The word ‘restraint’ can induce very different thoughts depending on the context. Within nutrition, and in more recent times, restraint has been portrayed in a negative light. The majority of people conjure thoughts of “cut out X food”, 1200 calorie diets or other forms of deprivation. What’s interesting is that in nearly every other domain restraint or self-control is seen as a desirable characteristic.

Differences in perspectives may be due to early research on eating behaviour and weight control, which relied heavily on the restraint theory. The ‘restraint theory’ suggests that dietary restraint provokes counter-regulatory responses. Essentially, dietary restraint makes it harder to notice when you’re full and can result in uninhibited, binge-like eating patterns.[1]

Over time this led to the rise of ‘anti-diet’ approaches, where individuals were encouraged to listen to their body, and eat in accordance with the body’s needs, otherwise known as ‘intuitive eating’. [2] While this may, and does, work for certain individuals, it also fails many more because it ignores an important factor.

Eating behaviour is driven by more than just hunger. [3,4]

‘Hedonic’ reasons (pleasure, cravings, etc.) drive food choice just as much as hunger, and in an environment where highly rewarding, energy dense foods are constantly pushing the ‘I want’ button in our brain, intuitive eating becomes difficult. One could even argue that a lack of restraint plays a part in the current obesity epidemic. That it’s people eating whatever they want and listening to their bodies has contributed to their expanding waistlines.

This is backed up by clinical studies on weight loss and weight maintenance. Interventions that have compared a relaxed ‘intuitive’ eating type approach versus an approach that promotes restraint have repeatedly found that the inclusion of restraint produces better results![2,5]

Furthermore, if we look at individuals who have lost weight and kept it off for extended periods of time, we see that on average they have higher levels of restraint and lower levels of disinhibition.[6]

Confused? I know I was when I was first researching the topic.

Let me shed some light. Restraint is neither good or bad. Like most things in nutrition, when taken to extremes, such as having super strict, rigid rules that leave you feeling deprived, restraint can be detrimental. On the other hand, having no guidelines or restraint at all tends to also lead to problems. Fortunately, it appears not all restraint is equal. When we further examine restraint we can divide it two distinct categories; rigid restraint and flexible restraint.

  1. Rigid restraint is characterised by an all-or-nothing approach and a tendency to swing between periods of strict dieting and binge like periods in which “bad”, “dirty” or “forbidden” foods are consumed without control. With rigid restraint people tend to view nutrition as, “I’m on a diet,” or “I’m off the diet” which then leads to gauging success in black or white terms; I’ve either followed the diet, and I was good, or I’m off the diet, and I was bad.
  2. Flexible restraint is a more progressive approach to losing weight in which “bad” foods are considered fine in moderate amounts, rather than excluded entirely, which leads to a more consistent and sustainable diet.

Rigid restraint is more likely to lead to disinhibited eating compared to a more flexible approach.[7]

This is an important point. Disinhibited eating involves a lack of control around food such as binge eating. It appears that the difference between successful and unsuccessful restraint may be down to how it impacts self-regulation and control, with successful restraint reducing disinhibited eating patterns.

Rigid approaches increase disinhibition because it leads individuals to feel like they have overstepped a strict eating boundary. Flexible restraint, on the other hand, has no strictly defined boundary, and therefore disinhibition is less likely to be triggered.

For example, fad diets regularly apply concrete rules. This inevitably leads people to “break the rules”, often triggering unregulated eating which also leads to feelings of guilt, anxiety and shame.

It’s important to realise that it’s not the actual step across the “rigid” restraint “boundary” (eating “forbidden” food) that causes the problem but the reaction afterwards (disinhibited eating, loss of control, negative emotions). If eating that piece of pizza or slice of cake at a birthday party isn’t “against the rules” then there is no damaging reaction.

Flexible restraint can help our dieting efforts, while rigid restraint may undermine them.

Sounds great right? But how do we apply this?

1. Guidelines over rules

There are very few end goals that require strict restrictions. The majority of individuals will benefit more from guidelines than rules. Think about your daily or weekly actions in a more and less rather than all and none. For example, aim to eat more vegetables, more often and less ice-cream, less often. This doesn’t mean no ice cream, it just means that it shouldn’t be a staple of your diet.

2. Practice 80/20 eating

Aim to consume 80% or more of your diet from whole foods. When the majority of your diet comes from nutrient dense foods, the 20% isn’t going to “ruin” your progress. The 20% shouldn’t be mindless eating, if you’re going to eat energy dense foods they should be foods that you love.

3. Move away from all or nothing thinking

Expecting perfection is unrealistic. See your journey from where you are now to where you want to be as a learning process. Every obstacle along the way is there to teach and allow you to develop skills to handle them better in the future.

4. Reduce energy dense food cues

Yes I know, I write this practical point in 90% of my articles but it’s because it’s truly important. Dietary restraint relies a lot on psychological processes that are cognitive demanding. Trying to fight the urge to eat that packet of Tim Tams in the cupboard day after day will drain you. Help your brain out and reduce the cues and situations that force you to choose energy dense foods. Either remove them from the house or make them less visible and less accessible.

5. Avoid food avoidance

What happens when I tell you not to think about a hot fudge sundae? It occupies your 90% of your thoughts (sorry). Deprivation creates a “forbidden fruit mentality” which increases cravings for the foods we should be consuming less often.

Remember that as restriction increases, sustainability and adherence typically decreases. There is a time and place for more rigid restraint but this should be kept for extreme goals, which the majority of individuals don’t fall within. Restraint should be scaled to your individual goals, with as much flexibility as will produce results. Following these guidelines will produce a more successful and sustainable long term approach.

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  1. Herman CP, Mack D. Restrained and unrestrained eating1. Journal of personality. 1975 Dec 1;43(4):647-60.
  2. Johnson F, Pratt M, Wardle J. Dietary restraint and self-regulation in eating behaviour. International journal of obesity. 2012 May 1;36(5):665-74.
  3. Lowe MR, Levine AS. Eating motives and the controversy over dieting: eating less than needed versus less than wanted. Obesity research. 2005 May 1;13(5):797-806.
  4. Lowe MR, Butryn ML. Hedonic hunger: a new dimension of appetite?. Physiology & behaviour. 2007 Jul 24;91(4):432-9.
  5. Bacon L, Keim NL, Van Loan MD, Derricote M, Gale B, Kazaks A, Stern JS. Evaluating a’non-diet’wellness intervention for improvement of metabolic fitness, psychological well-being and eating and activity behaviours. International Journal of Obesity. 2002 Jun 1;26(6):854.
  6. Wing RR, Phelan S. Long-term weight loss maintenance. The American journal of clinical nutrition. 2005 Jul 1;82(1):222S-5S.
  7. Westenhoefer J, Engel D, Holst C, Lorenz J, Peacock M, Stubbs J, Whybrow S, Raats M. Cognitive and weight-related correlates of flexible and rigid restrained eating behaviour. Eating behaviours. 2013 Jan 31;14(1):69-72.