Why Restrictive Dieting Hurts

Tis the time of year for ‘dieting,’ right? Everywhere you turn, coworkers, family, and friends are cleansing, trying keto, whole 30, or slurping down that latest low-calorie shake mixture. Restrictive food language is like a weed that starts to take root in our minds, “I can’t have that,” or “I’ve been bad today,” or even labelling food as “poison.” Instead, let’s try something radical. Leave behind whatever judgements or expectations you have, and ask yourself just one question: Can I eat this way for the rest of my life?

It’s a simple question and I would like to think that people, when viewing most conventional ‘diets’ through this lens, would reply with a clear “no.” Restrictive dieting can lead to the severe limitation or complete elimination of entire food groups, often resulting in far too few calories.  Throughout the last 20 years we’ve seen total fat, carbohydrates, calories, dairy, gluten and sugar demonized to the “bad food” status, without any regard to how they contribute important nutrients or how much we enjoy them.

The hard truth is that this way of viewing foods as good or bad, is an extreme oversimplification and leads us away from healthy relationships with food. To quote Dr. James O. Hill, who started the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR) in 1994, “A food-restricted diet works extremely well to get the weight off. It works extremely poorly to keep the weight off.”1 Restricting food intake below what the body needs may result in weight loss, but often it’s not the kind of loss that lasts. When weight loss exceeds 1-2 lbs per week, unfortunately, lean muscle is being lost (along with water and fat). This leads to a lowered metabolism, a quicker plateau to weight loss, and a likelihood that any weight lost will be regained. Consequences go beyond the risk of falling into a yo-yo diet pattern, they include serious nutritional deficiencies and the risk of disordered eating patterns creeping into our lives.

Restrictive diets also sabotage the relationship that we have with food.  If we train our brain to think about foods as good or bad, we’re telling ourselves that we are then good or bad for eating them. Logically, I understand that I’m not a bad person for eating a brownie or if I happen to be overweight, but still these are things that fill us with stress, anxiety, and disappointment. Taking this approach towards food can be overwhelming, and easily spiral from worrying about gluten, to stressing over every ingredient listed on the package.2

Oversimplified and restrictive diets create negativity around food and eating. The truth is that it’s okay to enjoy eating; there are no good or bad foods, only healthier choices; and restrictive dieting leads us away from body positivity and healthy eating patterns. Good nutrition is built over time and cannot be broken a single day or a single meal. Make small adjustments (e.g., make fruits and vegetables half of the plate, make at least ½ of your grains whole, focus on lean meat consumption, etc.) and celebrate yourself when you reach goals. Lastly, give yourself a break because real change is difficult, and reach out to Registered Dietitians for the evidence-based advice that is sure to help you build healthier relationships with food and body.

  • Gjata J. Before You Make A New Year’s Resolution To Lose Weight, Listen To This. WBUR. https://www.wbur.org/commonhealth/2018/12/28/new-year-resolution-lose-weight. Published December 28, 2018. Accessed January 28, 2019.
  • Stein K. Severely Restricted Diets in the Absence of Medical Necessity: The Unintended Consequences. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2014;114(7):986-994. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2014.03.008.

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