Healthy You: Dealing with issues of food restriction and guilt (Part 2)

Cathryn Arndt

Last month I opened the infamous “can of worms” as I began the first of this two-part series regarding food, mindset, guilt and restriction.

In September, we discussed the necessity of how mindset plays a primary role in how guilty we feel in our relationships to food. This month we’ll consider the issue of the restriction mindset and how we can eat and live without depriving ourselves of delicious foods that nourish and satisfy.

It is important to realize what’s causing us to want to restrict our diets. There’s a host of potential reasons: feelings of guilt about imperfect eating, disappointment of unmet goals, confusion or frustration as to what to eat or how to change, etc.

Sometimes it’s because people don’t like the positive attention their bodies get when they make beneficial changes while others don’t like negative attention.

Feelings that we haven’t done something “right” bubble to the surface and we feel desperate. We then pull back and restrict, saying “no” more than we say “yes.” Surely, this is the only way we can do it right, to feel better or to get the results we desire.

The real issue at hand isn’t actually how few calories you consume or chronic overeating. The true issue is: Do you have a restriction mindset? Do you always feel and think you must eat less, eat differently or not have fill-in-the-blank? A restriction mindset views food with a scarcity mindset.

So how do you know if you have a restrictive mindset? Watch your language. Pay attention to what you say. If you find yourself frequently using words or phrases including “I can’t,” then you may need to assess if you approach food restrictively.

Restriction-mindset consequences are rarely helpful. In some cases they can even be damaging to the mind and body.

Deprivation, as most people have experienced by now, is normally not sustainable. It doesn’t lead to feelings of satisfaction. It doesn’t motivate you to keep moving forward, making changes that are good for you. It isn’t sustainable. “If this is good,” you wonder, “then perhaps I shouldn’t want it.”

The good news is that there’s a way to approach needed change without having to constantly restrict. I call it the “crowd-out” principle, and it works in all areas of life, but especially in the realm of food and eating.

Some people call it the “addition nutrition” principle, and it’s based on the assumption that saying “yes” to the right thing naturally crowds out lesser choices or habits.

Acknowledging and moving toward the “better and best” pushes out the mediocre or downright bad. The bad choices might not even feel like reasonable, legitimate options once you fill your life with good.

The outcome of this mindset is a positive sense of sustainable change. You feel less defeated, less like you’re punishing yourself. You build better habits instead of obsessing over tearing down bad ones.

Change will happen over time. It just happens in a more positive way.

Imagine that you struggle with late-night snacking. You know it’s not the best for your weight loss goals or sleeping habits. Every night you eat a small dinner (you want to lose weight, after all) but then get slammed with sweet and salty cravings. When they grow more intense, you tell yourself, “No.” However, eventually, with their increasing persistence, you end up caving. You’re mad, frustrated and disappointed. You tell yourself that you won’t eat breakfast and maybe even lunch because of it.

With the crowdout mindset, instead of reacting with restriction, you prepare yourself with a healthy “add-in” to keep you motivated and on track with your goals.

Instead of a small dinner, you add a larger one that satisfies you.

If those cravings hit later (and they might, since you’ve probably made it a habit at this point), you decide to “add-in” a satisfying tea or relaxing decaffeinated coffee. Instead of obsessing over how you “can’t,” you consciously pick what you “can.”

This leads to enjoyment, satisfaction and the feeling of being proactive. It’s empowering as you move in a better direction.

Here are ways to combat the restriction mindset:

— Why am I saying “no” to this? Is it because of guilt, or because I’m afraid of something (i.e., the judgment of others etc )? Am I trying to punish myself?

— Instead of asking, “What can I take out that will help me meet my goals?,” ask yourself, “What can I add into my lifestyle and habits that will help me meet my goals?”

— What can I put into the poor habit’s place? (Example: Instead of snacking after dinner, add in a larger, more satisfying dinner and drink tea/decaf coffee if you feel you want something later.)

So try it this month. Regardless of your precise health goals: weight loss or gain, meal planning, a therapeutic diet, etc. Approach the changes you wish to see by looking at what you can add. Crowd out stress-eating or poor dinnertime choices with what is better.

Don’t just tell yourself, “I can’t have that.” Tell yourself, “I am making what I feel is a better/best choice.” I can almost guarantee that filling your cup with the good will crowd out choices that are less desirable or straight-up bad.

– Cathryn Arndt is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN). She lives in Lebanon with her husband and daughters. Find her on Facebook by searching under “Dietitian Cathryn.”