because you prefer the taste
- Avoiding guacamole because you got sick once after eating it
Here are a few examples of food rules:
- Avoiding dairy because you heard it causes acne
- Choosing rice over bread because you hear gluten is bad for gut health
- Choosing turkey over roast beef to avoid eating saturated fat
- Avoiding guacamole because you heard avocados cause weight gain
As you can see, food preferences are based on what foods you like or dislike. On the other hand, food rules are based on what you feel is healthy or better for weight control.
What affects food preferences?
Food preferences are affected by a variety of factors. These include taste, familiarity, culture and past experiences.
Taste is the most common cause of food preferences. What foods do you enjoy the taste of? What foods do you not enjoy the taste of? Texture can also play a role in how much you enjoy or dislike a food.
Familiarity is also an important factor in food preferences. What foods did you eat growing up? What foods do you consume commonly in your diet? What foods do you have easy access to?
Culture also plays a role. What foods are common in your culture? What foods are avoided or favored based on your religious beliefs? What spices and flavor profiles are you commonly exposed to?
Finally, past experiences can greatly impact food preferences. Did you eat a certain food and get sick shortly afterwards? Do you associate a bad experience with certain foods? Were you initially exposed to a certain food in a rather horrid tasting dish? Were you force fed certain foods growing up?
It’s also important to note that food preferences can change over time. When you are exposed to new and unfamiliar foods, you may find that your palate expands. This is why it’s so important to continue to try new foods and include a variety of foods in your diet.
Why you should avoid food rules
Something to note about food rules: They are often a product of misinformation.
Unfortunately there are plenty of unqualified people online spreading incorrect information about diet and exercise. Something common among these people is that they speak in absolutes.
For example, they may say something like “never eat this food if you want to lose fat” or “this ingredient causes cancer, it must be avoided” or “eat this food if you want to reduce inflammation”.
While there may be some truth in these statements, for example, there are certain foods that can lead to issues when consumed in excess, these extreme statements often lead to fear among those listening.
Unless you have a certain medical condition that prohibits you from consuming a certain food, there is no need to have strict rules around food.
Even people with type II diabetes don’t need to avoid any certain foods and have some flexibility with the amount of carbohydrates they consume.
If anyone is telling you that you need to completely avoid a certain food or have a strict rule surrounding a dietary practice, then it’s probably worth unfollowing them.
Along with this, food rules are incredibly difficult to adhere to long term and can lead to burnout and binge eating. The more strict and restrictive the rule, the less likely you will be able to sustain it. While there are people out there that successfully maintain strict food rules, they are the minority. That being said, you can still improve your health without strict rules.
If food rules are bad, what dietary changes are okay?
Just because strict food rules can be problematic, this doesn’t mean you should never make any changes to your diet. Instead, focus on goals that are realistic and flexible.
For example, instead of completely avoiding added sugar, try reducing your added sugar intake and creating a plan to do so. This is much more realistic and allows you to enjoy your life more!
Here are a few examples of realistic dietary changes:
- Increase your fiber intake including a few servings of nuts and seeds daily.
- Reduce added sugar intake by swapping sugar for stevia in your morning coffee.
- Adding a handful of spinach in your morning smoothie to boost veggie intake.
- Replacing your afternoon coffee with a matcha to reduce caffeine intake.
- Swapping white bread with whole wheat bread in your work lunch.
These may not seem like drastic changes, but eventually little changes like these will add up and lead to long term, sustainable results.
Start with one or two small goals and maintain them for a few weeks or months. If they are too difficult to maintain, scale the goal back. If you are able to maintain them easily, you can add on another one or two small goals.
Continue this until you’ve reached all of your nutrition and fitness goals and continue to adjust as your life changes and new obstacles appear (as they will).
Here are a few goals that are evidence based and can help improve your health:
- Increase fiber intake
- Include a larger variety of plant foods
- Increase protein intake, especially from plant sources
- Choose leaner cuts of meat
- Increase aerobic activity
- Increase water intake
- Reduce added sugar intake
- Aim for more regular meals
How to expand your food preferences
There are a few strategies you can implement to expand your food preferences. For the most part, consistent exposure is going to be the most important factor. The more you are familiar with a food, the more likely you will be open to trying it.
- Purchase a new fruit or vegetable every time you go grocery shopping
- Try one new recipe every week
- Go to a new restaurant or order a dish you haven’t tried before
- Try a different ethnicity’s food at a restaurant or make it at home
- Prepare commonly eaten foods in a new way (try broccoli casserole instead of steamed broccoli)
- Work on making the presentation of your food more appealing
- Slowly reintroduce foods you dislike in small portions alongside foods you like