Are the food rules you’ve structured life around no longer working out? Understand why it’s holding you back, and what you can do instead.


In our culture, dieting is often synonymous with food restriction. And for those who are dieting, they are often caught in a cycle of restriction followed by a backlash – one that may include bingeing behaviors, overeating, eating too quickly, or any other behaviors that result from either: 

  1. Feeling out of control or controlled by food; or
  2. Experiencing guilt or a shameful feeling towards what was eaten. 

This cycle continues because the next response to that is to return to restriction – in other words, starting over on the diet. 

You can think of it like a pendulum, where restriction is on one side and bingeing behaviors are on the other. Each time you return to restriction, the pendulum is pulled to one side.  When it’s released, it swings just as far to the other end of the extreme –

A restrict-rebel-repent cycle that repeats each time a new dieting attempt is started.

The truth is, this rebellious response to food rules is normal. It’s similar to if you were told, “Don’t think about the color green.” What’s the very first thing your mind went to?

In a similar manner, we all tend to crave what we can’t have (or what we tell ourselves we can’t have). Deprivation creates more preoccupation around anything and can lend it a level of novelty it wouldn’t otherwise have. 

This also creates a heightened response when you finally do allow ourselves to have that restricted item. So instead of enjoying that food you’ve been restricting, you may eat it very quickly, mindlessly, or secretively. 

This doesn’t make for a pleasant experience and further drives the cycle of shame and regret that sends you right back to restriction.

So what can you do instead? Here’s a more simple mindset to approach it from instead.

1. Have what you crave.

Follow your cravings or start experimenting with foods you previously restricted. Initially, it may feel exciting because you’re anticipating how good it will taste and thinking about how long it’s been since you last had that food. It can also be scary because you don’t trust yourself around that food. 

Over time, the novelty will wear off as your habituation response settles in. Because it’s no longer restricted and you’re no longer avoiding that food, there’s no urge to rebel against a food rule because it no longer exists. The contract and variety that you’re including in your meals and snacks will now add to your overall satisfaction

2. Know that balance matters.

It’s important to remember that giving yourself permission to eat the foods you love is not the same as claiming all foods are nutritionally equal. However, all foods are morally equal and that’s the distinction. Yes, nutrition is important but so are other considerations such as taste, appetite, time, and budget.

By supporting healthful behaviors, practicing self-care, reframing damaging thoughts, and learning to trust your body again, you can find the right balance to respect your body without swinging to either side of the extremes.

3. Eat intuitively.

Intuitive eating is not at all about eating what you want, whenever you want. It doesn’t mean you should throw nutrition knowledge or common sense out the window. There is absolutely a place for good nutrition when it’s introduced along with the healing that must also take place.  

When you choose to respect your body and honor your health, the way you eat becomes a tool to do just that, not a weapon in the war you’re waging to manipulate your body to a smaller, malnourished version of itself.

By letting go of the food rules that once controlled you, you’ll relearn how to rule your own life.

Adapted from the original post.

Cara Harbstreet, MS, RD, LD is a Kansas City-based Registered Dietitian helping individuals jumpstart their journey to wellness. By breaking the cycle of dieting, Cara focuses on creating sustainable lifestyle changes for people who are motivated to reclaim their health. Connect with Cara over at Street Smart Nutrition.