Restrictive Dieting Doesn’t Work—Here’s How to Take a More Mindful Approach to Eating

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There are a lot of bad health trends that we were excited to say goodbye to last year, from detox teas (ugh) to antidepressant shaming. But unfortunately, restrictive diets that promote cutting out whole food groups and severe limitations on what foods are "allowed," continue to be a mainstay of the healthy eating world.

To be clear, some health conditions such as celiac disease require the shunning of specific foods. But for most healthy adults, overly restrictive diets aren't likely to lead to any kind of success, whether that's healthy weight management, sustained energy, nutrition, digestive health, and an optimal relationship with food.

Not only do eating plans that cut out whole food groups can make it isolating and hard to stick with, restrictive diets—and the behaviors they encourage—can lead to orthorexia and other forms of disordered eating. For example, studies have shown that being fixated on nutrition labels and calories can increase the risk of binge eating, anorexia, and bulimia.

So how to stick to a "diet" that's genuinely healthy, without having to restrict what, when, and how much you eat? It comes down to moving away from the dieting mentality entirely and instead creating a healthier relationship with food that will serve you in the long term. Here's where to start.

1. Stop thinking of certain foods as "off limits"

The most important change to make, says life coach and intuitive eating counselor Rachel Cole, is a shift in mindset. It's crucial to stop thinking of certain foods as "bad" or "off limits," she says, because it promotes restriction of those foods—which can lead to unhealthy eating behaviors. "When we introduce restriction, it leads to overconsumption as a means of self-preservation," she says. One example: Overindulging the night before starting a new diet because of the idea that tomorrow you'll no longer be able to eat a whole slew of foods you love.

Plus, restriction can warp how we perceive foods. “When you tell yourself something is off limits, you’re likely to think about it more often,” Judith Matz, LCSW, previously told Well+Good. “When you do eventually eat it, there’s a good chance you’ll overeat or binge on that food, which is a natural reaction to deprivation." Hardly a healthy pattern of eating by any standard.

It takes a lot of work to reframe your relationship with food—involving mindfulness, thought exercises, and potentially work with a specialist—but that is one of the most important first steps to cultivating a sustainable way of eating, says Cole. She emphasizes that this shift in thinking isn't easy, especially for those with a long history of yo-yo dieting or eating disorders. This is where enlisting the help of a registered dietitian or counselor who specializes in HAES (health at every size) can be essential.

Watch the video below for more intel on what intuitive eating is:

2. follow your cravings

The idea of following your cravings can be a scary thought to anyone who has a history of chronic dieting, but Cole says it's the natural (and healthy) progression of removing restrictions from foods. "Once you change your mindset into one that gives you permission to eat what you want, when you want it, you're less likely to over-consume because you know you can have that food at any time," she says. There are no punishments or penalties for "straying" from the diet and allows you to eat all the foods you love.

You might feel skeptical about this, but Cole says it's one of the principles of intuitive eating for a reason. "You'll find that your body actually will crave food that's healthy most of the time; you will not want to eat Twinkies every day," she says. This is the psychological principle of habituation—where once you are exposed to a stimulus like a food often enough, the novelty wears off and you won't be as fixated on it.

When you experience a craving, whether it's due to stress or emotions or just wanting a damn cookie, Cole says to remind yourself that it's okay. "We don't just eat for fuel or health benefits. We eat because certain foods give us joy, and people need to be reminded that that's okay," she says.

3. pay attention to how your body is feeling

People might argue that by removing restriction and allowing yourself to "give in" to cravings, you'll just eat ice cream and chips every day. But Cole says that if you pay attention to how you're feeling physically—including your energy levels, digestion, and sleep—you'll notice that healthy foods will inherently make you feel better, and you'll naturally be inclined to eat more of them.

One way to help identify how certain foods make you feel is to keep a food diary. No, not the calorie-counting kind—an intuitive eating journal, which simply tracks what you're eating at eat meal and how you're feeling physically and emotionally. You can then use the information in your journal to identify habits and make changes as needed, rather than stick arbitrarily with a diet that's not truly helping you feel good.

"People often get too caught up in getting 'x' amount of protein a day or 'x' amount of fiber, but taking cues from your body is a better rubric," Cole says. For example, if you notice constipation, then you can note that adding more fiber to your diet could make you feel better—instead of obsessively trying to hit a certain number of grams per meal.

4. Order for yourself, not the table

Cole reiterates that listening to your body still applies when eating out and urges eaters not to let others at the table influence their order. "These days, when you go out to eat, virtually everyone at the table is on some sort of eating plan or diet," she says. "Sometimes it can be helpful to go to the restroom before ordering, just to get a minute to yourself and clear your mind. That way, when you return to the table, you're better able to tune into what you want to eat."

Cole also says having a mindset of abundance, not restriction, applies here, too. "Someone with a restrictive mindset may feel they have to eat everything on their plate because this is the only time they can eat it. Whereas if you have already engrained in yourself that no food is ever off-limits, you know that you can enjoy the rest for lunch the next day or enjoy it later," she says.

BTW, wellness and diet culture are not the same—not even close. And yes, eating for pleasure is important.

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