Restriction/Chaos Diet Cycle

The Restriction/Chaos Diet Cycle needs no explanation for those who have experienced it. These days, many fall somewhere in that cycle while some may find their situation more extreme than others. It’s much like it sounds – bouncing between extremes in eating and rooted in fear. There is a prevailing idea that when you feel chaotic or out of control around food and feel unable to trust yourself, that a diet or set of rules will solve it. I disagree. In my experience, restriction isn't a solution for chaos, it causes it.  This cycle looks like this:

1.  Start a diet or eating plan with strict rules
2.  Lack of variety creates boredom and feelings of physical and emotional deprivation
3.  Break strict dietary rules and “cheat” on diet
4.  Feel guilty for “cheating” and give up altogether
5.  Eat all the foods you weren’t allowed on the diet

And the cycle continues.  Let’s be clear: if the way you are eating makes “cheating” necessary, you are playing a mind game and will always come out on bottom - which I don’t think has anything to do with the food itself but for the sheer fact that you are even spending that kind of mental energy on it.

What’s interesting is that when you break the rules and “cheat”, you usually describe it as a lack of will power or self-control, leading to negative self-talk, shame and intense guilt.  But it’s neither.  When you feel emotionally and physically deprived, you will experience intense cravings and increased hunger to encourage greater variety, flexibility and adequate nutrition.  In fact, I bet you have found that even the thought of going on a diet sends you straight to the kitchen.  Am I right?  As soon as you feel that famine may be coming, it’s time to feast.  This natural physiological and psychological response is a survival mechanism against the very unnatural dieting approach.  

This cycle is usually weight-centric.  However, I wholeheartedly believe that health is a product of healthy behaviors and not determined by weight. So often individuals engage in very unhealthy behaviors in an attempt to lose weight (restriction, reliance on supplements or low calorie/low fat food alternatives, inadequate nutrient intake, bingeing, extreme and unsustainable exercise, etc) which leaves them in poor health, even if their weight loss goals are achieved. 

Obviously as a dietitian I promote wholesome food choices, I just prefer to talk about them outside the context of weight. When someone chooses to manipulate food in order to manipulate their weight, I find that it comes at the expense of fueling their body in order to feel energized and satisfied and instead are left feeling unwell and unsatisfied.  

Feeling full and satisfied from your meals is your solution. Not feeling full and satisfied is what leads to problematic behaviors. Legalizing foods that contribute to fullness and satisfaction (carbs and fats in particular which are typically off limits in diets) and including them in well-balanced and regular meals and snacks will lead to a more moderate, peaceful and healthy approach.

To avoid extremes in eating (restriction/chaos), I feel it important to increase the window of tolerance for what foods and behaviors you find acceptable. When following a diet, you could even just eat a banana and feel like you have cheated, and who wants to "cheat" with a banana? The mentality typically is "if I'm going to cheat, I'm going to cheat good" and you ditch the banana in favor of the hot fudge sundae. By allowing a wide variety of foods from each food group (fruits, vegetables, proteins, fats, carbohydrates) you will find that you feel more satisfied with less cravings and less likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors around food. As I've mentioned, being overly militant or restrictive tends to lead to chaotic behaviors - the all or nothing mentality. When you look at food neutrally, not good or bad, you are able to make decisions that are in your best interest. If you have a diet mentality, that might be hard to wrap your brain around. But it is because you see all food as equal (rather than an indication of your morality) that you are able to make decisions that are in your best interest rather than out of fear, deprivation or restriction.

Also, let me be clear – being an intuitive eater means you are in the driver’s seat.  That means that you can decide what does and doesn’t feel good to you.  It doesn’t mean that you have to eat everything, it just means that giving yourself permission allows you to be the one that makes the choice.  It’s about getting rid of the very annoying back seat driver and driving the car yourself.

