Mental Restriction Can Be a Major Roadblock for Intuitive Eating—Here’s What Helps

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Ever struggled with thoughts along the lines of: “I’ve eaten too much today and I shouldn’t eat another snack even though my stomach's grumbling,” or “Cookies are 'bad' and I’m trying to be 'good'"?

Those thoughts are examples of mental restriction. “Mental restriction is a type of food restriction where you may not be physically refraining from eating something, but there are thoughts of ‘I shouldn’t eat this’ or ‘this is bad for me,’” says Colleen Christensen, RD, a registered dietitian and certified intuitive eating counselor. “While many people might not think this is a form of a food rule, it absolutely is.”

Experts In This Article

If you have experienced mental restriction, you’re far from alone. This is largely thanks to diet culture—which gets us stuck in cycles of thinking about food and believing our food choices determine our worth (when they don’t, at all, ever).

Intuitive eating is a non-diet framework that can help. Created by dietitians Evelyn Tribole, RD and Elyse Resch, RD, it encourages people to respect and pay attention to their body’s cravings, hunger signals, and satiety signals. It prioritizes the fact that your body knows what it needs. Intuitive eating helps you spend less time fighting yourself about what you “should” eat and feeling bad about not following restrictive food “rules.”

But no matter how committed to intuitive eating you are, mental restriction thoughts can pop up—sometimes so quietly, you may not even consciously realize they're behind your decision-making with food. Working on calling attention to these problematic thoughts and labeling them for what they are, however, can help you fully lean into the tenets of intuitive eating and live a more peaceful, enjoyable, and fulfilling life.

It’s time to take diet culture out of the driver’s seat and chip away at mental restriction. Here's how to get started.

How to identify mental restriction

The first step to beating mental restriction is knowing what it can sound like. Some examples include:

  • I shouldn’t have eaten ____.
  • This has too many calories/carbs/fats/etc.
  • I shouldn’t be hungry yet—I just ate!
  • I should eat ____ instead of ____.
  • I can have this food, but only a little of it.
  • If I eat ____ now, I have to eat healthy later.

But does this mean that choosing broccoli over fries, for example, is a sign you’re giving into mental restriction? Not always.

“Two behaviors can be identical on the outside, but one is motivated by mental restriction and the other is not,” says Heather Clark, MA, LCPC, the clinical director at eating disorder therapy nonprofit Rock Recovery. “For example, eating a vegetable because you’re craving something fresh and crunchy is not considered mental restriction, while eating a vegetable because you feel like you ‘should’ is.”

How mental restriction can slip in and be a roadblock

Thoughts like those bulleted examples above take us away from listening to what our body needs and wants. They can also cause us to assign moral value to food (and therefore, to ourselves, for eating it), which is a habit intuitive eating experts and eating disorder RDs say is hugely damaging to our mental and physical health. While it’s certainly understandable that we may have these restrictive thoughts—toxic diet culture has made them grossly commonplace for decades—it’s not helpful.

Even when you know, logically, that no food is “bad”—and you remind yourself of this at mealtimes—there may still be a voice in the back of your head that’s struggling with that fact. “Essentially, mental restriction can mean giving yourself some permission to eat the foods you like, but not full permission,” says Rachael Hartley, RD, a registered dietitian, licensed dietitian, certified intuitive eating counselor, and author of Gentle Nutrition.

As a result, you may not feel fully free around food or find yourself desiring a variety of dishes. You may also get stuck in an unhappy cycle.

“Even if a person does not actually end up restricting behaviorally, mental restriction can still perpetuate the restriction and compulsive eating cycle,” Clark says. “Felt deprivation and/or restriction leads to disorder. Felt security and satisfaction with food, on the other hand, leads to peace.”

Mental restriction, no matter how conscious, can cause us to feel that certain foods have power or control over us, which Clark says can lead to or exacerbate binge eating habits and restriction. As an example, Christensen shares a study from the journal Appetite that found dieters drank more of a milkshake than non-dieters. "It’s the pink elephant paradox: When you tell yourself not to think about pink elephants—or, in this case, a 'bad' food—then all you’ll be able to think about is pink elephants," Clark says.

How does that happen, though? “If there’s a fear that foods will be limited in the future, or that you won’t be able to eat to satisfaction, then there’s no sense of security or safety,” Hartley explains. “It’s hard to stop [eating] when you feel satisfied when you’re really just feeling anxious about the availability of that food in the future.”

How to overcome mental restriction

As you read these next steps, remember: Eating intuitively and without mental restriction is a journey, one that takes time and isn’t a straight line.

Name the thought (with compassion)

As mentioned, the first step is to notice those thoughts without judgment, just curiosity. “Once you’ve noticed your experiences with or sources of mental restriction, call them what they are,” Clark says. “‘Name it to tame it’ is a common saying in psychotherapy.”

This may not come naturally or automatically for you—especially at first—and that's perfectly okay. It takes time to relearn and be aware of these deeply rooted beliefs. If this is the case for you, try to be intentional about mindfulness while eating. This food journal template can help.

“I encourage clients to pause and notice what thoughts and feelings are coming up when they are eating certain foods,” Hartley says. “If you hear yourself saying ‘should’ a lot, or feel a sense of deprivation, that’s a sign that mental restriction is present…If you notice mental restriction, don’t beat yourself up!”

“I encourage clients to pause and notice what thoughts and feelings are coming up when they are eating certain foods,” Hartley says. “If you hear yourself saying ‘should’ a lot, or feel a sense of deprivation, that’s a sign that mental restriction is present…If you notice mental restriction, don’t beat yourself up!”

Get curious about the thought and remind yourself of key truths

Christensen emphasizes the helpfulness of digging deeper and practicing self-talk. After you notice the thought, ask yourself if it’s true and where it came from. Maybe you heard it first from a parent, magazine, friend, or weight loss advertisement (sigh).

Next, follow up with affirmations. Christensen suggests: “Guilt is not an ingredient, so I won’t add it!” and “I deserve to enjoy the more soul-nourishing foods just as I enjoy the more nutrient-dense foods. I need and deserve both.”

Hartley encourages validating your thoughts and reframing them, if you can. She shares an example: “Of course I feel bad about eating a cookie. I used to binge on them, so it feels really scary. And, I also know that forcing myself to eat fruit instead is the same behavior that made me binge on cookies in the past.”

Seek professional support

At any point in this journey, working with a therapist or dietitian, if you can, can be super beneficial, Clark says. Specifically—and this is important—one who is knowledgeable about and believes in intuitive eating, for people living in bodies of all shapes and sizes.

Here are some resources that can help you find support:

“Fear of weight gain is often at the root of mental restriction,” Clark says. “Process this with your support system and therapist.”

Mental restriction may be an unexpected and long roadblock. While that can feel frustrating, know you’re not alone, and practice self-compassion along the way. All you have to do is your best—and that’s more than enough.

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