Why Restrictive Diets Don't Work

Why Restrictive Diets Don't Work


Nutritionist, Alan Flanagan, is known for busting nutrition myths and calling for more science-based nutrition. We spoke to him about his thoughts on restrictive dieting and here is what he has to say.

“Willpower is trying very hard not to do something you want to do very much.” - John Ortberg.

Every time we commit to a restrictive diet with invented boundaries, we are conspiring against ourselves without perhaps knowing it. 

The problem is created every time we commit to an all-or-nothing’ mindset, and right now that message is everywhere in popular media. ‘Go hard or go home’ and other similar messages create an environment where we tend to focus our behaviours on rules and restrictions. 

We are conditioned to tend to the extremes. 

Willpower is a Myth

The difficulty is that research shows ‘willpower’ is a finite resource. Like a muscle, self-control depletes and fatigues from repeated use; continued exertion, like exercise, leads to more fatigue. 

In a nutshell, willower isn’t absolute or constant; it gets rundown as the day goes on and we make more choices.

This has also been called ‘decision fatigue’ because what is interesting is that making decisions has been shown to reduce willpower; the more decisions and choices we have to make in a day, the more we fatigue our willpower. 

And this is why the more restraint we have to exercise with our diets, the more times we have to consciously decide to do – or not to do – something with our diet, the more we are prone to ‘disinhibited eating’. 

What is ‘disinhibited eating’ exactly? 

It’s the technical term for, oh screw it, I’ve had one Oreo, my day is ruined….might as well eat the box…”

In 2011, a comprehensive review of studies looking at rigid, ‘black-or-white’ approaches to eating published in the International Journal of Obesity highlighted that rigid, all-or-nothing approaches to diet were associated with disinhibited eating. 

In effect, if we adopt an all-or-nothing approach, and we end up eating something that’s not ‘on’ our diet, or makes us think we’ve already “blown it”, we’re more likely to overeat with reckless abandon. 

The danger is that this leads us to then return to the rigid, all-or-nothing approach promising ourselves we’ll do better next time, be more disciplined, have more willpower. We set ourselves up for a dangerous cycle that could result in binge eating behaviours. 

This year, it’s time for you to get off that rollercoaster. 

A study looking at flexible vs. restrained approaches to eating, and behaviours associated with eating (like whether subjects restricted amount, how they coped with stress, whether they exercised, etc.), found that people who made the greatest number of behaviour changes moving from restriction and restraint to a more flexible eating behaviour were the most likely to have successfully maintained weight loss after 3-years. 

Going go for an all-or-nothing approach will never, ever work. And give yourself a break; remember, willpower in an absolute sense is a myth.

Don’t create a rigid mentality. We are the average of what we do 80-90% of the time. And that is more than enough for any goal we have. 

With thanks to Alan Flanagan @thenutritional_advocate


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