7 Signs That Your Diet Might Be Too Restrictive

6 min read

When we think about restriction in our diet, we quite often associate this with fad diets and cutting out things like dairy or carbs in pursuit of weight loss. And these can absolutely be classified as forms of restriction.

But what if I told you there are many other signs of restriction when it comes to our diet and approach to food, that you might not have necessarily thought about or be aware of in your own behaviours?

I’ve shared 7 signs here that could be perpetuating a restrictive mindset with food, and go into ultimately why this is more likely to hinder - than help - you in reaching your goals.

You're constantly preoccupied by thoughts about food and eating

I’m not just talking about getting to a Friday afternoon and thinking about the pizza you’ve got lined up for dinner. If you’re chatting to a friend on the phone, or in the middle of a meeting at work and struggling to concentrate because you can’t stop thinking about food or eating, this might be a sign you’ve got some level of restriction at play.

You're regularly overthinking

Overeating is a complex topic; there’s no hard and fast rules as to what constitutes overeating as it might include the consumption of more calories than we need for a particular goal, eating past fullness, or eating significantly more of a certain food than you planned, but one thing is for sure, this is very likely caused by restriction somewhere in your diet. This might be down to setting calories unnecessarily low for a fat loss goal, but can often be linked to emotional eating.

You're attaching labels like 'good' or 'bad' to foods

It’s easier than you might think to create food restriction through the language we use. By categorising any foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad, we’re attaching positive and negative emotions towards certain foods (such as guilt, shame, regret) so we tend to avoid them to avoid those emotions we’ve attached to them. The only ‘bad’ foods are the ones you just don’t like, or that have gone mouldy! The same applies for phrases like ‘cheat’ meals or ‘clean’ eating. Becca also touched on this in her recent blog on embracing all foods, but it’s ever important as we work on our relationship with food to try and neutralise thoughts around food that we’ve grown to see as ‘bad’ for us.

You have fears or worries about certain foods or food groups

The media (both the news, and social media) is responsible for creating a lot of fear around certain foods, and ingredients, and this in turn can cause us to restrict these through fears of safety. Very rarely does the science back-up any incidents of ingredients in food being identified as unsafe for human consumption, and it’s important to remember that we almost never eat any single ingredients in high enough doses to cause any harm. As a good rule of thumb, we should aim to minimiseultra-processed foods (meats in particular), and focus on filling our diet with minimally-processed foods, the majority of the time (and minimising is not the same as cutting out altogether!) Having fear and anxiety over ingredients, individual foods, or whole food groups will likely have a significant and negative impact on your relationship with food*.

You feel anxious when you don't have control over your food

This one is extremely common especially while focusing on a goal like fat loss. The prospect of going for a meal and not knowing the calorie content or what they’ve used to cook the food, or going to a friend’s house and worrying about the portion they’re going to serve being too large, is likely a sign you’re having an overly-restrictive approach. Remember one meal will be extremely unlikely to move you away from your goals, but how you respond to it could cause you to go into a self-sabotage mode.

You keep 'trigger' foods out of the house completely

While this might make complete sense, not to buy the foods you enjoy for fear of overeating them, keeping them out of the house completely reinforces that notion. It upholds the idea that you can’t be trusted with particular foods so the only ‘safe’ thing to do is to not buy it. “But this works for me”, I hear clients say when we have that first consultation. But here’s the question… inevitably you can’t avoid those foods forever, so what happens when you encounter them again? This may work as a very short-term solution, but this isn’t a long-term strategy. You can’t outrun chocolate, cake and biscuits forever, and neither should you have to.

You will always eat the lowest calorie option, even when your goal isn't fat loss

Does this sound familiar? You’ll always opt for the lowest fat yoghurt, or eat and drink all those diet ‘hacks’ you learned when your goal was fat loss. When your goal is to maintain your weight, lower calorie options can be a very smart strategy, so I’m not dismissing the role of these out of hand. The problem with this is that they don’t always offer the same satisfaction as the versions that might have a bit more fat in, or perhaps include sugar rather than sweeteners. Part of the goal of ‘maintaining’ your weight should be about finding food freedom, and one aspect of this is having a much more varied diet where you’re not just poring over the calorie content, but instead being able to focus on food in terms of the enjoyment of it.

So what can you do to move away from a place of restriction?

Think Inclusion, instead of Restriction

If fat loss is your goal, focus on increasing the volume of food on your plate that’s either lower in calories (such as vegetables, grains) or higher in protein - think about all the foods you want to focus on including (these don’t all have to be low calorie by any means!) and work on a plan for how you can best include these. It is often a good idea, however, to put a fat loss goal on pause to focus on overcoming restriction and work on your relationship with food. Body composition goals aside, an inclusive approach can enormously support your relationship with food and overall health & longevity as it supports the notion of including all foods within our diet (which will satisfy many areas outside just our physical health), and looking to introduce new ones too! Why not set yourself a simple mini goal of reintroducing a food you’ve either knowingly or unknowingly placed off-limits, or a mini goal to try a brand new food you’ve never tasted?

Work on mindful eating

If you feel that tracking your food and using this as a tool to monitor your calorie intake is potentially leading to some restrictive behaviours, one great way to start moving away from tracking is learning to work with the hunger scale. Think about a scale from 0-10 where 0 is feeling faint / dizzy from hunger and 10 is feeling nauseous and uncomfortable from eating too much, use this to check in with yourself before, during and after eating to work out where you are and to start to tune into those all important internal hunger and satiety signals. You want to aim to be around the 5-7 area on the scale after eating; satisfied to very satisfied. Tuning into these internal cues, and learning to honour them, can be a really positive way to move away from your previous methods that might have taken you out of being in touch with these.

Give yourself unconditional permission to eat. Always.

This means always knowing you’ll allow yourself to eat, if you really want to eat, without any strings attached or without it being followed up by feelings of guilt, shame, or regret. Whether that be the permission to eat things you’ve placed restriction around beforehand and reintroducing foods you’ve previously placed off-limits, or permission to not have to wait until you’re about to pass out, to eat (you do not always have to be hungry to allow yourself to eat). That unconditional permission is about not giving the power to food, but taking the power back for yourself.

And finally… Mind your language

I’ve covered this before, but the relationship between the language we use and how we approach our diet is much closer than we’d think. Adding positive and negative labels to food and our behaviours will set us up for an unhealthy relationship with food, how we eat, and even our bodies. You can find some simple tools to change the narrative here.

I work with individuals to help them move away from restrictive and rigid dieting and into inclusive behaviours, so my inbox is always open [email protected] if you want to talk about anything that you’ve been struggling with.
If you’re experiencing increasingly frequent thoughts, or thoughts that induce anxiety when it comes to thinking about food and restrictive eating behaviours, you could benefit from some additional support. The charity BEAT would be a great place to start.

*NB; this does not apply to the exclusion of certain foods for medical, ethical or religious reasons