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Restriction mindset can be obstacle when trying to eat healthy

It’s the perfect topic to discuss as we head into the string of holidays before us: Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.

It is the infamous can of worms I/we opened up last month in the first of this two-part series regarding food, mindset, guilt and restriction.

In my last column we discussed the necessity of how mindset plays a primary role in how guilty we feel in relationship to food.

This month, in the second part of this discussion, we will consider the issue of the restriction mindset and how we can eat and live without depriving ourselves of delicious foods that nourish and satisfy.

It is important to realize what causes the feelings of wanting to restrict our diets. There are a whole host of reasons, some of which include emotions of guilt about imperfect eating, disappointment of unmet goals, confusion or frustration as to what to eat or how to change.

Sometimes it is because people don’t like the positive attention their body gets while others don’t like the negative attention their bodies receive. Feelings that we haven’t done something “right” bubble to the surface and we feel desperate. We then pull back and restrict, saying no more than we say yes. Surely this is the only way we can do it right, to feel better or to get the results we desire.

The real issue isn’t actually how few calories you consume or whether you are a chronic over-eater. The issue is do you have a restriction mindset? Do you always feel/think you must eat less, eat different, or can’t have fill-in-the-blank? A restriction mindset views food with a scarcity mindset.

So how do you know if you have a mindset that approaches food restrictively? Watch your language. Pay attention to the words you use. If you find yourself frequently using words or phrases including “I can’t,” then you may need to assess whether you approach food restrictively.

The consequences of the restriction mindset are rarely helpful. In some cases they can even be damaging to the mind and body. Deprivation, as most of people have experienced by now, is normally not a sustainable feeling. It doesn’t lead to feeling satisfied. It doesn’t motivate you to keep moving forward, making changes that are good for you. It isn’t a sustainable mindset. “If this is good,” you wonder, “then perhaps I don’t want it.”

The good news is that there is a way to approach needed change without having to constantly restrict. I call it the “crowd-out” principle and it works in all areas of life, but especially in the realm of food and eating. Some people call it the “addition nutrition” principle.

It is based on the assumption that saying “yes” to the right thing naturally crowds out the things that aren’t good choices or habits. Acknowledging and moving towards the “better and best” pushes out and aside the mediocre or downright bad things of life. The bad choices might not even feel like reasonable, legitimate options when you fill your life with the good.

The outcome of this mindset is a positive sense of change that is actually sustainable. You feel less defeated, less like you are punishing yourself. You build better habits rather than obsess about tearing down bad ones. Change will happen, over time. It just happens in a more positive way.

Imagine you struggle with late-night snacking. You know it really isn’t the best for your weight-loss goals, or your sleeping habits. Every night you eat a small dinner (you want to lose weight, after all) but then you get slammed after dinner with sweet and salty cravings. When the cravings grow more intense you tell yourself “no,” yet, with their increasing persistence you end up caving in.

You are mad, frustrated and disappointed with yourself. You tell yourself that you are not going to eat breakfast and maybe even lunch because of it.

With the crowd-out mindset, instead of reacting with restriction, you prepare yourself with a healthy “add-in” that will keep you motivated and on track with your goals. Instead of a small dinner, you add in a bigger dinner that satisfies you and won’t leave you actually hungry later on.

If those cravings hit later (which well they might, since you have probably made it a habit at this point), you decide that you will “add-in” a satisfying tea/decaf coffee that relaxes you. Instead of obsessing over how you “can’t,” you consciously pick what you can. This leads to enjoyment, satisfaction and the feeling of being proactive rather than being reactive. It is empowering as you move in a better direction.

Here are some questions to ask yourself as you combat the restriction mindset:

Why am I saying “no” to this? Is it because of guilt or because I am afraid of something (i.e. judgment by others, etc. )?

Instead of asking, “what can I take out that will help me meet my goals?” ask yourself “what can I add into my lifestyle and habits that will help me meet my goals?”

So try it this month, regardless of your precise health goals – weight loss or gain, meal planning, a therapeutic diet etc. Approach the changes you wish to see by looking at what you can add in. Crowd out the stress eating or poor dinner time choices with what is better. Don’t tell yourself, “I can’t have that.” Tell yourself, “I am making what I feel is a better/best choice.”

I can almost guarantee that making your cup more full with the good you will crowd out the choices that are less desirable or straight-up bad.

– Cathryn Arndt is a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) and owns a nutrition counseling business called The Pantry Lab LLC.  She lives in the Lebanon area with her husband and baby daughter.  Find her at thepantrylab.com or visit her Facebook page by searching under “Dietitian Cathryn.”