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How to Limit Restrictive Eating and Develop a Healthy Food Mindset

by Lindsay Christensen, MS, CNS, LDN, A-CFHC

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In the health and wellness world, it seems like there’s always a new diet vying for our attention. Over the past few years, the ketogenic diet has exploded in popularity and, more recently, the über-restrictive carnivore diet has been getting a lot of press. Each diet offers promises of improved health and vitality and freedom from disease. However, in our excitement to try the latest diet for weight loss, improved gut health, or athletic performance, we tend to overlook a critical point—the adverse impact of restrictive eating on mental health.

restrictive eating
Restrictive eating can promote unhealthy behaviors, while allowing yourself some indulgences can promote better health and well-being. iStock/Mariana_Romaniv

In my clinical nutrition practice, many of my clients have already tried special restriction diets, such as a low-FODMAP (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols) or keto diet, before coming to see me. While strategic dietary restrictions can certainly support better health when implemented correctly, excessive dietary restriction can also promote unhealthy eating behaviors and anxiety around food. Read on to learn how cultivating healthy eating behaviors and a flexible mindset around food can help you escape the vicious cycle of dieting and nourish your body optimally over the long term.

What’s the line between healthy food habits and an overly restrictive diet? Check out this article to find out, and learn how to cultivate a healthier relationship with food. #nutrition #healthylifestyle #wellness

Seven Eating Behaviors That Support a Healthy Relationship with Food

1. Let Go of the Diet Mentality

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 50 percent of American adults have tried to lose weight over the past 12 months. (1) The primary weight-loss strategy used by most adults is a low-calorie diet. Unfortunately, most weight-loss diets are only transiently effective, with less than 20 percent of dieters able to maintain a 10 percent weight loss after a year. (2) The failure to maintain weight loss is not a personal failing. Rather, it is due to a complex set of physiological pressures in the brain and peripheral tissues that slow the metabolic rate, perpetuate inflammation, and increase hunger, as well as psychological pressures caused by excessive dietary restriction. Together, these factors allow weight gain to creep back up, potentially even exceeding the original body weight. (3, 4, 5) Chris previously discussed the role these pathways play in weight loss in an episode of Revolution Health Radio titled “Why It’s so Hard to Lose Weight—and Keep It Off.”

People on diets for non-weight-loss reasons, such as a reduced-FODMAP diet for small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) or a gluten-free diet for non-celiac gluten sensitivity, face their own dietary struggles. Many of these people have been told by their healthcare practitioner to follow a specific therapeutic diet, but with little to no ongoing guidance. They often feel overwhelmed and either can’t maintain their diet or cycle down a path of increasing restriction.

As a clinical nutritionist with a strong background in Functional Medicine, I understand that certain dietary restrictions can be very therapeutic. However, a strict diet mentality can also have adverse effects on some people, making them more likely to ruminate over and binge on certain “off-limits” foods later. (6)

Letting go of the strict diet mentality and adopting a more flexible approach to eating is an ideal solution for many people. The flexible eating strategy I endorse combines an ancestral dietary approach with intuitive and mindful eating behaviors, self-compassion, and lifestyle habits that support a healthy brain and body. If you do need to follow a restrictive diet for health reasons, it may be wise to work with a nutritionist who can guide you through the process and help you avoid the potential mental health and behavioral pitfalls of dietary restriction.

2. Commit to Eating (Mostly) Real Food

If you are eager to escape the vicious cycle of dieting and enjoy a flexible yet healthy relationship with food, I recommend this strategy: eat a diet of (mostly) whole, real foods. On a day-to-day basis, your diet should consist of the whole, natural foods that have sustained humans throughout history. However, you should also be able to enjoy the occasional indulgence, such as real ice cream or a bowl of pasta on your Italian vacation, with pleasure and without guilt. This flexible approach to eating supports physical health and mental well-being.

An ancestral dietary approach is centered around the following foods:

  • Animal proteins
  • Non-starchy vegetables
  • Starchy vegetables, whole fruits
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Healthy fats such as olive oil, coconut oil, avocado, and butter

Grains and legumes can also be included as tolerated. The frequent consumption of acellular carbohydrates, processed foods, and industrial seed oils is discouraged due to the deleterious effects of these foods on our health. In my nutrition practice, I’ve found that an ancestral dietary approach with flexible elements is sustainable, enjoyable, and satisfying for my clients.

