In my dietetic internship this year, I’ve learned that our culture really hates fad diets but still supports what I call “socially accepted” diets. Juice fasts, detoxing, or paleo? No thank you – those are not backed by evidence. But flexible dietary control? Sure, we support that – despite the fact that it is not backed by evidence either.
Flexible dietary restraint is restraining or restricting certain foods from your diet, but in a flexible manner, typically for the goal of weight loss or health. Compared to a fad diet, it tends to be more flexible, allowing some wiggle room for the “bad” foods into your diet occasionally. This sounds fine on the surface level. The goal is to consume more nutritious foods and less play foods – which is encouraged physiologically and nutritionally. The problem, however, is that it does not take human behavior and eating psychology into consideration. It is based purely on nutritional science and not what actually happens in real life with real humans. It’s also been well-established in research that it does not work and there are more effective interventions, but yet we continue to promote it.
(Side note but important: The problem with a lot of nutrition research is that it’s typically done by thin people who genuinely (or not so genuinely and have an ED) enjoy eating vegetables and think that it’s easy for everyone else to eat like them. This is privilege. Anyone who tells you to “eat like me and your weight will be like mine” isn’t practicing evidence-based nutrition. This is the biggest flaw I see in the nutrition field – it’s incredibly lazy, and it’s incredibly problematic.)
First, let’s look at the concept of willpower. Any type of diet – a fad diet, a flexible diet, simply eating “good” foods because they’re nutritious and avoiding “bad” foods because they’re not – relies on willpower. You have to use willpower to stay away from a food. Chances are high that you used to eat said food in the past, really enjoyed it, ate “too much”, so now you’re restricting yourself from said food so you eat more nutritious foods instead. The problem with willpower though is that it always runs out.
For example, let’s talk about the Deprivation-Guilt see-saw. When deprivation of the “bad” food is high (meaning your willpower is strong and you’re staying away from it), guilt is low. There is no reason to feel guilty when you’re doing what you’re “supposed” to do.
But we know that willpower always gets challenged eventually. It’s like a muscle that is continuously stretched, until one day, it pops. Maybe you stopped keeping candy in the house – an easy way to not have to rely on willpower 24/7, because it’s not available 24/7. But what happens when you go to a party and candy is available? Or someone gives you some as a gift? Because guilt is low (you haven’t been eating it), it’s easier to give in and eat some of the candy. Now, deprivation and guilt are about equal. You’re not completely deprived, but guilt isn’t completely gone because you still had some of the “bad” food.
We know in eating psychology research that when even the most flexible diets are “blown”, we tend to binge. In other words, breaking the diet even temporarily causes us to compensate for that past deprivation. Because we make plans to go back to being “good” tomorrow, we want to get in as much as we can now. This also occurs with the Last Supper phenomenon, where those that are about to start a diet eat all of the “forbidden” foods the night before because they won’t be eaten on the diet. Now, deprivation is very low and guilt is very high.
The only way to get off the restrict-binge cycle is to get rid of the deprivation in the first place. Once you’re not deprived, there is no reason to feel guilt. You’re free to listen to your body and give it what it needs. You don’t have to continuously see-saw back and forth between restricting and binging.
We cannot continue to encourage the restriction of food to promote health, because we have plenty of research and real life practical experiences to show that the opposite happens.
What do you do instead then? Give yourself unconditional permission to eat. It sounds downright terrifying, I get that. But once you’re truly free from diet rules, you’ll find that your body starts self-regulating. One day might eat some heavier meals, while you might crave something lighter the next. Your body is in charge – not your willpower, which is bound to run out and get you into trouble.
We have plenty of research to show the intuitive eaters tend to have healthier bodies and minds than those that engage in even flexible dietary restraint. Send me a message if you want to learn more. We’ll get you off the dieting roller coaster together to help you find real health.