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The difference between restriction and restraint - Sasha High M.D.

Dec 02, 2020

Restriction has become like a four-letter word in recent years. I listen to a lot of podcasts and I’ve heard a number of feminists in particular really come down on restriction and dieting and advocating for women to stop restricting foods or food groups because that’s not kind to yourself. You may have seen wellness advocates on social media talk about how restrictive eating is not sustainable, it’s a disordered eating behaviour, how you should love your body and not be on a restrictive diet. And I agree with all of that.

But the issue is that what gets lost in this message is what do you do instead? Moderation? Eat whatever you want? How do we do that and lose weight at the same time?

How do we approach weight loss and our eating plan if it’s not from a place of restriction?

Well, let me introduce you to another R word - that is the word RESTRAINT. And more specifically, I like the phrase “Flexible Restraint”. Restriction and restraint are different in subtle but very significant ways.

On the outside, the end-product of restriction and restraint may look exactly the same: When we’re talking about the weight management journey, the result of both restriction and restraint is - not eating certain foods. So in that sense, they are similar. But at their core - they are completely different.

Restriction (at least in the way most of us use the word) is punitive. It’s controlling. It’s “I CAN’T have this” - which then leads to feelings of deprivation. It’s the mindset of “I’m on a diet so I’m being punished and I can’t have these foods that I desperately love because they are bad for me” (which often leads to one day not being on the diet, and binging on ALL the foods!). We know from several studies that restrictive diets often later lead to binge eating behaviours. Being overly restrictive with your eating comes from a place of punishing yourself, or hating the number on the scale and feeling desperate to lose weight. Restriction, in a way, almost idolizes certain foods. It’s like “these foods hold so much power, and I can’t eat them even though I really want to.” Restriction is not sustainable because punishing yourself does not ignite longterm behaviour change. 

It’s not loving. 

But neither is it loving to just eat whatever you want in an effort to exercise your personal rights and freedoms, or to completely ignore your health behaviours as though they don’t matter. 

Listen, you are an adult. We are all adults. And as an adult, you can eat whatever you please. 

But you likely don’t. You don’t because you know that eating processed foods or candy or whatever other junk food every day isn’t taking care of you - it isn’t loving. And that’s where you practice RESTRAINT.

I was thinking about this over the weekend because my kids were asking for icecream. My husband and I let them have icecream once a week on the weekend. And they had icecream on Saturday night and then the next day they were asking for it again. And we explained why icecream wasn’t a healthy choice, why it’s a “sometimes food”, and we said - tonight you can have a healthier option instead. 

Now, did we do that to punish our kids? No! Of course not. We did that because we know the way sugar affects them and we believe in teaching them healthy eating patterns. And we believe in empowering them to understand why we WANT to choose certain foods over others. And because we love them.

It’s the same idea as adults. You CAN eat icecream every night, because you’re an adult and no one is going to stop you. But you can choose not to eat icecream every night because you want to fuel your body with nutritious and healthy fuel.

Restraint is the idea of withholding from certain foods from a place of caring for yourself. I especially like the idea of flexible restraint, which describes an ability to not be overly rigid and instead by flexible with your choices so that if you choose to eat something that’s not on your regular eating plan, you don’t feel guilty about it.

If you have decided that you want to lose weight because your weight is affecting your health or function in some way, then you are CHOOSING to make eating choices that take care of your body. 

Understanding that this is a choice that you’re making is critical because otherwise the thoughts that you’ll have are: “Aw, I can’t have this… This sucks.. I’m on a diet and I can’t eat this or that.” OR “I shouldn’t have that… that food is bad.” When you think that way, you will feel out of the control seat, you will feel deprived.. And you’re taking away all of your personal power. 

If you change that self-talk to: “I’m choosing to eat this and this instead…” or “I can eat that, but I’m just going to have a little and I’ll fill up on these delicious, healthy items” Then you ditch the guilt, you take back your personal power, you feel in the control seat and you’re approaching the journey from a place of loving yourself.

One way to discern whether you have a restriction mindset or a flexible restraint mindset is to ask yourself how you feel about your eating plan. Do you resent it? Do you dread the idea of starting your next “diet” because you’re thinking about all the foods you “have to” give up?

If you feel resentment, dread, deprivation or guilt with your eating you’re probably in restriction territory.

You should feel empowered, in control, and at peace with your eating if you’re practising flexible restraint.

Restriction = bondage.

Restraint = freedom.

So as you go into the holiday season, I want to encourage you to notice what thoughts and feelings you’re having when it comes to your food choices. Know that you can choose to eat whatever you want - and if you make a choice, then own it. Whatever you choose, do it from a place of loving yourself because that’s going to serve you much better in the long run.

Happy holidays everyone!!

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