Restriction and Restraint
Author: Breanna Mills R.D.
Restriction and restraint are big topics in eating disorder recovery and can take many different forms. The eating disorder thrives off of restriction and many restrictive behaviours and thinking patterns are rewarded in diet culture and in our society at large. Although restriction and restraint may be seen as a “good” thing by the eating disorder, they actually have many negative consequences on our physical body, as well as our mental state.
Restriction can be defined as a physical lack of food and energy, where our body is not getting enough. Restriction over a period of time causes our body to go into survival mode. When in survival mode, the body adapts and finds ways to keep us alive with less energy and may slow down or cease some functions in order to do this. Restriction accumulates debt in the body as we are constantly taking away without adding back, and the body is able to remember this deficit. Just because we feel we are functioning fine on less, does not mean that the body is actually functioning well.
Restraint, which may also be called mental restriction, affects our body in a similar way. Although there may be enough energy coming in, there may be limited variety and rigidity. Restraint could also come in the form of rules about which foods are “allowed”, certain time windows for eating or not eating foods that you actually enjoy. The body still views this as deprivation, and we often become increasingly rigid and preoccupied with food because the body doesn’t know when these foods are going to be available again. There doesn’t even need to be actual restraint with foods, even thinking or preparing for being restrained with food leads the body to be fearful.
Another important aspect of restriction and restraint are the thinking patterns around it. We may be actively challenging the eating disorder and eating enough and challenging different foods; however, if we still view it as doing something wrong, our brain and body is not able to trust us. This still leads to rigidity, preoccupation with food and increases anxiety about food. In order to fully heal from the eating disorder, we must address restriction, restraint and cognitive thinking patterns around food.
Symptoms of restriction and restraint
There may be physical symptoms of restriction and restraint such as digestive issues, irregular menstrual cycles, brittle nails skin and hair, decreased pulse and blood pressure, dizziness, decreased metabolic rate, or poor sleep. There can also be mental symptoms such as depression, anxiety, irritability, preoccupation with food, difficulty focusing, isolation, or dulling of emotions and senses. There may also be behavioural symptoms of restriction and restraint such as avoiding eating in front of others, increased movement, hoarding and possessiveness with food, eating slower/quicker than usual, having specific rituals around food, or increased interest in food preparation. These are just some examples of the ways that restriction and restraint affect our brain, body and behaviours.
Letting go of restriction and restraint
Letting go of restriction and restraint can be very difficult. The eating disorder likely has a story about what will happen if you let go of restriction restraint and allow yourself to eat more. The eating disorder may view restriction as a form of control, whereas this is actually a way that the eating disorder is controlling you. As we allow more food and different types of food, our body is able to heal and repair the damage that has been done from restriction and restraint, and many people notice that they feel significantly calmer around food and calmer in general. It is also not possible to fully heal from restriction unless we are addressing all forms of restriction and restraint, since they impact the body in similar ways.
It may feel scary to think about letting go of restriction and restraint and allowing yourself to eat in a different way than you have been used to. The eating disorder wants to keep you stuck in a cycle of restriction and restraint, and this only serves to further fuel the eating disorder. Letting go of restriction and restraint leads to healing and freedom from the life the eating disorder has kept you stuck in. You deserve to live a life free from the eating disorder.
Sandel, C. (2020, October 7). 214: Understanding restriction. Seven Health: Intuitive Eating and Anti Diet Nutritionist. Retrieved from https://seven-health.com/2020/09/214-understanding-restriction/