Recently, I was asked about the validity of restrictive diets, especially the ones coming from seemingly reputable companies & coaches you may have seen on TV, in your social media feed, coming across your emails, etc.
It’s one thing for a human being to unconsciously not know they're not eating enough. This is oftentimes the case. Either from naturally just years and years of diets or from just a lack of awareness.
It’s a WHOLE other world when the restrictive diet is prescribed from a coach, an app, a “reputable” company. They exist everywhere. I won’t name drop, but you likely have a BIT of an idea.
The reason this is such a concern on my end is that to be in the business of someone’s health, wellness, nutrition & fitness, you take on the responsibility to leave a person coming to you better than you got them.
AND this goes way beyond weight loss.
To generate the desired results at the SAKE of someone’s health—we’ll get into some of the health ramifications in a bit here—is simply just robbing someone of their money and exploiting their insecurities & they’re trust in you.
When you go to a doctor, you trust them. You trust they will keep your best interest in mind. You trust they’ll be up to date on research, practices, methodology, risks, etc. You trust they know what they’re doing.
Same with nutrition. You trust the company that is “doctor recommended”, pushed on you on TV or internet, followed by thousands of people like yourself, etc. is there for you. But the unfortunate truth is that isn’t always the case.
This blog is here to teach you not only WHAT a restrictive diet is but also why it’s important for you to consider alternatives & how to get either YOURSELF or someone ELSE out of a restrictive diet cycle.
What is a restrictive diet?
This is generally a loose term as it can be very subjective.
However, I’ve created a bit of a definition for ya.
A restrictive diet is a diet that is lacking in calories, enjoyment, and/or nutrients that worsens one’s physical, mental, or emotional wellbeing.
There are generally three ways I see “restriction” present in one’s nutrition:
#1. Overall calories
Restriction most commonly is seen in one’s calories—often 1500 calories or less. Calorically, you’re in a 500+ caloric restriction for greater than 3-6 months with no end in sight. SOME diets do work on this level of restriction but are done with plenty of breaks & refeeds.
When your body is expending—or trying to—2000+ calories, and you’re feeding it <1500 calories, it’s going to fight back...via cravings, hunger, misery, stress, and more.
Another form of restriction is simply avoiding foods YOU love & want in your life! Sweets, alcohol, chips, pizza, you name it. There’s SOMETHING in your life you don’t want to give up that you crave.
As humans, we’re rebellious creatures. Remember as a kid when you were told NOT to do something, you immediately wanted to do it. Guess what! Nothing has changed. You tell yourself “don’t eat sugar” and immediately it’s like all you want is sugar. This craving builds and builds. The longer you restrict the worse the craving until one day you crack...and here comes the binge.
The last form of restriction is just the timing of their calories. In these situations, I find that earlier in the day consists of very few calories & food with substance. Breakfast is a greens smoothie (200 calories). Lunch is a salad (maybe 300 calories)...then they get to 6pm around dinner time and on...and they’ve only consumed 500 calories. If they eat roughly 2000 calories/day...then they have 1500 calories to make up for in under 4 hours.
The worst kind of restriction I see is when it’s coming from professionals. There are MANY ways I see coaches & companies—the should be professionals—restrict their clients.
Joy – by encouraging a simple, bro-like, monotonous diet of the same things (chicken, broccoli, sweet potatoes, etc.)
Non-negotiables – by removing what makes them unique and what foods they crave & desire (sweets, pizza, alcohol, most often)
Socially – by restricting one’s ability to enjoy social companionship – removal of date nights, nights out with friends, breaks, etc.
Why restrictive diets are bad for you
Below are all the reasons why restrictive diets are not healthy nor sustainable:
Thyroid function decreases
Metabolism lowers & adapts
Hormones become less regulated & decrease
Muscles & joints are more prone to injury
One question I get asked often is how people DO survive on these restrictive diets??? I mean if JLo can survive on a no-carb diet and look like that, then maybe it’s okay or not all that bad?! Say you have a friend or gym buddy who you know doesn’t eat a lot of calories and seems to just be doing fine...that’s where things get tricky and where we have to ask a couple of questions.
