If you’re reading this, chances are you know the feeling of the frustrating cycle of restricting and binging food and wondering if weight loss is possible without restriction. The good news is, you can learn how to stop restricting food and still lose weight! True story. In fact, it’s the only way to get out of that cycle and keep the weight off long-term. There is a caveat though, because restriction itself isn’t bad and we do need it to an extent, but we don’t need extreme restriction in most cases. Not only do we not need it, but it’s also harmful. So let’s get into the details!
What is Healthy Weight Loss?
Before we can set out to reach a goal, we first have to define our goal. If the goal is healthy weight loss that can be sustained, we need to know what healthy weight loss actually means and looks like. So before we dig into getting out of that cycle of restriction, let’s talk about what we actually want, which is healthy weight loss.
Healthy weight loss is when you lose weight by maintaining a healthy lifestyle. So then that begs the question, what is an actual healthy lifestyle? Is it extremely restrictive diets, intense exercise 6 days a week, and not attending social gatherings where there will be “bad” food to tempt you? Nope, that’s not it. That’s an extremely restrictive diet. It’s what diet culture has led up to believe is normal and it’s what creates the binge-restrict cycle so many of us have been or are currently living in.
A healthy lifestyle is about much more than just your exercise and eating habits.
The problem with dieting is that it doesn’t allow for nuance. Sure, extreme, restrictive diet plans work for weight loss. No doubt about it. If you stick to them, they will work. That’s because, in one very narrow approach, they’re addressing the main principle of weight loss, which is getting you into a calorie deficit. If you eat fewer calories than you need to maintain your current body weight, then your body weight will naturally go down. So if diets work, then your next question will probably be, what’s wrong with them?
The problem with diets is that they only address your weight. Again, that probably sounds reasonable, that’s their job, what else should they do? Well, the issue of your body weight doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s not something that can be separated from the rest of your life. It’s something that is impacted in almost every way by almost every other factor in your life. Try to think of one thing that doesn’t impact the way you eat. Really think about this, because it’s important for us to realize how much everything in our daily lives affects the food choices we make. That’s why just throwing a diet, especially a very restrictive diet and exercise plan, into your life without any consideration of all the other factors in your life just sets you right up for failure.
Healthy weight loss requires a shift in your relationship with food, the way you think about food, the way you use food, and the way you manage all the other factors in your daily life. Diet and exercise plans just do not address those things. They ask you to fit them into your lives as is, just like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. The diet and everything else are working against each other. But a healthy relationship with food and actual healthy choices means finding ways to adjust all of the existing factors to work together instead of compartmentalizing things and trying to keep that up day in and day out.
Advantages of healthy weight loss
It’s no secret that a healthy approach to weight loss is a slower process. Because of that, many people feel like it’s not worth it. They want to see change as quickly as humanly possible and extreme food restriction gets them to that faster. Once again, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, that keeps you in that vicious cycle because it can’t be maintained long-term. This means after you get to your weight loss goal, all those forbidden foods you can’t have on your diet start calling your name and you start incorporating them back into your diet.
At this point, you haven’t created a healthier relationship with food, you’ve actually created trigger foods that will throw you off course so fast your head will spin as soon as you start feeling low energy levels or cravings from your restriction. Then you’ll either experience a full-blown binge-eating episode, or you’ll slowly start eating more and more and gain some or all the weight back that you lost.
When you take the healthy weight loss approach, you immediately start changing your environment and thought processes around food. Instead of just white-knuckling it through your diet and trying to beat off every thought or craving for food with a proverbial stick, you will actually be creating systems and learning tools to handle them without losing control.
A healthy weight loss approach not only helps you begin to eliminate a negative body image, but it also takes away feelings of shame and feelings of guilt. It helps you go from low self-esteem to confidence in your own body and the choices you’re making for yourself. Which improves rather than takes a toll on your mental health! Not to mention it creates a more permanent result and makes it so much easier to maintain weight loss long term.
Is it possible to lose weight without restricting food?
Okay, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of restriction. Restriction isn’t all bad and it’s not totally unnecessary. Obviously, if you have to have a calorie deficit to lose weight, you will have to have some level of restriction and discipline in your food choices. That’s not a bad thing. In fact, discipline and learning to make decisions for reasonable restriction will seriously boost your confidence and satisfaction with yourself.
So the answer is no, weight loss is not possible without some level of restrictive eating. The key is to not go overboard.
Principles of Healthy Weight Loss
Here’s where things start to get complicated. After reading all that above, you might be thinking, okay great but…
- How do I lose weight without restricting too much?
- What do I eat?
- How do I account for other factors in my life?
- Where do I even start?
You start by learning. This is a huge misstep for diets. They offer no education. If you don’t know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, on a deeper level than “I’m restricting calories so I can lose weight,” then you are going to fail. Maybe not immediately, depending on how much motivation and willpower you have to start out, but it will dwindle and you will end up back at square one. Extensive research shows that diets don’t work. So the most essential step, which should be first before absolutely anything else, is learning the what, why, and how of healthy eating and healthy physical activity and how each plays a role in health and weight loss.
