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Why Food Restriction Won't Help You In The Long Run

Mary Anne Cohen, LCSW, BCD
July 22, 2015
Photo by Stocksy
July 22, 2015

When people embark on a new eating plan, they’re typically either trying to lose weight or get healthier. Sometimes this leads to restrictive choices that involve highly-regimented food plans. And for a while this may all go well! You feel better, more in control and you may even lose some weight.

But more often than not, something then shifts and all your good efforts seem to begin their descent downhill. But why?

In short, restriction doesn’t work in the long run. Those who are most successful in improving their eating do not deprive themselves or put themselves in a "food straitjacket." Therapy with emotional eaters in my practice has proved this time and again.

Take the case of Nancy, age 24: "I eat so well during the day. But after dinner, I usually binge out of control. I am so ashamed of myself," she cried. During our conversation, she then explained what she ate each day. For breakfast, it was always oatmeal; for lunch, a tuna fish salad; for dinner, some protein and a vegetable.

On the surface, Nancy's eating plan sounded healthy and normal. But then she added that she ate tuna fish salad for lunch every day for three years! She also described that while her family ate rice, potato, or some other starch with their dinner, she never allowed herself to eat any carbohydrates. In trying to be "good" she was depriving herself of an abundant and varied food plan and unwittingly set herself up to fall off the wagon.

Another young woman named Geneen also set herself up for disappointment by relying on diet soda to fill herself up instead of eating meals. In a recent scientific journal article, researchers report that people who drank diet soda every day put on more than three inches around the middle over a decade. Diet soda or chewing gum are not nourishing and have no place as a substitute for food.

Sure, giving yourself some structure can help you feel more in control. But healthy, sustainable weight loss comes from eating balanced and healthy food and from making conscious choices to eat whole and real foods, rather than cutting out entire food groups.

My patients who are most successful in making peace with emotional eating allow themselves a wide range of foods and are flexible with their food choices. They refuse to punish themselves for sometimes overeating, and as their eating becomes more relaxed and enjoyable, their urge to binge, purge, or starve will recede.

These five proven remedies to combat emotional eating will help set you up for success:

1. Go back to eating meals that everyone in your family eats.

When you feel the need to prepare yourself a separate meal during social situations, you will feel excluded (even if unconsciously, and even though you are imposing the restrictions on yourself). The plan will backfire, so don't set yourself up to rebel against yourself. Try and enjoy food alongside others!

2. Commit to reintroducing all food groups into your eating plan.

If you have eliminated fats, carbs, or protein, you will not get satisfied and well nourished as we saw with Samantha. By eating all food groups you will "inoculate" yourself against breakthrough bingeing.

3. Vow to eat variety.

Eating the same thing every day robs you of an array of nutritious choices while an assortment of foods makes eating fun and healthy!

4. Pledge to prevent over-the-top eating by honoring your hunger.

When you feel hunger pangs, that's your body sending you signals! So honor them. Eat a healthy snack when you need to. By not letting yourself get overly hungry, you won't set yourself up to overeat.

5. Promise not to punish yourself for emotional eating.

If it happens, forgive yourself and move on. Self-compassion is the single most important ingredient in recovering from a binge.

Declaring peace with emotional eating means learning to sink your teeth into life, not into excess food!

Mary Anne Cohen, LCSW, BCD author page.
Mary Anne Cohen, LCSW, BCD

Mary Anne Cohen, LCSW, BCD, is Director of The New York Center for Eating Disorders in Brooklyn. She is author of French Toast for Breakfast:Declaring Peace with Emotional Eating and Lasagna for Lunch: Declaring Peace with Emotional Eating. You can visit her at www.EmotionalEating.Org.