Chances are, from my years of experience personally & professionally, no one following a restrictive diet feels great. Either their sleep is terrible, they’re suffering from nagging injuries, they avoid a social life to stay compliant, food is always on their mind, they have no sex drive, they have awful PMS symptoms, or they suffer in silence. RARELY have I found someone to truly feel good in one of them.
The kicker, though, is that they also may not know any better.
When I was eating 1800 calories & hella lean, I THOUGHT I was doing okay. I felt strong & capable. I felt invincible....UNTIL I started actually feeding myself.
MANY people don’t know how “good” truly feels. In my case (see more below), I THOUGHT I felt good because I truly had never felt better—spoiler alert I still was feeling crappy...just a better crappy than before.
Ending a restrictive diet
Now how to get out of a restrictive diet? There are a couple of considerations we want to take.
Before we talk about calories & the act of getting yourself out of a restrictive diet, we first need to talk mindset. Calories, in theory, are simple. You simply eat more. Mindset is a whole other world because getting out of a restrictive diet often requires going against what you’ve been taught your entire life. EAT MORE.
Everyone responds differently & needs different tools to support their mindset.
Below are a few ways to navigate mindset around restrictive eating
Figuring out “what” and “why” – WHAT is it that you do to restrict yourself and WHY is that the case? Do you restrict yourself from overall calories because your mom growing up spent her time counting her calories? Awareness à Change!! For many people, figuring out this lets them tackle barriers down the road
Mantras & journaling – Other people need reinforcement along the way. One HUGE journaling/mantra tool is redefining what hunger & cravings & fullness mean to you. If you associate fullness as binging, bloating, & reckless eating, start writing mantras after you eat saying “I am full & satiated & nourished and my body has the nutrients it needs to thrive”. Now fullness is associated with satiated, nourished, and healthy. This is huge for people who believe they must always be hungry!
“Fake it til you make it” – This isn’t a natural process, believe me. You may just need to force it a little bit by tracking & pre-planning out your foods ahead of the day to ensure you’re eating enough & ignoring some of the immediate “oh crap you’re eating too much” thoughts. This is often my go-to because I know once I can force it a little on the front end, I FEEL so much better. I have more control over my choices. I have more energy. I sleep better. I look better...so I fake it in my initial doubt periods until I’m reaping the rewards.
Podcasts & educational resources – there are literally SO many resources here for you to dive into. Jordan Syatt, Layne Norton, The American Glutton Podcast, The Iron Giantess, and so many more have resource after resource on mentally getting passed these barriers.
Once you have mindset down, let’s talk putting it into practice calorically.
The point of ending a restrictive diet is to remove the restriction.
This can be done in a number of ways. First, it depends on what time of restriction you partake in. Calories? Non-negotiables? Timing? Go back to the first section and figure out if you haven’t already.
#1 – Calories. If you’re calorically restricted, you have to bring up your overall food intake every single day. Track your intake and determine how much you’re eating now and determine your maintenance intake here. If you’re <300 calories off, you can just easily jump calories up in 1-2 bumps and get to eating more. If you’re >500 calories, you’re likely a strong candidate for a reverse diet and will do best hiring a coach.
#2 – Non-negotiables. If you’re simply restricting your favorite foods, set a defined # of untracked or tracked treats you’re going to have. I like to give all my clients 1-2 free treats in the week that doesn’t go in MFP & just is what they’re feeling for the day. Outside of that, we work together to figure out what balance for them looks like. This is one HUGE beauty of macro tracking. I ate 3 Reese cookies this morning #period and they’ve already been put in my macros for the day. BAM no harm done, no guilt felt.
#3 – Timing. If you’re just not eating enough earlier, move some of your calories to earlier in the day. Build every meal around a protein source. Add 1-3 servings of veggies and a carb. Eggs & toast & some fruit, chicken with rice and veggies, a salad WITH some quinoa, etc. are all ways to take what you’re ALREADY DOING and just add a bit more to it. I would also consider a snack or additional meal in there. Yogurt & fruit here is a go-to for my sweet-tooth compadres.
Once you put these new tips into practice RECORD & TRACK your biofeedback. How are you feeling? How are your hunger levels? Cravings? How’s your energy? How satisfied do you feel at the end of the day? Sleep?? Chances are they’re improved so pay attention to them!!
Now how about this conversation with someone else? At your gym? In your family?