Excitingly, two studies support the concept that an ancestral dietary approach is sustainable and supportive of long-term mental and physical health. The first study found that followers of an ancestral Paleo-style diet demonstrated better psychological health compared to vegan and vegetarian dieters and those following calorie-restricted weight-loss diets, including healthier eating patterns and behaviors. (7) The second study found that a Paleo-style diet led to lasting improvements in critical markers of metabolic health, including glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1), gastric inhibitory polypeptide (GIP), and glucagon, over two years. Together, these findings suggest that an ancestral dietary approach supports healthy attitudes about health and food and is a sustainable way to support long-term health. (8)

Part of eating a “real-food” diet is about connecting with your food and where it comes from. Connecting with local farmers, going to farmers markets, practicing seasonal eating, and starting your own garden are great strategies for cultivating a deeper connection with and an appreciation for your food, and may support a healthier mindset around food.

3. Stop Focusing on the Scale

If you have a tenuous relationship with food, especially for weight reasons, I highly recommend that you stop weighing yourself. Get rid of your scale altogether or put it away in the back of your closet.

While some doctors and dietitians recommend that people weigh themselves daily, I think frequent weighing is a slippery slope that tends to lead to body dissatisfaction and poor self-esteem.

Instead of weighing yourself each morning, do a mental “check-in” with your body. Ask yourself how you feel physically, mentally, and emotionally. Did you sleep well? Did you perform well in your workout? Were you on top of your game mentally at work? These are better gauges of your overall health than your body weight, which can fluctuate as much as five to six pounds over a single day. Let’s shift the focus from body weight to whole-body well-being.

If you are someone with no history of disordered eating or bodyweight struggles, I think checking your weight once weekly is just fine.

4. Be Careful with Food and Fitness Tracking Technology

Calorie and fitness tracking technology can be a beneficial tool for helping people take charge of their health. However, in the wrong hands, food and fitness tracking technology may lead to obsessive eating and exercise behaviors.

If you have a very anxious or perfectionistic personality, be careful with your use of fitness tracking technology. Research has found that in people who tend to be more anxious, tracking technology worsens mental health and causes feelings of disempowerment. In people with less anxiety and a reduced predisposition to mental health issues, tracking technology has the opposite effect, leading to feelings of empowerment. (9, 10) In other words, health tracking technology is not inherently harmful, but some people may be better off avoiding it.

5. Incorporate Intuitive Eating Principles

Intuitive eating is a way of eating that encourages you to follow your internal sensations of hunger and satiety to gauge when to eat, what to eat, and when to stop eating. The concept of intuitive eating was created by two dietitians who wanted to help their clients escape “diet culture” and develop a healthy relationship with food. It consists of 10 principles, some of which I wholeheartedly support, and others that I do not agree with.

One of the principles of healthy eating is to cultivate “interoceptive awareness,” or awareness of inner body sensations. Becoming more aware of your internal body sensations can help you better understand how certain foods make you feel, guiding you to make wiser food choices. Other helpful principles of intuitive eating include learning to cope with your feelings without using food and rejecting our cultural focus on weight loss and instead focusing on whole-body health.

The primary intuitive eating principle with which I disagree is that you should give yourself “unconditional permission” to eat any foods you desire. The idea behind this concept is that giving yourself permission to eat anything will help you learn to self-regulate your food intake. Unfortunately, this advice doesn’t hold up well in the context of highly rewarding, hyper-palatable processed foods. These foods hijack our internal systems that regulate appetite and satiety, and are nearly impossible to eat in an intuitive way. (11, 12In fact, giving yourself unconditional permission to eat these foods may lead to overeating and other unhealthy food behaviors. Having them on occasion, however, is just fine for most people. 

