The slingshot effect: how restricting foods can be harmful

What would you do if you were told that starting tomorrow you will no longer be allowed to eat sugar? Truth be told, many of us would feel a sense of urgency to go out this evening and eat sugar-laden foods to our heart’s content. In fact, we’d probably eat way more than we really wanted. I mean, this is our last chance, right? Better get it out of our system!

Over the next few weeks, or maybe even months, we would diligently avoid all sugar. We’d proudly ignore cravings. We might even feel a little smug about our dedication to the new change. We’re in control!

But…inevitably, we’d give in. That perfect storm of cravings, low motivation and opportunity will present itself eventually and we’ll find ourselves indulging in the forbidden fruit. At this point, we throw our hands up in the air and maybe even think ‘Well, I’ve ruined it now! I might as well eat whatever I want for the rest of the day!’ We rush to get in all the things we’d been missing before we start again…

Repeat the above situation and you have the binge-restrict cycle that so many people get caught up in. It’s easy to see how this happens! The intentions are good, but we’re human and this of often the effect of total restriction for many people.

The Binge-Restrict Cycle

The pattern that emerges when someone places strict, inflexible dietary restrictions on themselves (or on others in the case of coaches) can be compared to a sling shot. Imagine that restriction is when you’re pulling back on the rubber band of the sling shot. You’re holding back from eating certain foods and denying strong cravings. You may even become a little bit obsessed and think about the restricted food more often than you did before.

The problem is that you can’t pull the band back forever. You become physically and mentally tired. One day you find yourself giving in to that restricted food. The longer and harder you’ve been pulling back on that sling shot, the further the pebble will fly–or in this case, longer and worse the binge can be.

This pattern is why I don’t advocate complete restriction of any food (aside from foods which clients have diagnosed allergies or intolerances to). However, this also isn’t permission to eat whatever you want or give into cravings too often. While there are definitely foods that have zero nutritional value and should be eaten sparingly, they can still be a part of an otherwise healthy and well-balanced diet.

Sugar, chocolate, fast food, chips…no one is going to argue that these foods are nutrition powerhouses, but they’re also not ‘poisonous’ or ‘toxic’ in moderation. These aren’t every day foods. But (and this is the ironic part) by allowing our favourite non-nutritious foods to occupy a small space in our diet we often eat far less of them than we would if we restricted them completely and then experienced the backfire of that.

This is about preventing the feeling that we are being deprived of something. Many of my clients who have been extremely successful are not “the most strict.” One client who comes to mind loves licorice and diet coke. She probably goes out and buys a coke and a small bag of licorice a couple of times a month. Another client, who explains that she used to self-soothe with a whole chocolate bar a few times a week now enjoys one square each night after dinner. Both clients have learned how to enjoy their favourite treats in moderation. They’ve found a strategy that works for them. You can do this, too!

As you can see, restriction is not a long-term solution – it is a band-aid. The real solution is learning moderation. This will take time and practice and it will look different person to person. You may not be able to resist eating the whole large bag of chips (yet) but maybe you can occasionally purchase the small bag? Instead of keeping ice cream in the house, you could try going out for a scoop now and then. Learning to trust yourself (that you won’t go crazy eating anything and everything) will help you live in this land of moderation, and escape the binge-restrict cycle.

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