Restrictive eating is a concept that may not immediately resonate with you, and yet it is so pervasive that I’m sure every single person reading this post has or continues to engage with it.
I believe that restriction is the root cause of feeling preoccupied by or “out of control” around food, one of the leading concerns I hear from the people I work with. But when I bring this up in social or client-facing settings, I’m often met with outright denial:
I don’t restrict, I…
- eat TOO much, that’s the problem.
- don’t count calories.
- don’t have an off-switch around sweets.
- eat whatever I want.
- don’t diet.
These types of remarks are evidence that we as a culture generally associate restriction with dieting, eating disorders, low calorie intake, fasting, and other extreme forms of eating. These types of eating patterns are definitely restrictive! They capture one of the two sides of restriction: physical restriction.
The other side of restriction is purely psychological. It is negative feelings about our body size and the way we talk to ourselves about food and eating:
- I shouldn’t have eaten that.
- I should eat better.
- I’ll eat healthier tomorrow.
- Should I be gluten-free?
- I should eat cleaner.
- I’m addicted to sugar.
- I should be able to stop myself before eating a full bowl of ice-cream.
- Why couldn’t I have chosen something different?
- I hate my figure.
- I need to lose weight.
- I eat healthy food 80% of the time and indulge in the other 20%.
- I’m not a healthy weight.
- If I don’t regulate my intake, I’ll gain weight.
- I shouldn’t need to eat so much.
- Why am I hungry again? I shouldn’t be hungry yet.
Take a minute to consider what each of these example thoughts (and all the myriad variations of them) activate in your body. Do they make you feel calm and secure? More likely, they activate a sense of stress, anxiety, and fear. Your body doesn’t know whether or not you will follow through on any of these considerations or take disciplinary action to change your body size, but it will absolutely sense scarcity.
In the face of scarcity, our wise, evolved bodies program us to seek energy (i.e. calories or food), particularly foods that we have deemed “off-limits” and/or those that will deliver a quick and substantial source of energy.
So if you find yourself preoccupied by the chocolate chips stashed in your pantry, fearing an open container of ice-cream, or wondering why you can’t seem to “get your act together”, honestly think about all the ways you might be activating your starvation response through various forms of restriction.
It is actually a beautiful, nurturing mechanism that our body and mind work so fiercely to protect us from a lack of nourishment.