No Food Rules? Popular ED Recovery Advice That Does NOT Work For Autistic People

autism recovery
No Food Rules? Popular ED Recovery Advice

You see the message everywhere: if you want to recover from an eating disorder, you have to let go of all the rules around food. You have to learn to listen to your body and eat whatever it wants whenever it wants, without any rules. For most people, this sounds like the dream – especially because we live in a society infested with diet culture messages. But we also live in a society that isn’t built for the neurodivergent mind; which means the whole “rule-free” approach to eating disorder recovery that works for neurotypicals, may actually hinder the neurodivergers from reaching their unique version of food freedom. In this post, you’ll learn 3 reasons why food rules can actually be helpful for neurodivergent individuals, along with examples of food rules that helped me fully recover from an eating disorder as an autistic person.

Reason #1: Interoception

Neurodivergent individuals often struggle with interoceptive awareness. Interoception, also known as the eighth sense, helps you monitor the inner state of your body. It helps you regulate your emotions and understand whether you’re hungry, thirsty, in pain, too hot, too cold, or any other sensation within your body. So if you’re someone who lacks interoceptive awareness and therefore cannot interpret when you’re hungry or when you’re full, “intuitive eating” in the way it’s traditionally prescribed may not be very helpful.

Instead, having rules around when and what you’re going to eat doesn’t only provide you with structure and predictability – which, I don’t have to tell you, autistic people thrive off of – but it also ensures you gain or maintain a state of health that’s optimal for your unique body.

To give an example of a rule in my life when it comes to lacking interoceptive awareness: I always eat breakfast within an hour of waking up. I actually did this throughout my entire disorder because back then I had a meal plan and would completely freak out if anything happened later because then it was “too late” and “everything was messed up” and more often than not, I would have a panic attack and end up smashing bowls into the wall. I describe such scenes very vividly in my book Rainbow Girl, so if you resonate and want to read a lived experience story of having an eating disorder as an undiagnosed autistic person, grab your copy of my book here!

Anyways, coming back to the breakfast rule! When I was going through extreme hunger and would consistently binge later in the day, I would still feel stuffed in the morning, not to mention, I wanted to “start over” and would delay food for as long as possible because I felt so guilty for eating so much freaking food. But, you guessed it, I would hold out for as long as possible and the moment I did start eating, it was like BOOM! Now the food is here, so we’re going to make use of this opportunity to get in as much as we can. And sure enough, I would binge my brains out, go to bed feeling like a bloated whale only to repeat the entire cycle the next day.

While not everyone listening to this has a history of a restrictive eating disorder, bingeing is very common among the neurodivergent for several reasons that I talk about in my post Autistic Types of Binge Eating. In that post, you’ll learn about 9 different reasons for why an autistic person may binge, so not going into detail here, but the reason I mention it is because to stop bingeing and to stop feeling crazy around food, you must create safety and trust.

When your body trusts that food is abundant and when your mind trusts that everything will be okay if you don’t have the chocolate bar or the peanut butter or the ice cream looking perfectly “smoothed out” or having all your food choices “make sense,” there is no urge to binge. Just like restriction at the opposite end of the spectrum, bingeing (or really any kind of disordered food behavior) comes down to a lack of trust and safety.

Therefore, having a structure and routine around food provides your body with a sense of safety because it knows when it will get food. For me, because of my history of restriction and bingeing, having breakfast, no matter what, proves that food is abundant and therefore, will lessen the likelihood that I’m going to binge later on.

Reason #2: Structure & Routine

Having rules around when and what you’re going to eat reduces anxiety. One of my favorite quotes is “the opposite of anxiety isn’t calm, it’s trust.” If you’ve read my blog post on alexithymia and/or listened to the podcast episode in which I guide you through a practice to reduce anxiety, you’ve likely heard me mention that quote before.

Let me elaborate on why it’s so relevant to autistic people and how having food rules can reduce your anxiety.... It’s no secret that the world is not built for the neurodivergent. Being autistic in this world often feels like living in a constant state of fight-or-flight mode. You don’t feel safe, so you’re constantly on hyper-alert mode, seeing every detail because every detail could be a potential threat! This perception of threat is the overarching concept of the aforementioned traits, being that you don’t trust your life. You don’t trust that things are going to go the way they do or that people are going to accommodate you or even like you.You protect yourself through tangible certainties, which often looks like doing the same things in the same ways at the same times in the same environments. This repetitive behavior tends to be termed as “rigid” and “problematic,” but it’s a freaking adaptation. It’s an autistic’s way of adapting and creating safety and trust in an unsafe and untrustworthy world!

That being said, why should you have rituals and routines in every aspect of your life except for something we have to do every single day, which is eating? Yeah, it makes no sense and honestly just shows a complete lack of understanding for any healthcare providers to expect and even encourage an autistic person to be able to eat without any kind of structure or rules around mealtimes. And I actually have a paragraph in Rainbow Girl that describes this perfectly, so I figured I’d share it with you: 

For years, treatment providers attempted to heal my eating disorder by attacking my autistic traits. I was told that recovery meant eating different foods every day, being okay with unpredictability, and learning to eat without a set structure. I was told that my preference for certain temperatures and textures was rooted in the eating disorder and that I would only be fully recovered once I gave up those desires. I was told that my obsession for color-coordinating foods to “match” was “my eating disorder talking” and that my literal perception of health claims was “my disordered brain taking over.” But what if all of these wants – these needs – had nothing to do with an eating disorder? What if all of these characteristics were simply autistic traits that had manifested as a problem with food and exercise? Because I was told to get rid of the very parts of myself that were intrinsically me, I felt invalidated and alone. I didn’t understand why recovery seemed so impossible. I wanted it bad enough! Yet, the more I tried to fit the mold of what I believed recovery to be – an ideal inflicted upon me by the external world – the more out of control I felt. And the more out of control I felt, the more I wanted to hold onto the very thing I’d held onto since the age of eleven.

