Who would have guessed? A recent study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition looked at eating styles of 4,393 healthy people. Researchers controlled for genetic influences by using sets of identical twins. They found that poor eating habits and obesity were linked to what they labeled “restrictive overeating.” In other words, people were more likely to overeat less healthy foods when they were focused on what NOT to eat as opposed to a more positive attitude that highlights the health benefits of including lots of healthy foods.
Does this surprise you? It was no shock to me, based on years of nutrition counseling, as well as observing how my body reacts when I go too long without food. The physical drive to eat for survival is strong, and fighting against it is difficult to say the least. On an emotional level, when someone continuously restricts their eating to the point that they are not comfortable, their relationship with food is often altered. The study found that people tend to get into cycles that swing between severe restriction and overeating. The restrictive part of the cycle is driven by the guilt and disappointment of the overeating phase. In turn, too much restriction is not maintainable, so overeating is likely to be the response. Instead of seeing this as a setup for failure, I hear my clients talk about their lack of will power, weakness, and overall lack of ability to control their eating.
When more attention is put on what is missing, forbidden foods take on more allure than they had before and “hunger” takes on a whole new meaning. Food cravings and binge eating often arise. There is more eating in response to external cues. “What does my body need or want?” becomes “What should I eat?” according to a diet plan, or “What should I overeat now, before I have to go back on my plan?” The natural tendency to welcome food as a life-giving factor for survival is replaced by a lack of trust in the body and lack of trust in the ability to know what is needed.
A spirit of cooperation with our bodies is natural and healthy. There are complex messages that the body sends to tell us we are hungry, and even what we might be hungry for, if only we would listen. The problem arises as a result of the unrealistic nature of the restrictions. We all have a need for a certain amount of food to satisfy physical hunger, and, equally important, we have our own personal favorite foods. While it is true that weight problems are likely if emotional needs are routinely treated with food, it is not realistic to think that we will always eat in response to physical hunger alone. It is a worthwhile goal to look for ways to meet emotional needs without food, but the goal is not to remove pleasure from eating.
The study results are interesting, but how can a more positive outlook be achieved? How can will power be created, and how can food choices be based on less negative and rigid guidelines? These are the kinds of questions I hear often. It seems to me that the answers appear when we listen to internal cues. This may sound like a contradiction to common diet thinking, but I believe that the cycle of restrictive overeating is best broken by eliminating the restrictive eating, not by directly attacking the overeating. Why? Because the overeating is a reaction to excessively restrictive eating. Trying to eliminate the overeating without eliminating its cause is not usually effective and tends to keep the cycle going. Setting realistic goals is the first step toward successful long-term weight control. Set the bar high enough to create a reasonable challenge, but not so high that success is doubtful.