Along the same lines, giving yourself unconditional permission to eat gluten if you have non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or any other food to which you are sensitive, also won’t play out well in real life. Furthermore, several studies suggest that abstinence from “triggering” foods, such as high-carb processed foods, can ultimately reduce cravings for these foods and promote healthier eating behaviors. Thus, dietary restriction isn’t inherently dysfunctional. It can improve your health, as long as flexible elements are added. (13, 14)

6. Eat Mindfully

Mindfulness is defined as paying attention to present moment experience, purposefully, and without judgment. Mindful eating, or the practice of being mindful during meals, has been found to “rewire” the brain’s response to food—helping you distinguish between hunger cues and emotional arousal, thereby reducing maladaptive eating behaviors such as stress eating. (15) Mindful eating may also alleviate hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis dysfunction and assist with healthy weight loss. (16, 17)

There are several steps you can take to eat more mindfully:

  • Eat your meals with family or friends, rather than eating alone.
  • Avoid watching TV, responding to emails, and texting while eating.
  • If you were engaged in a stressful activity before a meal, give yourself time to decompress before eating.
  • Chew your food thoroughly before swallowing.

Mindful eating shares some similarities with intuitive eating, but there are also important differences between the two. While both eating strategies cultivate interoceptive awareness of a healthier relationship with food, mindful eating is about being present during each eating experience and intuitive eating focuses on rejecting unhealthy “diet culture” ideology and supporting whole-body health rather than focusing just on weight loss.

7. Practice Self-Compassion

If you try to eat healthfully and exercise, but consistently engage in negative self-talk, you are fighting an uphill battle in your efforts to improve your health. Practicing self-compassion, on the other hand, will vastly improve your ability to maintain positive behaviors and achieve optimal health.

Research indicates that self-compassion, defined as extending compassion to yourself in instances of perceived inadequacy or failure, encourages better mental health and health-promoting behaviors. People with high self-compassion view the inevitable challenges and setbacks that occur in the pursuit of health as a universal human experience, rather than becoming immersed in negative thoughts and feelings about the situation. Decreased negative emotions, in turn, help people maintain the practice of healthy behaviors, rather than throwing in the towel. (18) Self-compassion has been found to support multiple aspects of health, including:

  • Better body image (19)
  • Healthy eating behaviors (20)
  • Better adherence to a gluten-free diet in celiac disease (21)
  • Self-regulation of negative emotions, leading to decreased stress (22)
  • Weight loss (23)
  • Promotion of long-term health by increasing participation in healthy diet and lifestyle behaviors (24)

Strategies for incorporating more self-compassion into your life include practicing mindfulness (25) or guided self-compassion exercises such as those in The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook by Dr. Kristin Neff, a self-compassion researcher.

Lifestyle Habits That Support Healthy Eating Behaviors

Food intake and our relationship with the foods we eat are significantly impacted by the behaviors we engage in throughout the day and night.

Optimize Your Sleep

Optimizing your sleep is one of the most important steps you can take to improve your relationship with food. Sleep deprivation sabotages your relationship with food by increasing cravings for processed, high-fat, sugary foods. (26) It also causes the mind to focus on negative information when making decisions, potentially leading to unhealthy choices regarding eating and other lifestyle behaviors. (27)

Incorporate Physical Activity

Engaging in a consistent exercise routine may be the gateway to healthier eating behaviors, according to research. Exercise releases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a molecule that supports neuroplasticity, or the ability of the brain to change in response to learning. Neuroplasticity is a critical component of behavior change. Without neuroplasticity, we do not adopt healthy new behaviors and sustain them over the long term.

People who exercise consistently have been found to start eating healthier foods without any external push to eat healthier, an effect that may be due to the boost in dopamine triggered by moderate exercise. (28)

Manage Stress

Chronic stress has been shown repeatedly to promote unhealthy eating behaviors. The mothers of children with special needs demonstrate high reward-driven eating behaviors, signifying an increased consumption of hyper-palatable foods, and worse metabolic health compared to mothers of healthy children. (29) Work-related stress increases unhealthy eating at night; an unhealthy diet is further exacerbated by poor-quality sleep. (30) School-age children who report high levels of stress are also at an increased risk for unhealthy eating patterns, demonstrating that the unhealthy relationship between stress and eating behaviors can begin at a very young age. (31)

Meditation, rest, and relaxation are powerful tools for cultivating healthy eating behaviors and a healthy mindset around food. Supporting your HPA axis and correcting stress-induced hormonal balances may reduce cravings for hyper-palatable foods.

