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The Difference Between Disordered Restriction and Healthy Choice

Sep 29, 2022
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During your food freedom journey, there may come a point where you start saying ‘no’ to certain foods but are confused as to whether you’re saying ‘no’ out of genuine choice or out of harmful restriction. You wonder: Am I going back to my old ways? Have I fully let go of my controlling, restrictive mindset?


Am I low-key rejecting this food because I secretly want to lose weight quickly but on the surface am pretending like I’m just not that into it?


It can be confusing!


So I’m here today to go through this dilemma in detail to help you gain clarity over your intentions behind choosing or not choosing a food.


We will also go through the inverse of this situation - where you start just saying ‘yes’ to every food because you’re scared to restrict.




Before we dive into this dilemma, let’s first get clear on what we mean by restriction here. So restriction means to limit something - when it comes to food freedom, we’re specifically talking about restricting food with negative intentions behind it.


Obviously, you could argue that restriction is normal and not always negative (true!) - people ‘restrict’ food all the time by choosing not to get seconds when they’re already full, or saying ‘no’ to the chocolate cake because they feel a bit under the weather and want to eat healthier food. There are lots of reasons why someone could reject food. It is not always a bad thing.


But within this article, and generally within food freedom conversations, we’re referring to when you control or limit your food because of underlying fear and anxiety. For example, you might restrict your meal size because you’re scared of gaining more weight after a day of binge-eating.


You might restrict your carb intake because you’re scared that the second you eat a carb, you’ll gain 5 pounds and feel like a terrible person. Maybe you restrict sugar because you’re scared of it and would feel super anxious after eating it. 


There’s quite a difference between ‘normal’ restriction and harmful restriction, right? The former is relaxed and neutral, the latter is rooted in fear, scarcity and stress. 




So why do we get to this point in a food freedom journey where you’re unsure as to whether you saying ‘no’ to food is coming from a place of genuine choice vs. fear-based restriction?


Well, let’s backtrack a few steps in that journey. You usually start the journey because you are binge-eating all the time, you’re stuck in this cycle of binge-restrict. You’ve probably spent years controlling your food and weight - putting tons of pressure on yourself, never really enjoying those delicious, ‘soul’ foods. 


Then you start your journey. You’re told to lift all those restrictions because they’re the root of your bingeing (along with potentially emotional reasons too). So you tentatively do it, kind of scared but knowing that you have to change something! You may notice your bingeing starts to peter off over time. You start to enjoy those off-limits foods. 


You realise that all that restriction and control was keeping you stuck all those years! So you tell yourself: ‘Ok, restriction is bad. It caused my binge-eating. When I stopped restricting, my problems left’


You spend a few months living this new lifestyle without really practising the art of saying ‘no’. But eventually you realise that sometimes it is ok to say ‘no’. So you start trying. 


But now there’s this confusion and worry - am I restricting in a bad way? Will this lead me back into my old ways?


Am I fooling myself? Do I really want to refuse this food or is it bad habits creeping back in?


So learning the art of knowing whether your intentions are maladaptive or not is key!




To help you differentiate between harmful restriction and genuinely saying ‘no’, here are some differences:


What does harmful, fear-based restriction look like:

  • You may feel this tension in your body - throat, chest or gut usually. There’s this feeling of ‘Uh! I really DO want this food but I should say no’. 
  • Notice your language e.g. in the above example - look at the ‘should’ there! That’s hinting at rules and limits. It’s hinting at you policing your food choices. 
  • You might be saying ‘no’ despite feeling hungry. Why are you saying ‘no’? Maybe the food on offer just isn’t what you planned to eat - that’s fine. But if you would want to eat it, then why are you saying ‘no’? Let that reason come to the surface - be real with yourself. 

What does neutral, normal choice restriction look like:

  • It is usually based on hunger-fullness levels. E.g. someone offered you food but you’re full so you say ‘no’. Simple. 
  • It usually feels easier from within - it feels smooth - little to no tension in your body. There could be times when it feels slightly tense e.g. you’ve been trying to dial back on a certain food because of a health condition but you really love the taste of that food. So saying no to it could be a little tough mentally. That’s ok.
  • You can feel that there is a genuine, self-loving reason why you said no. E.g. you’re about to go on a run and don’t want to eat right before because it might make you feel sick. Or even though the food at the buffet is delicious, you’re not going back for another plate of it because you’re already full and don’t want to push your body too far.


A helpful tip in the moment:


Pause for a second and ask yourself - Is this harmful or neutral? Take a breath. Notice the immediate answer that comes up for you. Usually, your intuition will surface that answer for you whether it’s through words or through signals from your body.


E.g. you might feel a sinking feeling in your stomach if you know it’s harmful. Learning to get in tune with your intuition is something you’ll learn in the 30-Day Reboot if interested!


How about in social situations? It can get even more blurry because of added factors e.g. being less present, focusing on conversation, and not taking the time to notice your intentions, thoughts and hunger-fullness cues. There could be the added stress of comparing to what others are choosing or what they might be thinking of your food choices e.g. no one else is ordering dessert but you were eyeing up that chocolate cake but now your mind is telling you to pass on it because you don't want to be the only one eating.


Here it is always helpful to have that pause again with yourself and be real - you know that you’d been eyeing up the cake. What is the reason for saying ‘no’? Is it down to fear of judgement? Not trusting your own food decisions so copying others? Or maybe you know people are in a rush to finish the meal so you won’t be the only one to order dessert? Can you see the difference?


Taking the time to pause, breathe and go inside to ask your intuition can be incredibly powerful. 




Yes, there does need to be some form of a deficit in order to lose weight - whether that’s through food, exercise, or more subtle changes like eating more whole-food foods and fibre, or getting more sleep and reducing stress. If your goal is to lose fat and you’re choosing to reduce food intake as a strategy - then yes, restriction will happen.


But again, it’s about your intentions. Go back to your intentions behind the weight loss itself - are you doing it because you know it’s the only way you’ll ever be happy? Or because you simply want to feel a little more agile and reduce stress on your joints?


Maybe you do just want to feel a little better in your body but you’re not approaching it from this desperate, rushed angle. Look at your intentions because that will signal whether your restriction is harmful or neutral. 




Remember when we talked about earlier how people in their food freedom journey can start to almost fear restriction? They saw that lifting it helped their food relationship heal after years of crash dieting and bingeing. So naturally, they want to avoid restriction. I’ve worked with clients where it kind of flips the other way - they are saying ‘yes’ to every food. They’re scared of going back to their old ways.


Here is an in-depth podcast episode on this exact topic. At the crux of it, it’s about realising that not all restriction is bad - restriction or saying ‘no’ can be neutral or even a good thing at times. E.g. someone who is highly allergic to peanuts will restrict or say ‘no’ to them - is that bad? No! It’s life-saving! Again, it always goes back to your intentions behind restricting. 





Hopefully, this article cleared this dilemma up for you and showed you that not all restriction is a terrible thing that will immediately sink you back into old ways! It’s about the feeling and intention behind saying ‘no’.


For more help on your intuitive eating journey - learn more about the 30 Day Reboot, my signature course that will help you find that happy, easy, neutral middle ground with food. 


With Love,



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