Have you ever splurged on a plate of fries, then somehow ended up inhaling two burritos, a pound of chips and guac, and three slices of pizza? And, come dessert time, found room for seconds?
If this sounds like you, keep reading.
Picture this: You’ve tried all the fad diets, devoured all the little tips and tricks. You are—or were—four days into your new “clean-eating” regiment and man, oh man, were you proud.
But, you’ve just blown it.
So, you think: screw it. Tomorrow is a new day, a fresh start, a clean slate. Today, however, is tarnished. Ruined. You’ve already lost control and blown your diet.
Might as well do it, you reason, and suddenly all of those previously forbidden foods are now on-limits, and you’re shoveling food into your mouth not because you’re still hungry, but because you know these foods will be back off-limits tomorrow.
Sound familiar? Well, you’re not alone. Turns out, there’s a name for this mentality.
Although “restrained eating” is undoubtedly milder than the eating disorders you hear about in health class, it nonetheless reflects a serious pattern of disordered eating that many fail to identify—and many, believe it or not, identify with.
Exhibit A: the Milkshake Study
A famous Dartmouth milkshake study helped unveil the mentality of the restrained eater. Subjects were told that they were participating in a psych study on the taste perception of different ice cream flavors. Half of the subjects were instructed to drink a 15-oz chocolate milkshake (dubbed the “pre-load”) before taste-testing, while the other half weren’t instructed to do so. Next, each participant was given three large bowls of chocolate, vanilla, and coffee ice cream and asked to sample and rate each flavor. Before leaving the room, the experimenter told them they could try as much as they’d like.
Here’s where it gets interesting.
Without the milkshake pre-load, those who had scored high on the “Restraint Scale” beforehand (in other words, those who admitted to consciously regulating their caloric intake) stuck to their dieting habits and ate less ice cream than the unrestrained eaters.
Not much surprise there. However, with the pre-load, the restrained eaters consumed a much larger amount of ice cream than the unrestrained eaters. What does this tell us? Well, for normal, unrestrained eaters, milkshake made them feel fuller. Naturally, they were less inclined to consume as much ice cream.
More calories, more satisfaction. Makes sense.
Yet, for the restrained eaters, that same milkshake had the very opposite effect. Rather than reducing their hunger for ice cream, it only made them more ravenous. To them, that milkshake represented a botched diet.
This, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), is precisely the thinking process behind the cognitive model of binge eating. To quote: “it is the awareness of a broken diet that disinhibits the restrained eater.”
The milkshake calorie-bomb triggered the restrained participants to cast aside all previous self-restraints and go to town on ice cream. This all-or-nothing approach towards food creates a vicious cycle of restricting and binging—a cycle that’s far from easy to break.
The problem is that long periods of restrained eating create an inevitable desire to binge. The longer you go, the more intensely you crave a “cheat day”—a day to slacken the strict rules and indulge in the kind of donut ice cream sandwiches you’ve only ate in your dreams (or drooled over on your Instagram feed). On these cheat days, you eat a lot more than you normally would. As a result, you end the day full with not only food but with guilt and shame.
This is the very negative mindset fueling you to restrict your eating the next day with all the more conviction. Maybe you try to bounce back from the binge with a smaller breakfast, or compensate with more careful calorie counting. Whatever it is, you’re restricting again, and it feels like you’re making progress in the short-term.
But, in the long-run, you’re not. And, you never will. Not until you address, understand, and make a plan to end the cycle of restrictive eating.
4 Signs You’re a Restrained Eater
1. You have a preoccupation with food
Food is always on your mind, whether you’re dreaming of lunch upon just finishing breakfast, willing yourself to forget about food while dieting, or counting your calories down to the last bite. It becomes an obsession with food—reading about, talking about it, thinking about it. It consumes you even when you’re not consuming it (pun intended). You can’t relate or even understand your friends that tell you they “forgot to eat” in between running errands. For you, food is always, always on your mind.
