A Diet by Any Other Name is Still a Diet!

By Michelle May, M.D.

I originally developed the Restrictive Eating Cycle to describe the diet phase of the eat-repent-repeat cycle. Restrictive eating, as most people who have struggled with chronic yo-yo dieting and weight cycling know from personal experience, fuels the Overeating Cycle and may become an emotional trigger for overeating.

woman with fruits and hamburger comparing foodNowadays though, I recognize that there is a long list of eating patterns that have the potential to become part of a Restrictive Eating Cycle. This is a common, complex, and controversial issue so this will be just the first of three posts on this topic.

In this article, I will focus on your intention for making a voluntarily dietary change. The next article, What If I Can’t Eat What I Love, is about making dietary changes due to medical conditions or health concerns, such as diabetes or an allergy. The final article, 7 Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Strategies that Help You “Eat Better”, will apply specific strategies from the Am I Hungry? mindful eating programs that help you improve your diet even when you are eating what you love.

When “healthy eating” goes awry…

This article is about you and your relationship with food so I will not attempt to define what “healthy eating” is. There is no universal definition that everyone would agree on anyway so “healthy eating” is not a fixed target—another reason to focus on you, not the food.

Even when people make a voluntary change in their eating in the name of “health,” without mindfulness, the “plan” can mutate into rules. As a result, they may find themselves hyperfocused on food, with less energy left to focus on living the healthy life they set out to achieve!

The term orthorexia, which literally means righteous eating, is not an “official” eating disorder, but describes an increasingly common pattern of problematic eating resulting from an excessive focus on healthy eating. One feature of orthorexia is an exaggerated faith that inclusion or elimination of particular foods can prevent or cure disease or affect one’s daily well-being. As a result, food becomes more powerful and the need to control it can take on a life of its own.

The following questions will help you explore your motivation for making dietary changes so those changes do not become part of a Restrictive Eating Cycle.

1. What is your intention?

Take a few moments to think about why you are considering a particular dietary change. Many people choose a particular plan because they believe it will help them feel, perform, or look better, and/or live a longer, healthier life. However, if you’re not mindful, following “the plan” perfectly can become the primary objective so it becomes a distraction, an obsession, or worse.

If you notice that following the plan has become more important than your “why,” then it’s time to reassess your focus.

2. Do you feel restricted?

It’s only “restrictive eating” if you feel restricted. In other words, if you simply choose to limit or eliminate certain ingredients or foods (for whatever reason) and you don’t feel deprived, then it’s not an issue! In other words, just because you can eat anything doesn’t mean you will. Like every other decision point in the Mindful Eating Cycle, you are in charge of deciding for yourself.

Now sometimes feeling restricted may have become “normal” for an individual so let’s clarify what it might feel like:

  • I find myself thinking about the foods I don’t eat.
  • I feel deprived of the foods I love.
  • I crave the foods that I’m not supposed to eat.
  • I am on a perpetual quest to find replacement foods for the ones I miss.
  • I feel guilty when I deviate from the plan.
  • I give myself “free days” or “cheat days” so I can tolerate all the rest of the days.
  • I look forward to the day when I no longer have to eat this way.

3. Does your life feel bigger or smaller?

Even if you don’t feel restricted, are you able to enjoy the health you intended to cultivate? Or are you are investing so much of your attention, time, and energy in following your plan that you can’t fully enjoy your life? Here are some ways that your plan could be making your life smaller.

  • I’m preoccupied with nutrition information.
  • I’m overly focused on rules about when, what, and how much to eat.
  • I often worry about what I eat.
  • I am constantly thinking and talking about food.
  • I sometimes don’t eat even though I’m hungry.
  • I avoid or feel left out in certain social situations.
  • It is difficult to enjoy a meal with my family.
  • It is difficult to eat out with friends or coworkers.
  • I feel judgmental about what others eat.
  • I often feel tired or become ill, possibly as a result of my diet.

Mindful eating can help you improve your health while still having enough bandwidth left over to enjoy it!

4. Is it worth it?

Mindful decision making is about weighing the pros and the cons of your options. If the disadvantages (for example, inconvenience, limited options) of a dietary change or plan outweigh the advantages (for example, feeling better), you are unlikely to stick with it. If you really feel the change is important, do what you can to mitigate the disadvantages and optimize the advantages. This may mean making a less drastic change to start with…

5. Would moderation be more effective than “none”?

A huge trend these days is to eliminate certain ingredients completely (for example, gluten, sugar, red meat, and so on). Again, if you don’t feel restricted, then this isn’t an issue. However, if you’re concerned about a particular ingredient, unless you have an allergy or reaction to it, eating it less often and in moderation is a great place to start. Experiment with smaller changes that will allow you to adjust and notice how your body responds. Ultimately, small steps you are able to sustain are more effective than a temporary overhaul. Small steps lead to lasting changes over time.

6. What about pleasure?

Let’s not forget that while the primary purpose of eating is to provide fuel and nutrition for our bodies, enjoyment is an important and legitimate reason for eating. If eating has become joyless, something is seriously wrong. And unless food is your only source of pleasure, it is possible to balance eating for enjoyment with eating for nourishment, eliminating the Restrictive Eating Cycle.

7. Have you turned mindful eating into another diet?

Mindful eating boils down to nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment. Period. As soon as you begin telling yourself (or others) that, “You should only eat when you are hungry,” “You should stop eating before you are full,” “You have to be mindful of what’s in the food you are eating,” or “You have to eat slowly, chew each bite x times, and never eat while distracted,” or myriad other rules, you have turned the Mindful Eating Cycle into a Restrictive Eating Cycle. And we already know how that will turn out!

The next article in this three-part series, What If I Can’t Eat What I Love, is about making dietary changes due to medical conditions or health concerns, such as diabetes or an allergy. The final article, 7 Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Strategies that Help You “Eat Better”, will apply specific strategies from the Am I Hungry? mindful eating programs that help you improve your diet even though you are eating what you love.


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