All Or Nothing: Do Restrictive Diets Work?

Picture this: the New Year rolls in and you’ve decided you want to make some changes to your diet to shed a few pounds, gain more energy, and/or feel better about your food choices. Not knowing where to start, you decide to go all in and have an “all or nothing” mentality and go on a restrictive diet. No carbs, no sweets, no gluten, no dairy, no soy; just fruits, vegetables, and protein. Two days in and you eat something that you weren’t supposed to, so you throw the towel in. You’re frustrated, upset, and don’t know where to begin. In order to understand what went wrong, it’s important to understand the concepts behind restrictive dieting.

Restrictive dieting has been popular in the nutrition and exercise industry for decades. These diets tend to have various foods or food groups that are avoided, with examples including sugars, carbohydrates, dairy, fats, and more. Some popular ones include Atkins, Paleo, The Cabbage Soup Diet, and going gluten-free to name a few. What makes these diets desirable? Why do some of these diets have such a widespread following? Weight loss typically follows when food groups and calories are restricted or eliminated from one’s diet. Some restrictive diets fall into the “fad diet” category, where they promise unrealistic (large) weight loss and or health goals in a short period of time. Sometimes when it sounds too good to be true, it is.

In contrast, a positive nutrition behavior that some of these restrictive diets may promote is emphasizing whole foods like fruits and vegetables. In addition, processed foods are typically avoided, which cuts out many added sugars, solid fats, and high sodium foods. As you can see, there are pros and cons to following a restrictive diet. The most important goal should be to strive for a healthy, adequate, and balanced diet that works for you. To help you understand why restrictive diets drive me crazy (sometimes), I’ve included some common downfalls seen with restrictive dieting:

1. Restriction May Lead To Nutrient Deficiencies

Restricting many foods leaves out food groups and nutrients, which may lead to decreased energy and or nutrient deficiencies. It may also lead to eating certain food groups or macronutrients in excess. The goal of any positive nutrition change should include balance. Balance with nutrients is key, and restricting many foods can cause an imbalance.

2. You See Short-Lived Changes

Ask yourself, “is this new diet a realistic change that can be a part of my lifestyle?” Is it sustainable? If it isn’t a lifestyle change and weight loss is the goal, the pounds will most likely come back when you stop restricting foods and/or go back to your normal eating habits. Too much too fast may provide quick results (which may be water and/or muscle loss rather than fat loss) but may not be sustainable in the long run.

3. You Overindulge In “Approved Foods”

Just because certain foods are allowed on a restrictive diet doesn’t mean portion sizes and moderation are not applicable concepts. This is a key point that is often forgotten. Sure it’s uncommon for people to gain an excess amount of weight from bananas, nuts, or avocados but it’s still possible, just like it could be something impeding on your potential weight loss or health goals. Eating foods with a balanced outlook and taking portion sizes into consideration is always important, whether you’re eating a donut or an apple. Also, remember a cookie is a cookie; an organic cookie is still a cookie; and a gluten free cookie is still a cookie. Sure, the ingredients and nutritional composition may differ, but the mindset of having a treat should still be there, after all, they are all cookies.

4. Restrictions Can Create Labels Of “Good Foods” And “Bad Foods”

Having this mindset may also lead to feelings of frustration and guilt, making it more difficult to have positive results with restrictive dieting. The mentality of “I can have this” versus “I can’t have that” may allow for this guilt to occur. For instance, say you associate chocolate cake as a “bad food.” You attend your friend’s birthday party and there’s chocolate cake, and you have a piece. Instead of enjoying the party, you become your own worst enemy and can’t stop thinking about you how you ate a “bad food.” Instead of viewing food as good and bad, understand how your food choices may affect your body and health in both short and long terms.

Keep these points in mind the next time you have new nutrition, health and wellness goals. With the New Year, I encourage you to work on creating a balanced outlook that is sustainable. Assess the situation and ask yourself if your plan seems realistic, and consult a healthcare professional before starting. Know that one solution doesn’t work for everyone–your journey is going to be different than someone else’s. Stick to the basics and understand how food fuels your body and how you feel after eating certain foods. Eating a healthy, adequate, and balanced diet plus participating in a variety of physical activities leads to a healthier you– mentally and physically, inside and out!

*For more from Dana, visit her site Eats 2 Know.

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