2. You focus more on time than on hunger
It sounds crazy, but somewhere along the way, you’ve forgotten what it’s like to simply feel hungry, and then eat. Between fad diets and regimented meal plans, you’ve stopped acting on that natural instinct. Nowadays, when you feel a pang of hunger an hour after snacking, you think, I need to wait another hour, because the health magazines say you’re only supposed to snack every two to three hours. So, you wait until an acceptable amount of time passes. Or, when your stomach rumbles three hours after dinner, you think, It’s bad to eat before bed, because that’s what the Instagram fitness gurus dictate. So, you go to bed hungry.
This rigid focus on time can have the opposite effect, too.
Because you’ve been conditioned to respond to regimented meal times, you may be eating when you’re not hungry. For example, you might not be really that hungry for lunch. But, you remember that breakfast was four hours ago, so you reason that it’s time to fuel up again now. Or, even though you just ate a huge dinner, you still crave something sweet after because that’s what follows dinner—dessert.
The most important step towards addressing restrained eating is learning to listen to your body again.
3. You’re more comfortable eating huge portions so long as the food is healthy
You have no problem scarfing down a 500 cal acai bowl or over-indulging in healthy fats found in nut butters.
Yet, you’re ridden with guilt when those same calories come from something of lesser nutritional value. Hands down, you feel more comfortable consuming 100 calories worth of almonds than 100 calories worth of chocolate.
By definition, restrained eaters avoid certain foods (like bagels or chips), entire food groups (like gluten), or specific ingredients (like sugar).
Herein lies the difference between restrained eating and caloric restriction—because, believe it or not, there is a difference.
A highly restrained eater, limited to only a few “acceptable” food choices, tends to consume more calories than they really need to—no matter how seemingly guilt-free those calories are.
Studies have shown that normal, unrestrained eaters are much more in tune with their bodies when it comes to accurately perceiving their caloric intake. Restrained eaters surprisingly underestimate calories consumed, which leads them to overeat. Go figure.
4. If there is a break in your clean eating streak, the rest of the day is “ruined”
To you, a day is either “good” or “bad.” There is no in-between. This strict black-and-white approach to a healthy lifestyle is precisely why you may find yourself feeling trapped.
Just a few bites of forbidden food can cause anxiety for a restrained eater. Further, the more foods you label as “bad” or “off-limits,” the harder you try to eliminate them, and the more likely you are to binge.
It’s the aforementioned restrict-and-binge cycle.
And, like I said before: since the binge leads to compensatory eating, the cycle is only further perpetuated. The more rigorous restraint is just a ticking time bomb for the next binge.
If you relate to all four of these signs, it might be the perfect time to pause and reflect. Not just because restrained eating can harmful to your mental wellbeing, but because your efforts to actually see results have proven fruitless.
Maybe the best kind of diet is no diet at all.
There is something to be said, however, about the unrealistically perfect diet standards women attempt to live up to.
In a society whose media is a constant loop of recycled “how to get your ‘summer bod’” or ‘spring break bod’ or ‘winter break bod’” articles, it’s hard to not feel a little guilty after indulging in a treat.
To put it simply, it seems as though restrictive or restrained eating is now the “health” norm. It’s eating clean, right? Everyone is striving for perfection—from juice cleanses to Instagram bikini posts, to SoulCycle Snapchats. If you didn’t rise at 7am this morning to squeeze in a hot yoga class, then what did you do?
In this fitness-crazed generation, it’s clean-eating or nothing.
It is important to take the time to pause and reflect—because, excuse the cliché, but life isn’t perfect.
Life cannot be pinned down and organized into neat meal schedules and calorie-counts. There will be surprise fro-yo invites and drunk late night pizza orders. The key is listening to your body, which is evidently a lot less simple than it sounds. Learn to cut yourself the right amount of slack. Treat yourself to a slice of pizza. But, don’t splurge on three more slices just for the sake of “go big or go home.” Play to win through finding balance.
See how more fulfilling your life is when it’s not all about meal-prep, calories, and cleanses.