Decades of research indicate that “cognitively restraining” your food intake often leads to binge eating and/or disordered eating. Cognitive restraint means using your head to determine what to eat instead of listening to your body. Most people who restrain their eating do it in order to lose weight. They may follow a specific diet and try not to sway from the diet. They may count calories or avoid certain foods altogether (see “Are You In Diet Jail”). They typically weigh themselves regularly. There is actually a “Restraint Scale” consisting of several questions that evaluate the degree of restrained eating.
You may have already heard about this research. I think this can be confusing for many who may say “then does that mean we should not pay attention to what we eat? Aren’t we supposed to try to eat healthy?”
The answer is yes, it is good to care about your health, but that does not mean avoiding any foods or counting calories or weighing yourself. Instead it means using your head to make healthy choices WITHOUT being overly restrictive. What the research also has revealed is that certain types of “restrained” eating may not lead to problems but may actually be helpful. This type of eating is referred to as “flexible” restraint verses “rigid”. Flexible means just that. You may love the bread sticks at a certain restaurant, however you may also love the entree you just ordered….so you decide you are going to eat one bread stick to save room for what you really love! If you were to “listen to your body” and you were really hungry, theoretically you could eat 5 bread sticks! But then you would ruin your appetite! Is that restrained eating? Well, yes, in a way, however it is also flexible. You are making a decision because you know your body and you want to honor it and feel good. Another example may be planning ahead of time to cook for the week. This does not mean you will not allow yourself to stop for a burger at the drive through, however you also may not want to waste the money, and if you plan ahead and have healthy and yummy foods in your home, you are again being healthy but not rigidly restrictive.
The bottom line is that it is ok to want to be healthy, eat healthy, and yes, you do have to use your head! But being flexible is what is important. Being rigid does not contribute to health, just food obsession, disordered eating and a that is certainly not healthy.