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Diet

Do You Diet to Feel More Confident?

Watching what you eat doesn't give you the results you want.

Key points

  • Restrained eating is research-speak for what we think of as dieting (eating focused on weight loss through some form of deprivation).
  • A simple definition of intuitive eating is trusting your body to inform your nourishment practices; no foods are "good" or "bad."
  • If you're not achieving your desired results from "watching what you eat" (self-esteem and body satisfaction), there's another way.
Art and image courtesy of Denise Robertson
Source: Art and image courtesy of Denise Robertson

If you "watch what you eat," why do you do it?

If you answered anything related to boosting your confidence (about looks or health), then this news could affect you.

Recent research that includes data from more than 6000 participants spanning eight countries confirms:

  • “Higher levels of restrained and emotional eating were generally associated with lower body satisfaction and self-esteem.”
  • Whereas, “higher intuitive eating tended to be associated with higher body satisfaction and self-esteem and lower BMIs.”

Did you catch that counterintuitive conclusion? Restrained eating, such as watching what you eat or eliminating certain foods, has been linked with lower self-esteem and body satisfaction, not higher. That's not how it's supposed to work. According to the diets and lifestyle plan ads, restrained eating should make us feel better about ourselves and like our bodies more. What’s up?

First, let’s get on the same page about the two eating styles highlighted.

Restrained eating and intuitive eating definitions

According to the researchers, Markey and colleagues:

  • “Restrained eating or dietary restraint refers to the rigid restriction of consumption typically with the aim of weight loss or weight maintenance.”
  • “Intuitive eating is guided by physical hunger and satiety cues, characterized by a rejection of both dietary restraint and the labeling of foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and allows for eating experiences that are both enjoyable and nourishing.”

Did the idea of no good or bad foods make you feel skeptical? If so, I understand. Unfortunately, in our society, valuing diet culture is ultra-common and can become second nature without our realizing it happened.

Intuitive and restrained eating in real-life

As an eating and body image specialist, experience has taught me that when introducing intuitive eating, some people panic. They share concerns such as, “Won’t this mean that I’ll gorge on everything ‘bad?’ I won’t be able to stop. I’ll eat all day long.”

During an interview, Elyse Resch, co-author of Intuitive Eating, addressed this head-on:

When you're tuned in to your inner world of wisdom about eating, you get full, and it wouldn't be comfortable to continue eating all day long. Also, there's this whole interesting psychological concept of habituation, which means the greater the stimulus, the less the response. The more something's allowed, the less it's forbidden. It just takes its place.

It makes sense then that intuitive eating can result in higher self-esteem and body satisfaction. Why? We stop fighting our bodies, hunger, and internal cues.

The link between "higher intuitive eating" and "lower BMI," mentioned in Markey’s study, could be due to numerous reasons. For example, a lack of weight cycling (weight going up and down repeatedly, also known as "yo-yo dieting") might be one. Metabolic steadiness–since there’s no bingeing or deprivation to dysregulate the body–might be another.

On the other hand, for any of us who have experienced restrained eating, we can probably identify with the following scenario: We’re not allowed to eat a favorite food. That favorite food then becomes super powerful because we miss it, want it, and can’t have it. We think about it. We feel deprived. And then if we break our diet, we tend to consume a lot of that beloved food we missed having. After that, there’s probably a cascade (or deluge) of negative responses ranging from immediate feelings of failure and shame to possibly future patterns of weight cycling, body-image frustrations, or disordered eating. It’s not shocking that restrained eating corresponds with "lower body satisfaction and self-esteem.”

What I hope you’ll take from this post

Despite studies like Markey’s, people are still commonly advised to diet by medical personnel, books, the fitness industry, health and wellness gurus, and the media. For this post's purpose and brevity, it would be too distracting to explore or ask why this is the case in so much of Western society. Instead, we’ll stay focused on the main point: If you are dieting to improve your self-esteem and body appreciation, there’s a chance it won’t reward you with either in lasting ways.

Suppose you notice that your restrained eating style seems to be lowering your self-esteem or body acceptance (instead of feeling better about either, you're feeling more frustrated). In that case, you might benefit from trying intuitive eating. As I have written in MeaningFULL: 23 Life-Changing Stories of Conquering Dieting, Weight, and Body Image Issues:

What have you got to lose? Our weight-focused and “health”-driven cultures with their ensuing fad diets, newest weight-loss trends, and superfood crazes will patiently wait for you. Mega businesses depend on your dissatisfaction with yourself for their profit. Besides, if freedom doesn’t work for you, you can always go back to whatever you were doing.

If you want to learn more about restrained versus intuitive eating, I encourage you to start by reading the entire research article by Markey and colleagues; it's open-access (no cost to view) online. There's also a lot of other existing research on non-diet approaches to health. You can also make an appointment with a therapist who has been trained specifically in non-diet principles, the impact of diet culture, and the scientific studies behind both.

You deserve a real chance to attain what dieting promises (but may not produce) for you—better self-esteem, body acceptance, confidence, safety, self-acceptance, inner peace, or relief.

References

Markey, C. H., Strodl, E., Aimé, A., McCabe, M., Rodgers, R., Sicilia, A., Coco, G. L., Dion, J., Mellor, D., Pietrabissa, G., Gullo, S., Granero-Gallegos, A., Probst, M., Maïano, C., Bégin, C., Alcaraz-Ibáñez, M., Blackburn, M-E, Caltabiano, M. L., Manzoni, G. M. … Fuller-Tyszkiewicz, M. (2022). A survey of eating styles in eight countries: Examining restrained, emotional, intuitive eating and their correlates. British Journal of Health Psychology, 00, 1– 20. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjhp.12616

Spotts-De Lazzer, A. (2021). MeaningFULL: 23 life-changing stories of conquering dieting, weight, & body image issues: Unsolicited Press.

Tribole, E., & Resch, E. (2020). Intuitive Eating (4th ed.). St. Martin's Essentials.

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