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Beware the Lure of Restrictive Diets

Restrictive diets are very trendy right now. There are many popular eating plans which encourage cutting out certain foods or even entire food groups. Restricting the time when a person can eat is also popular, known as intermittent fasting. Both trends promise better health through restriction.

My personal experience has shown me that restriction is harmful.

I see ads for ‘everlywell’ daily selling the idea of better health by eliminating certain foods. While allergies are a very real thing and should be taken seriously, not every person has a food sensitivity they need to address.

My sister has celiac disease. When she was diagnosed, she was having such severe symptoms that it was interfering with her job. She went to her doctor who discussed her symptoms, ran tests to rule out more serious health issues, and then prescribed a gluten-free diet. This was before gluten-free was super trendy and finding GF options was usually pretty tough.

However, this change made a huge impact on my sister and she now manages her diet and disease with ease and expertise. She compares her experiences eating gluten to having food poisoning or the stomach flu. We all know that terrible combo of pain, diarrhea, and vomiting that happens with a stomach bug.

These symptoms are what eating gluten-free has helped my sister avoid.

As I said before, food allergies are real and need to be taken seriously. However, from what I see in the commercials for ‘everlywell’, they are encouraging people who are having mild stomach distress or who are not even sick to use their service to find food sensitivities. This is problematic for so many reasons.

First, if someone is having symptoms like my sister, they need to see a medical professional. There are serious health concerns that need to be ruled out. Next, telling someone who has no symptoms to dramatically alter their eating in hopes of better health will only backfire.

Years of my life were spent engaging in disordered eating. During that time, I tried to only eat “good” foods which meant avoiding most carbs and fats. I thought restricting my food intake and eliminating certain foods would help me to be healthy and live my best life. I was wrong.

I would often get horrible stomach pain and would need to lay down. My body was so confused and stressed by my restrictive eating that when I did have a normal meal, it was overwhelmed.

I would also binge. This word is often misused by popular culture to mean eating a large amount of enjoyable foods or really any amount of “bad” foods. This is not truly bingeing, but rather a normal part of eating. My binges were times when I was unable to stop myself from eating.

One example is a time that my friends and I were all playing a new computer game and someone had brought a box of Cheezits. While playing, I keep taking handfuls and handfuls of the crackers. Each time, I would tell myself that this was the last time, but I kept eating more. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t stop.

I felt out of control. I felt weak and guilty- as if I was truly a bad person for not being able to stop myself from eating Cheezits.

Now years later reflecting on this situation, I know I was not weak for eating so many crackers. During this time, I was severely undereating and over-exercising. My body needed nourishment and was overriding my “willpower” to stop eating.

While the stomach pain and binges were distressing, the biggest impact restrictive eating had was on my mental health.

My mind was constantly busy planning my next meal, counting calories, and strategizing how to eat less. I would become numb when I had to make a decision- even something simple- because I wasn’t sure how it might impact my eating and exercise routine.

When I was unable to meet my “perfect” diet and exercise standards, I would become intensely ashamed and distraught. I would often lash out at my friends and family. My emotions felt out of control, fluctuating from numbness to intense anger, depression and hopelessness.

After one such outburst of yelling at my boyfriend, I knew I needed to find help.

I started seeing a counselor at a local eating disorder clinic. I also meet with their dietician a few times. Both professionals highly recommended learning about intuitive eating and this idea changed my life.

Intuitive eating is the opposite of a restrictive diet.

Intuitive eating is the idea that our bodies are the experts on what and how much we need to eat. By tuning in to my hunger, fullness and other internal signals, I can eat in a way that allows my body to receive the nourishment it needs.

People often confuse this with eating whatever you want and are scared by the idea of letting go of strict diet rules. They believe that without a diet holding them accountable they would never stop eating. However, my experience has shown me the opposite. The more I listened to my body, the less out of control around food I felt.

The food restriction was what was causing my binges. When I stopped restricting, I stopped binging.

So, my worry with ‘everlywell’ (and other restrictive diets) is that they will actually cause the problems from which they are promising relief.

They sell the idea that eliminating foods, or only eating at a certain time, will help you feel better and live healthier. However, my experiences of embracing a restrictive diet led to the opposite. My stomach distress increased, I felt out of control around food, and my intense fluctuating emotions were taking a toll on my relationships and the quality of my life.

Real intuitive eating is not trendy. There is no big promise of weight loss. However, it does offer freedom and hope. By switching focus from external food rules to internal cues, you can learn to respect your body and treat it well.

Now when I eat, no foods are restricted. Still, I don’t eat only donuts and french fries because that would make my body feel terrible. I love the taste of salads and eat them frequently. However, I do need to eat something else a few hours later because I know that salads don’t keep me full. And that is ok!

When you trust your body, you can find balance. All food is allowed and enjoyed.

If you want to feel better and live healthier, don’t fall for the lure of trendy restrictive diets. If you are truly concerned about a food allergy, discuss your concerns with a trusted health professional. Beware of the lie that you need to restrict to be healthy. Instead, listen to and trust your body.

Your body is the true expert on what it needs.

Thanks for reading.

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