My autism discovery gave me the permission slip I needed to recover on my own terms. It allowed me to choose a life free of an eating disorder while simultaneously embracing my neurodiversity. Rather than fighting my need for predictability and routine, I used it to stick to a way of eating that kept me healthy. My newfound awareness about interoception taught me that my body always needed nourishment, even if I didn’t feel hungry. Understanding that an overwhelming number of food choices led to analysis paralysis allowed me to protect my energy and limit my options to an amount I could oversee. Most importantly, my autism discovery taught me that freedom and boundaries are two sides of the same coin. I always believed that a life of freedom was the equivalent of living without limits. When I discovered I am autistic, I learned that freedom means knowing my limits and respecting them without judgment. I simply don’t do well in situations with unforeseen changes, lots of people, or a lack of privacy. I prefer knowing what I will eat beforehand, and I prefer eating it in a certain way. This doesn’t make me “disordered” or “wrong.” It simply makes me the unique human I am. I believe knowledge is power and self-awareness is the key to a sustainable life of health and happiness.

As obviously portrayed in the section of Rainbow Girl above, having structure and routine is an inherent autistic trait of mine – and perhaps yours – meaning that attempting to get rid of it through throwing all food rules out the window will do more harm than good. Taking away the very thing that provides us with safety impedes our trust and thus, results in anxiety!

Aside from my eating breakfast every morning, another “food rule” I have for myself is to eat at least a certain amount of meals and snacks *around* certain times every day. I’ve definitely gotten a lot more flexible when it comes to allowing myself to eat at earlier or later times and of course accommodating my body’s needs – for example, eating more when I want more – but I’ve found that having this structure in place really helps my body and mind to feel safe around food. Not only because I believe my history with anorexia is trauma and so even the mere thought of restriction makes me anxious, but knowing when and what I will eat allows me to build my life in a way that I know is accommodating of my nutritional needs.

Reason #3: Challenge & Change

The third and final reason I’ll be talking about today for why food rules can be helpful for autistic people is that they can make it easier for you to challenge the aspects of your life you want to change. To explain what I mean, it’s good to circle back on something I talk about in Rainbow Girl and that is the nature of labels.

There are two types of labels, which ultimately can be seen as rules themselves. The first type of label or rule are those stemming from fear. An example might be the rule that you cannot eat sweets out of fear you’ll gain weight or develop diabetes (which I have an extensive post on here).

The second type of label or rule are those stemming from love. These types of rules improve your functionality, as they aid in understanding yourself and help you set boundaries to accommodate your needs. The rules I mentioned prior about eating certain amounts at certain times stem from a place of love, as they optimize my functionality and therefore, improve my overall quality of life.

Going even further, the implementation of rules can actually be a tool that can aid in recovery from an eating disorder. You can create food rules such as eating at certain times, eating more, and challenging yourself to a higher number of calories or a fear food on certain days, but you can also create rules around other aspects of your recovery, including exercise and people-pleasing.

To give an example, I still set rules for myself about how long I can be at the gym. Not only does this help me maintain my energy – because sometimes I’m unable to tell when I’m tired, and this goes back to interoceptive awareness that I talked about in reason #1 – but it also provides me with a sense of trust because I know exactly when my workout will start and when it will end.

Now, to some people this may sound very compulsive, but that label “compulsive” is negative, meaning it would only be compulsive if my intention behind the rule was stemming from a place of fear. Establishing set times around my movement habits, for me, stems from a place of love because structure of any kind is my preferred way of approaching anything!

As just explained, rules help us challenge the things we want to change. But this also works vice versa, because we can always change the rules! There were rules I had to set for myself during recovery – one of which was no exercise or movement because I was not yet in a healthy place in that department – but as I just mentioned, and if you follow me on Instagram @livlabelfree, you know I now love to move my body and so my movement rules look different now.

Or another rule that’s changed over time: when I was still very attached to calorie counting, I set rules for myself that I had to eat at least a certain number of calories per day. By putting this rule in place, I was able to challenge my fear of eating more while respecting my desire – and therefore creating continued safety – of attaching numbers to things. But then as I gained my life back and no longer needed to rely on external entities to feel safe, I was able to stop counting calories, and now, the rule about how much I eat in a day is much more flexible and adaptable to my ever-changing needs.

To wrap up, setting rules that stem from a place of love are all about creating ORDER, whereas rules stemming from fear create DISorder. Rules, labels, foods, preferences, whatever; nothing is ever inherently good or bad. Life is all about setting it up in a way that supports you so that you can live in alignment with your values, and ultimately, have the freedom to do all the things you want to do. If following rules helps you do that, then that’s wonderful. And if being spontaneous and living without rules helps you do that, also wonderful! Everyone is so different, and the moment we can embrace and respect those differences is the moment we would finally have world peace.

If you want guidance on your ED recovery journey as an autistic person and perhaps, would find it useful to work with me to create your own rules that stem from love, be sure to schedule a consultation call for 1-1 coaching with me here.

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