Many people are obsessed with fitness, and obsession can spiral out of control quickly. Following fitness celebrities and looking into new diet trends may seem like steps in a positive direction, but doing so can lead to binge dieting and excessive exercise, and can have an extremely negative impact on your self image.
Following fitness celebrities can be particularly dangerous, as they sometimes offer toxic “health” tips that defy science and can be downright dangerous, like restrictive eating. Some “fitness experts” with little-to-no medical, health, or nutritional training will share “what I eat in a day” posts, suggesting that people follow similar 1000-1200 calorie per day diets. These celebrities neglect to mention the first basic tenet of fitness: everybody is different and requires different levels of caloric intake and exercise to feel their best! This type of restrictive mindset not only takes a physical toll, but can also take an even larger psychological toll.
The Psychology of Restriction
The science behind calorie restriction seems to make sense: if you want to lose weight, burn more calories than you consume. The problem isn’t with the science, it’s in the application. There are physical issues that can arise from a restrictive diet, but the real danger is in the psychological toll. Experts at the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) caution that paying too much attention to caloric intake can lead to an obsessive and negative mindset.
When you begin to restrict calories, your brain can form a negative association with the foods you consume, usually centered around feelings of guilt, shame, and self-loathing. These emotions can cause you to further restrict what you eat, or can result in binge eating, which can damage your metabolism and exacerbate the negative feelings you have come to associate with your food.
NEDA also warns that denying yourself foods that you love that aren’t necessarily healthy, like french fries or ice cream, can lead to placing a greater emotional value on food. Your restrictive diet becomes “sad,” and food becomes a beacon of happiness. Connecting food and emotions can lead down a slippery slope, meaning you could end up binge eating in search of happiness, or denying yourself nutrients to absolve a sense of shame.
The Secret To Sustainable Weight Loss
Further research shows that restricting calories is not only psychologically damaging, but is also ineffective. While restricting food intake can cause a short-term weight loss, long-term studies show that it’s incredibly ineffective for sustained weight loss. A severely restricted diet leaves you feeling deprived and lacking important nutrients, so you end up “yo-yo dieting,” meaning that you try to severely restrict your calories but are unable to keep it up and end up returning to your old habits. There has to be a more sustainable way to lose weight.
Holistic experts who focus on the whole body, including the mind, suggest that balance is the key. Instead of fixating on calories, people must prioritize moving their bodies frequently and fueling themselves with healthy, whole foods. Finding delicious recipes you love, allowing yourself to eat anything (yes, even french fries and ice cream!) in moderation, and engaging in an exercise you find enjoyable is the key to long-term success. Instead of living a life of restriction, try these tricks for returning to simple, conscientious, and healthy eating habits.
- Be Consistent: Eating at roughly the same time every day conditions your body to expect food at those times. Stick with the three squares – breakfast, lunch, and dinner – and two to three snacks.
- Go for quality: Fuel yourself with whole, unprocessed foods. Make raw or simply prepared vegetables the center of your plate, go for lean proteins, fill up with whole grains, and snack on fresh fruit.
- Pay attention to quantity: Portion control is a great, non-restrictive alternative to calorie counting. Some weight loss programs sell pre-portioned containers to measure your food with, but you can also familiarize yourself with what your portions should look like. A widely regarded rule of thumb is that portions of grains and starchy veggies should be about one handful or the size of a tennis ball; protein should be about the size of your palm; dairy products should be about the size of one or two fingers.
- Eat consciously: Eliminate distractions while eating! This might not seem like a big deal, but studies show that people who put away their phones, walk away from their desk, and turn off the TV are less likely to overeat. Those same people also report feeling fuller and more satisfied with their meal for longer.
Remember that we live in a society where popular culture tells us what to eat, how to dress, and who to look like. Feeding yourself well, moving your body joyfully, resting when you need to, and letting go of an obsession with calories and faux-fitness is an act of radical self love. And it works. You’ll find yourself more comfortable in your skin, and feeling better than ever.