Physique Change Without Dieting: Dietary Restriction vs. Restraint

CW: A great big caveat: this post is about food and eating behaviors. My intended audience are people who already have a pretty healthy, non-disordered relationship with food, and mostly folks who are interested in the cross-section of physique sport, performance and body size. As Jen recently said at the start of a Balance 365 podcast, the same skills can be used as a tool or a weapon, and whether or not something is healthy for you is about how you use it. I want physique athletes and recreational bros like myself to have tools that take them away from diet culture but still allow them to reach their goals. This is not advice intended for folks who are recovering from disordered relationships with food, and I encourage you to work with a professional if that describes you.

It is absolutely possible to intentionally and healthfully reduce body fat, or “cut,” without going on a diet.(1) Endless calorie counting, points, elimination of your favorite foods or eating only within 4 hours of the day is not required. I’ve mentioned it plenty of times before, but I’ve been cautious about talking about strategies because I think it’s so important to be responsible and not contribute to damaging diet culture. But, like any good health teacher, I think it is better to discuss contraception than to assume if I don’t, kids will magically avoid having sex. So, I’m going to stick my toe into this larger topic, fat loss and physique goals without dieting, beginning with a really important mindset piece–developing a sense of flexible restraint around food.

Dietary restriction is the act of intentionally avoiding food or foods based on external motivations. It’s saying “I can’t have this” or “I shouldn’t have this.” This is the mindset that most diets are based upon, and I think most of us have been taught it is necessary in order to lose weight. It’s the skill I suspect most people are talking about when they say they have no willpower. We’re faced with a buffet of desserts at a wedding and tell ourselves our job is to not eat any of it–actively pushing against our desires. And a very natural and inevitable consequence to this is give in, give up, push back, rebel, and stuff all the cupcakes in our mouths (if not at this wedding, then the next one).

I’ve never been much good at this sort of traditional dieting, so while I’ve certainly had these less-than-healthy thoughts that I should or shouldn’t eat a certain thing, the pushback would happen almost immediately. I’m amazed at the genuine willpower demonstrated by folks who have gone on low-carb diets for weeks at a time or restricted their eating windows to a few hours of the day. That is willpower! Just because they end up overeating and making themselves sick when they eventually snap back from restriction doesn’t mean they don’t have willpower, it’s just a natural consequence of holding tight for so long. If I understand it correctly, according to Robert M. Sapolsky in his classic book on stress, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, the stress response for folks who use a lot of dietary restraint, or what he calls regimentation, actually physiologically makes it harder for people to avoid overeating–it pushes them to have heightened hunger with less satiety, physically making food less rewarding for that person. In other words, dietary restriction actually makes us eat more and can lead to binging.

So, if restriction is counter to our goals, our own option is to endlessly eat all the foods at all the time, right? Well, you can. It’s an option on the table. The ladies at Balance 365 (B365) would say that you are still not experiencing true food freedom, though, because you’re still unable to make an active choice. Being able to choose what we want to eat and what we don’t is dietary restraint. It’s saying, “I’m not going to eat this right now,” or “I can have this later, if I still want it.” It’s setting what Jen Campbell of B635 calls “self-loving boundaries.”

The research world calls this flexible restraint to distinguish, I suppose, from the inflexibility of restriction. Restriction is black and white rules, restraint is guidelines that can change with circumstances. I’ve been playing with this in my own life and eating for a long time now. Years ago, I decided that I would be better served eating mostly my own cooking. It became a boundary, to choose homemade food whenever I could. Did I eat something mass-produced when visiting a friend for dinner or on a random Thursday because I didn’t feel like prepping something, yes, but most of the time, I learned to plan and prep my own meals.

For me, a key difference between restriction and restraint has been the level of emotional attachment I put to my choices. When I eat something that goes against my preferences, how much does it matter to me? Can I just eat it and move on? If so, then I feel good that I’m exhibiting flexible restraint rather than restriction. Another clue we’re on the right track? A reduction in the tendency to emotionally eat, to binge, or to have unplanned episodes of unrestrained eating. Ironically, the more I’m able to be flexible with my eating, the more in control I feel.

So what are the tools we use to develop restraint rather than restriction in our eating? Of course, a big piece is in our own minds. We need to unlearn some unhelpful dieting thinking. This means noticing where our inflexible rules are and challenging them. Do you think sugar is toxic? Do you think bread is addictive? Do you think you can’t eat just one piece of pizza or you’ll eat them all? Each of these thoughts may result in rulemaking that would be inflexible. Working with a good, evidence-based nutrition coach, registered dietician or therapist can help you question and explore these thoughts and work on unlearning them.(2) It’s not going to happen overnight, but it can happen. Just noticing them is a great start.

Another tool I love and find deeply empowering is looking at meals in terms of a balanced plate (as they call it at B365). Head over to Precision Nutrition(3) and take a look at any of their infographics on healthy eating. You’ll see a portion of protein, a portion of veg/fruit, a portion of fat, and a portion of starchy carbs. Using hands or parts of the hand to identify a serving size instead of calories and grams is another subtle tool for reducing an overly restrictive mindset around “the right amount to eat.” Unless you’re dieting down for a bodybuilding contest or you’re a professional fitness model needing to get into shape for a shoot, I can’t see why most folks would need to know how much they’re eating to the gram. I don’t think tracking is intrinsically problematic, but I think the long term, sustainable choice doesn’t look like tracking and weighing all of our food ad infinitum. And for me, tracking seems to increase my sense of dietary restriction and reduce my ability to exert dietary restraint. I find myself focusing on being overly adherent to and/or rebellious against the numbers, even when I tell myself they’re just a guideline.

Practicing and implementing dietary restraint rather than restriction can be a long process of unlearning and relearning new habits of thought and behavior. However, it can reward us with a stronger sense of self-control and personal choice around food and can literally help us feel more satisfied with our meals. It is absolutely possible to learn new, healthier strategies to help us manage our weight without falling back into dieting thoughts and behaviors. Developing a greater sense of dietary restraint rather than restriction is a very useful tool towards those efforts.

(1) IF you have reasonable and sustainable goals. AND IF it is actually feasible to take on the project at that particular moment in your life, meaning you have the bandwidth psychologically, emotionally, logistically and physically. AND IF you have sufficient resources and privilege to pursue it with support. It’s not for everyone, and I’m not doing anyone any favors to act like it is.

(2) Although I’ve hired a nutrition coach in the past, he ended up not the best fit for me. Now I’m a member of Balance 365, which is partly why I mention them so often! I’m a real believer in their abilities to help women develop healthier relationships with food and their bodies.

(3) This is a monster infographic that I linked from Precision Nutrition. Don’t let it scare you away. Wander around their site and find something less comprehensive, if it’s too much to take in!

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