Support Your Gut Health

Emerging research suggests that the gut–brain axis regulates appetite and eating behaviors through the intestinal release of satiety hormones and signaling molecules produced by gut bacteria. (32) Supporting your gut health with probiotics and prebiotics may, therefore, help regulate food cravings and encourage healthy eating behaviors.

The probiotic species with the most promise for supporting healthy eating behaviors is Lactobacillus rhamnosus. Twelve weeks of supplementation with L. rhamnosus has been found to increase satiety and decrease disinhibition, which refers to the susceptibility to overeat. (33) It remains to be seen whether other species of probiotics have similarly beneficial effects.

Address Chronic Inflammation

Inflammatory triggers, such as chronic infections and toxic environmental exposures, can cause appetite changes, food cravings, and weight changes that are beyond the control of “willpower.” In my practice, I see this most frequently in people who have been exposed to toxic environmental molds in water-damaged buildings. Treating the underlying causes of chronic inflammation with a Functional Medicine practitioner may help reduce unusual hunger and satiety signaling.

Create a Healthy Eating Environment

Creating a healthy eating environment at home will set you on a positive trajectory toward healthy eating behaviors. Here are a few ideas for creating a healthy eating environment at home:

  • Put fresh fruits and vegetables in a bowl on the counter or the center of your kitchen table. The prominent location provides a visual cue that may make you more likely to prepare and eat those foods.
  • Put healthy foods front and center in the fridge. Every time you open the refrigerator door, you’ll see the foods and be reminded to eat them.
  • Eliminate “trigger” foods from your home as much as possible. This will eliminate easy accessibility to foods that cause you to overeat or make you feel unwell when you consume them.

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Three Common Food Traps to Avoid

In my nutrition practice, I’ve observed that clients tend to fall into “food traps” that promote dysfunctional behaviors and an unhealthy mindset around food. Let’s discuss each of these food traps in turn and how you can successfully navigate around them.

1. People-Pleasing with Food

Do you feel guilty about turning down offerings of food from others, even when you know the food will make you feel unwell? This is a classic example of “people-pleasing” with food. Research indicates that people-pleasers are more likely to overeat in social situations; in the long term, these people may have greater difficulty maintaining healthy eating behaviors. (34)

People-pleasing involves guessing what other people want or what will make them hold us in positive regard and then acting accordingly. (35) When we people-please with food, we are acting on the belief that accepting an offering of food will make people offering the food happy, and that refusing the food will make them unhappy. We may also be fearful that declining the food will cause us to stand out from the crowd. These are entirely reasonable fears. However, while people-pleasing with food may ease social tension, it may also sabotage your health goals when done frequently. By letting go of people-pleasing behaviors, you can cultivate a healthier relationship with food and your body. Here’s how to do that.

Realize That You Always Have a Choice

People-pleasers often feel like they have to say “yes” to offerings of any type of food. In reality, you always have the option to either say “yes” or “no” to a particular food. If your family members and friends genuinely care about your well-being, they will not love you any less for declining food!

Set Your Priorities

What are your health priorities? Are you making daily food choices that support those priorities? Many people-pleasers prioritize the needs of others over their own health. However, when we don’t take care of our individual needs and bodies, we can’t show up fully in our lives for those who depend on us, including our family, friends, and employer. Take daily stock of your priorities and start taking steps to incorporate behaviors that support your health.

Be Straightforward and Explain Why You Are Eating a Certain Way

People appreciate honesty, and briefly sharing why you are avoiding a particular food—“I am trying a gluten-free diet to see if it will alleviate my gastrointestinal issues”—may help people better understand your scenario and remove some of the people-pleasing pressure you may feel.

Realize That (Most Of) Your Dietary Restrictions Are Not Forever

Unless you have celiac disease or a true food allergy, it is highly unlikely that you will need to restrict certain foods permanently. The black-and-white mindset around foods can actually trigger obsession and overeating of the restricted food, so having a more flexible mindset will ultimately better serve your health. For example, if you have non-celiac gluten sensitivity, realize that you will likely be able to have gluten now and in the future, once underlying factors contributing to the sensitivity are resolved.

