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3 Types of Food Restriction that Drive Chaotic or Controlled Eating Patterns

Engaging in food restriction is what keeps many of us trapped in our chaotic or controlled patterns. Whether our eating patterns include binge eating or purging or a more sustained approach to food restriction, it is food restriction that is often at the centre.


So why do we feel compelled to limit our food?


For many of us there is a strong link between our weight and our worth. We are surrounded by messages in our day to day lives that reinforce the idea that our shape and weight somehow demonstrate our worthiness to others. This includes the relentless messaging from Diet Culture that smaller, leaner bodies are more worthy. It also includes the body shaming that we see in the media, that goes on in our communities, in our families, our workplaces and in our friend groups.


It's no wonder that the negative thoughts, beliefs and feelings we have about both our shape and weight are so often linked to how we feel about ourselves. In response, parts of ourselves became focused on food and the body in an attempt to feel more worthy. They believe that trying to change (or maintain) our body shape and weight will somehow help us be worthy enough of belonging.


The most common strategy for changing or maintaining body weight and shape is driven by our Restriction Part who attempts to restrict or control our food intake. This Part of us is motivated to create rules around food and is heavily influenced by Diet Culture. It's often unhappy no matter what weight is reached on the scale. It fears that if it doesn’t stay focused on changing or controlling our body, then our body will somehow reveal our negative qualities to others and we will be judged and feel ashamed. It truly believes the best way to protect from shame is to use all its time, energy and resources on limiting what is eaten.


There are 3 types of food restriction that drive our chaotic or controlled patterns. Let's look at the 2 types of food restriction driven by our Restriction Part:


Physical Restriction

This is the most obvious form of Restriction and includes:

  • Deliberately limiting food by skipping meals or snacks (e.g. going without lunch)

  • Reducing portions (e.g. only eating off a small plate)

  • Excluding or limiting certain foods or entire food groups (e.g. carbohydrates)

  • Delaying eating.


Cognitive Restriction

This is a less obvious form of Restriction. It can be new to many of us and is surprisingly influential in maintaining our chaotic eating patterns. Cognitive Restriction is ‘thinking’ about limiting food and is influenced by our:

  • Beliefs about Food

  • All or Nothing Mindset

  • Food Rules

Let's look at these in more detail.


Beliefs about Food

Our beliefs about food are often shaped by the messages we grew up around in our family, but also wider cultural messaging from Diet Culture and the media. For example, many of us believe that certain foods are ‘bad’ and others are ‘good’ and that by consuming the good food we are ‘behaving’ and that by consuming bad food we are bad or a failure.


The foods that are demonised and percieved as bad often become our forbidden foods.


Here are some examples of common beliefs about food:

  • I can’t have this because it’s bad for me

  • I must only eat good food today

  • I have to earn this (forbidden) food by exercising or going without

  • I can only have this (forbidden) food as a special treat

  • Being good means going without

  • I can only eat this (forbidden) food on a Friday.


The All or Nothing Mindset

The All or Nothing Mindset is when we believe we can it all or have nothing, and that being ‘healthy’ means going without (the ‘bad’ food). This is common belief held by many of us who have repeatedly engaged in dieting (food restriction).


Let’s first take a look at some examples of the ALL Mindset:

  • I have eaten too much so I might as well keep going

  • I’ve eaten 1/2 a packet of biscuits so I might as well eat everything and start again tomorrow

  • I’m going to eat all the treats and start over.


And some examples of the NOTHING mindset:

  • I have eaten too much so I can’t have anything for the rest of the day

  • I ate so much yesterday, I have to skip lunch today

  • I’m not going to have any treats.


Food Rules

Strict Food Rules also influence our thinking and behaviour around food. Our Restriction Part is often behind the creation of these rules, although other Parts such as our Perfectionist Part can be involved too.


Our food rules are individual to each of us and are based on the thoughts and beliefs mentioned above e.g. that food is good or bad and our all or nothing mindset, and can also include all kinds of unusual or random rules. These rules often make little sense to other people but become part of the expectations our parts set in our relationship with food.


The stricter these rules, the more likely we are to break them and when we do, this can lead to feelings of failure, shame and disgust fuelling our chaotic eating.


Here are some examples:

  • I shouldn’t eat after 7pm

  • If I eat lunch, I can’t have dinner too

  • I can only eat [insert number] calories per day

  • I can only have one [insert forbidden food group] day per week

  • I must eat less than everyone else at the table

  • I can only have a treat day if I’ve been good all week

  • If I binge eat, I only deserve to eat left overs

  • I can only eat [insert forbidden food] at the weekend

  • I have to earn my food.

There is also a 3rd but equally impactful form of restriction that is often not recognised.


Unintentional Restriction

Forgetting to eat or eating later than planned because of an unexpected delay leads to Unintentional Restriction, even just 30 minutes can make a difference. Unintentional Restriction can also be a challenge for those of us who may not have the means to regularly access the food we need. Experiencing food poverty can play a significant role in the development and maintenance of chaotic or controlled eating patterns.


Unintentional Restriction has a similar impact on our bodies as Intentional Restriction and individually or in combination, the different types of Restriction (Physical, Cognitive, Unintentional) keep us trapped in the cycle of chaotic or controlled eating.


If you recognise that Restriction is playing a part in your challenges with food, I would love to help you resolve this for good. The best time to start was yesterday, the next best time is today.


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If you want to get started on healing your relationship with food and your body for good you can access my FREE 20 page guide on Working with Hunger and Fullness through a Parts Lens here.

If you are a professional interested in my 6 week training course you can find out more here.

Celia Clark is a Food and Body Image Specialist, Therapist and Course Creator who uses a Parts Work approach to help smart, sensitive women find true nourishment from within. She loves to share what she knows, so that women around the world no longer have to battle with food, their bodies and themselves.

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