Most people don’t want to learn about nutrition. There’s a lot of confusing and conflicting information out there and it’s overwhelming, to say the least. It feels like it’s going to take way too much of your valuable time and energy to learn what you should be eating for health and weight loss and especially why you should be eating it. But here’s the thing, you’re going to spend longer in diet trends that don’t work or cycles of extreme restriction and total misery trying to temporarily lose weight and then failing and starting all over again. If you just take the time upfront to understand healthy eating and how specific foods are used by your body, you can save a ton of time!
Understanding your body’s natural hunger signals
This is an important part of getting out of the dieting cycle and it’s another kind of complicated step. It’s complicated because if you have negative emotions surrounding food and your body and/or you’ve been dieting on and off for a long time, then you’re probably not getting clear hunger and full signals from your body. This is because your cravings are probably through the roof and these are physical and mental cravings because deprivation doesn’t just affect your physical body, it affects your mind and emotions too. Especially when you consider how we use food as a reward or even sometimes as punishment. Getting to the point where you can understand and trust your body’s natural cues is a process that takes time.
Incorporating physical activity
I always tell my clients to exercise for health, not for weight loss. That’s because, although exercise is helpful for weight loss, it’s not the biggest contributing factor. More importantly than that, most people can’t maintain a strict and intense exercise regimen long term. This means the same as not being able to maintain a strict diet, you’ll gain the weight back.
The best thing you can do is change your mindset when it comes to exercise. A lot of people hate exercise because they view it as punishment for weight gain. But the truth is, nothing feels better than exercise when you approach it from a mental and physical health perspective. When you get into a good relationship with exercise, one where you crave the release of physical activity rather than dread it as a chore, you’ll find that more weight loss is a natural result of that regular exercise and it’s much easier to keep doing it. It’s all about perspective.
When I say you should exercise for health and not weight loss, I mean that you don’t need to be in the gym for an hour a day, six days a week, unless you just truly enjoy that. Instead, just move. Don’t worry about how many calories you’re burning. Go for a 15-minute walk, do a quick bodyweight strength training video on youtube, or do your own yard work. Find reasons to move more throughout your day. Start super small and build up as it becomes something you love and crave doing. Don’t throw yourself in headfirst and overwhelm your body and your life in general.
How to Stop Restricting Food
Okay, let’s get to the whole point of this blog post. You want to know how to stop restricting food. Well, it’s a pretty extensive and kind of deep process. It doesn’t happen overnight if you’ve been a serial restrictor in the past. Lifestyle change is not easy, but it is actually pretty simple.
Balanced eating is simply making sure you’re regulating consuming a balance of everything you need. Water, macronutrients (protein, carbs, fat), micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), and plenty of fiber. That doesn’t mean you can’t eat junk food, it just means you always want to make sure you’re getting everything you need for health and weight loss. When you’re eating a balanced diet, you’ll be more full and satisfied and have fewer cravings for the junk. Fewer, not none.
Losing weight with a balanced diet means meeting all your health requirements and staying in a calorie deficit. I know you’re wondering how to do that. You can learn all about the best way to eat to lose weight and keep it off here.
Replacing restricting with mindful eating
Back before highly processed (all the stuff in cans, boxes, and bags at the store) and fast foods, we didn’t have to think about what we were eating. We had no manufactured foods loaded with fat, sugar, and salt that lit up our brains’ reward centers like a Christmas tree and made our bodies go haywire with cravings. The most delicious food to people were those natural foods that provided balance.
Since we do have all those highly processed foods now, we have a lot more work to do to keep ourselves happy and healthy. That’s why we restrict ourselves so intensely to lose weight because the “bad” foods are so very tempting, it feels like we have to take this all-or-nothing approach or we won’t be able to contain ourselves. So it’s a mental restriction as well.
You can start to unlearn those habits of feeling like you need to restrict by taking a new approach (new to most, not new in general) called mindful eating. You have probably heard of intuitive eating, but that’s not exactly what I’m talking about here. Mindful eating is just being present, learning and listening to your body’s hunger cues and fullness cues, and using a logical thought process to make your food choices rather than just mindlessly eating whenever a craving strikes you.
Understanding emotional eating
Emotional eating is a huge part of food addiction and the most common trigger for the majority of people. Think about all the things we use food for that aren’t related to fueling our bodies. We eat when we’re sad, when we’re celebrating something, when we’re bored, when we’re tired, and more. Those are all feelings that over time we start to use a variety of foods to appease. Food is comforting, especially the food that sets off the reward center in your brain. So understanding the reasons why you want to eat when you’re not even hungry is a huge step in learning how to rid yourself of the need or the desire to restrict food to lose weight. Understanding emotional eating puts you in a place of being able to reason your way to make healthier choices (most of the time).
Learning how to stop restricting food is an important step in achieving a healthy and balanced lifestyle. If you strive to understand and respect your body’s needs and make positive dietary changes that work for your health and even your enjoyment, within reason, you’ll see positive change. Learn how to make those positive changes for long-term health and weight loss/maintenance with one-on-one coaching.
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