2. Diet Cycling

Diet cycling, or frequently switching from one diet to another, has been found to promote weight cycling, poor mental health, and unhealthy behaviors around food. Weight cycling, defined as losing weight and regaining it over and over, takes a toll on the cardiovascular system, bones, and blood sugar control, and exacerbates inflammation. (36) It can also lead to poor body image. Working with a therapist or nutritionist can help you escape the diet cycle and develop sustainable healthy eating behaviors.

3. Going down the Food Restriction Rabbit Hole

I’ve noticed a concerning trend in the Functional Medicine space in which people start off with a mildly restrictive diet for well-intentioned health reasons, but then proceed down a rabbit hole of ever-increasing restriction. For example, a person may start with a Paleo diet, then transition to keto, and then decide that they must follow the carnivore diet to heal. When people keep removing more and more foods from their diets, they tend to develop food fears and an excessive fear of weight gain (or other physical responses) if they reintroduce a specific food. These behaviors may contribute to the development of a full-blown eating disorder.

In my practice, I like to screen my clients for excessive dietary restriction and disordered eating behaviors so that I can adjust my nutrition and lifestyle recommendations accordingly. For example, I can screen for “trait perfectionism,” a characteristic that makes people more likely to engage in disordered eating behaviors. (37) Once I know more about a client’s food tendencies, I can make recommendations that won’t trigger unhealthy eating behaviors.

Sustainable Weight Loss (Without Overly Restrictive Eating)

The intuitive eating paradigm, which I discussed earlier, is closely related to the “Health at Every Size” (HAES) movement. The HAES movement argues that health and well-being can be achieved at any body size, and discourages policies and dietary interventions specifically intended to promote weight loss. While I wholeheartedly agree that people of all shapes and sizes should be supported in achieving optimal health, and that size discrimination is a significant societal problem, I do not think it is inherently wrong for people to desire weight loss if they actually have weight to lose. However, the big question remains, how can you maintain a healthy mindset and eating behaviors around food if you do want to lose weight?

This is a tricky subject, but sustainable weight loss may be possible when we drop the strict “diet mentality” (especially low-calorie weight loss diets) and instead focus on eating whole, nutrient-dense foods. It’s also critical to learn to tune in to your body’s needs, eat mindfully, incorporate lifestyle behaviors that support a healthy weight, and identify underlying health issues that may contribute to metabolic dysfunction. A nutritionist can help you create a dietary plan that will support your weight and health goals. Furthermore, the ongoing help provided by a nutritionist or the empowering support of a health coach can enhance weight loss and long-term health outcomes. (38)

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How a Nutritionist Can Help

It can be difficult to maintain healthy eating behaviors and a healthy mindset around food in our society, where we are constantly inundated with conflicting dietary advice and information. A nutritionist familiar with ancestral nutrition, intuitive and mindful eating, and all the underlying factors that impact eating behavior can be a powerful ally in your health journey. I address all of these factors in my clinical nutrition practice, Ascent to Health. Visit my site to learn more.

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Lindsay Christensen, MS, CNS, LDN, A-CFHC

Lindsay Christensen is a research assistant and contributing writer for Chris Kresser. She has a B.S. in Biomedical Science and an M.S. in Human Nutrition and is a clinical nutritionist, freelance writer, and the newly minted author of The Lyme Disease 30-Day Meal Plan, a practical science-based guide on dietary and lifestyle changes that support recovery from Lyme disease. She currently sees clients through her nutrition consulting business, Ascent to Health, and has completed a 1,000-hour internship to obtain the Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) credential, a prestigious credential for nutrition professionals. Lindsay has also passed the Certified Ketogenic Nutrition Specialist exam developed by the American Nutrition Association earning her the CKNS credential.

When Lindsay is not writing and seeing clients, she can be found hiking, skiing, and trail running in the beautiful outdoor spaces surrounding her home in Broomfield, Colorado. You can learn more about Lindsay’s writing and nutrition consulting services at Ascent to Health, stay up-to-date on the latest nutrition science on her Facebook and Instagram accounts, and find her new book, The Lyme Disease 30-Day Meal Plan, on Amazon.


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