Health Tips > Nutrition Bites > Pitfalls of Restrictive Eating

Pitfalls of Restrictive Eating

View All Section Pages

Scale that looks like a plate

Do you ever feel obliged to make perfect food choices due to a special diet that entails a list of “eat this and not that” type rules?  And then feel deprived of the foods that are not allowed or tired of the foods that are? Many people fall victim to this diet mentality. It’s referred to as restrictive eating. Since absolute perfection is unattainable in real world situations, why do we expect to be perfect on a diet? Inevitably and eventually a diet approach wears a person down and undermines their efforts to lose weight or achieve good health. 

No Absolute Bad Foods, Just Bad Diets

Many patients come to me and ask for a list of foods to avoid, but in most cases this list doesn’t exist! There are a few exceptions, such as when someone with celiac disease needs to strictly avoid foods with gluten. Otherwise, there are no absolute bad foods, just bad diets. One can follow an assortment of diets filled with dos and don’ts for the short term, say a week or a month, but is the goal to lose weight for the short term, or to find a sustainable way to lose weight and keep it off? The latter is a non-diet approach.

My first take-away is that “consistency wins out over intensity every time.” If you are either on a diet or considering one, let me help you break free from the vicious cycle of eating restrictively and reconsider what you are doing may be causing more harm than good.

Mindful vs. Restrictive Eating

 “Mindful eating” is simply eating in the moment. Mindfulness means focusing on information available to us right now. Try this exercise. The next time you sit down to eat, pay close attention by using your five senses (how the food looks, feels, smells, tastes and sounds). Doing this helps you slow down and be present with your food, which is at the core of mindful eating. Turn off the TV, silence your phone, pull up a chair and eat at the table and try to remove all distractions. You might realize you appreciate and enjoy your food more, and it may help you eat less and feel more satisfied.

Conversely, “restrictive eating” refers to following a set of rules in eating. This is the underlying theme of many strict and temporary diets such as keto, paleo, intermittent fasting, Atkins, etc. Few people want to completely restrict carbs or consume a very high fat diet or go into a fasting state. The body is not designed for these nutrient restrictions and there’s little science behind their long-term safety and effectiveness. If you compared a diet to taking a medication, would you take a pill that is only 5 percent effective? Probably not. So why would you go on a diet with a 5 percent success rate?

Banish the Diet (along with the blame and the guilt)

Since most people lose interest in diets after a while, they feel they have “failed” but remember the diet is the failure, not the person. Trying to follow unreasonable rules and expectations simply doesn’t work. Banish the diet mentality for good. 

How to Break Free from the Cycle of Restrictive Eating

Getting rid of unhealthy, unreasonable restrictive eating requires rewiring our thoughts and freeing ourselves from striving to eat perfectly all the time to get results. You can be successful when you break free from dieting by following a non-diet approach.

Follow these steps to gain health and lose weight:

  1. Banish the belief that you are not capable of managing your eating without strict rules. Garner support from family and friends and speak with a registered dietitian nutritionist.
  2. When interested in a new eating plan or approach, evaluate it by asking yourself “is this diet restrictive in nature?” If so, then it may not be right for you. 
  3. Listen to your thoughts. When you have a negative thought, try to replace it with a non-judgmental one. For example, instead of saying “I can’t have the cookie,” say “I am choosing not to eat the cookie.” You have the autonomy here, not the cookie!
  4. Banish the words “good” and “bad” from your food vocabulary and mentality. Regulate the words you tell yourself. Don’t say “I was so bad last night because I ate a piece of cake.” Let go of the false belief system that ALL “potatoes and bread are bad.” There simply is no one food that is perfect or imperfect. Strive for moderation, not deprivation.
  5. All foods can fit into a healthy diet if you allow balance, variety and moderation. One of Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper’s 8 Steps to Get Cooperized encompasses this tenet of “make healthy food choices most of the time.” 
  6. Make the healthiest choices you can without guilt or deprivation. Let go of the belief that you have to eat every meal perfectly.
  7. Accept that you will sometimes make less healthy choices and that is okay. Learn from your experiences and find strategies to make improvements. Give yourself some grace.
  8. Remember, you are in this for the long haul. Learn to trust yourself, take a deep breath and enjoy the journey to becoming a healthier you.  

The sooner you build a healthier relationship with food, the more freedom you will have to enjoy eating for the rest of your life. A flexible non-diet approach to eating is designed to be enjoyable and sustainable! 

To schedule a one-on-one consultation or learn more about Cooper Clinic Nutrition Services, visit or call 972.560.2655.

Article provided by Elana Paddock, RDN, LD, CDE, and Cooper Clinic Nutrition Services.