Current research shows that the best treatment for disordered eating behavior is to find a place for all foods in the person’s meals and snacks. The assumption often is that if an individual has a chaotic relationship with a particular food, that they should avoid it. We actually find this increases disordered eating behaviors. Unconditional permission to eat has been shown to lessen preoccupation with food in general. Restriction actually causes chaos, rather than being a solution for it. When you know you can have what you want when you want it, it’s more likely you will be able to make a decision that is in your best interest rather than out of fear, deprivation or restriction. While that process will take time and require patience and perseverance it’s well worth the effort to find a peaceful and trusting relationship with food.

The goal here would be to become flexible, resilient and able to adapt to what life throws your way.  Some examples:

1.  Client S only saves treats for weekends.  If her family wants to get ice cream on a Wednesday night, she either doesn’t go or refrains from having any, even though she would like to.  Once Saturday comes, she eats multiple bowls of ice cream and makes herself sick, knowing she won’t be able to have any sugar again for a whole week.  What if she trusted herself to enjoy ice cream if it sounded good and allowed herself to stop when she felt satisfied? 

2.  Client E usually does meal planning, grocery shopping and food preparation on the weekend.  This past weekend was so busy that she didn’t have time.  Come Monday morning she panics, feels unprepared, doubts her ability to adapt and immediately declares the week a bust.  She decides she will “get back on track” next week.  What if she didn’t see her life in weeks, but as moments for her to make choices that were good enough rather than perfect?   The ability to adapt is priceless.

3.  Client M feels intense anxiety about eating out.  Her husband loves to get a babysitter for the kids and takes her out to dinner each weekend.  In order to control her anxiety, she chooses to strictly track her food intake all week in order to save up calories for her date night.  For the next few days after the date, she pays penance at the gym in order to make up for going over her self-imposed calorie restriction.  What if she knew how important pleasure and satisfaction are for good health and that food is meant to be just that?  What if she found more effective ways to work with her anxiety and had skills to calm and comfort instead of contributing to her own unnecessary emotional suffering?  What if she was able to enjoy this precious time with her loved one instead of dreading it for days?

4.  Client T has been working on Intuitive Eating.  While it’s been a bumpy road that has often felt confusing, lonely and frustrating, she sees how much more confident she is becoming in many areas.  As she has become more self-aware and mindfully present, she trusts herself to make decisions that are in her best interest with food and other aspects of her life.  She finds that she has an increased clarity and vision, is less distracted and feels overwhelming peace, regardless of her circumstances.  As she has found effective ways to work with her anxiety and worries, she finds that she doesn’t need to turn to food (either to control it or use it as avoidance for unpleasant emotions).  Because of that, food has found it’s rightful place in her life as something to fuel her body, to respect, to appreciate and show gratitude for.  The foods she was always so afraid to “give up” just don’t hold that kind of power over her anymore.

Instead of relying on diets and rules that will only result in chaotic behavior, I hope to help people find a more moderate, sustainable, effective and sane way to meet their health and wellness goals.  I like to say that I specialize in self-care plans rather than diet or weight loss plans. I find that it's much easier to want to take care of yourself than fight against yourself with a diet or weight loss plan. The truth is that when your body feels well taken care of, you will find YOUR health weight. A body that is starved to only result in overeating, does not feel well-taken care of. Resilience and health comes with a more moderate, peaceful approach. 

I also believe that health is much bigger than what you do or don't eat and definitely what you do or don't weigh. When someone starts to think about health in terms of self-care, they realize that their emotional, mental and spiritual health are just as important as their physical health. However, when you are living in the extremes of the diet cycle, it's likely that you aren't feeling well physically, emotionally, mentally or spiritually. 

So self-care is a holistic approach where we look at the big picture. While a self-care plan will look different for everyone, many will have these in common: regular, well balanced meals and snacks, adequate sleep, physical activity you ENJOY, meaningful work, play and relaxation, connection with others, and last but definitely not least...positive and supportive self-talk.

I would encourage you to really spend some time thinking about your relationship with food and establishing your own self-care plan (which I would love to help you do!). Do you really want to live with so much fear and distrust about food?  It’s a miserable life, and I’m so glad to tell you that there is a way out – a way of living that is based in trust, love and faith.

Emily Fonnesbeck RD, CD