Flexible restraint: it’s what’s missing from all fad diets

by Carolyn Thomas    @HeartSisters

My long ago high school years were spent at Mount Mary Immaculate Academy, a convent boarding school up on the mountain overlooking Hamilton, Ontario. (Keep in mind, of course, that I’m using the Ontario definition of the word “mountain”, and not the more scenic, snow-capped, high-altitude British Columbia definition of something that actually looks like a real mountain out here).

But I digress . . .  Our Mount Mary classmates included a significant number of “Spanish girls”. These were the exotic international boarders from Mexico or Guatemala or other Spanish-speaking nations whose wealthy parents had sent their daughters north to Canada for a year or two of boarding school to help perfect their English. Our Spanish girls needed to become fluently bilingual in time for their über-extravagant celebrations back home called the quinceañera, a girl’s traditional fifteenth birthday party to mark the important passage to womanhood.

Skinny or pudgy, every Spanish girl was obsessed about her weight. They talked non-stop about dieting as the year-long countdowns to their quinceañera parties began. And whenever our Spanish girls were even remotely upset with their Canadian dormitory mates for any reason at all, the worst possible insult they could spit out at us was the only Spanish word I knew back then:



And that’s about the time I started dieting.

In fact, I’ve been on one form of diet or another since about the age of 16.  Keep in mind that I was at that time (according to my own memory as well as lots of photographic evidence) a perfectly normal-sized, healthy, fit, active teenaged farm kid. I also played on the Mount Mary basketball and volleyball teams every year against fierce school rivals in nearby Toronto like Loretto Abbey or the dreaded (Protestant) girls of Havergal College.

But I distinctly remember examining my naked reflection in the bathroom mirror one day around that age and arriving at the critical determination that my blossoming womanly hips did not look at all the way they “should”, i.e. the way hips looked on the bone rack models pictured on Seventeen magazine covers.

Enter the grapefruit diet. The Metracal diet. The cabbage soup diet. Twiggy’s vegetable diet. You name a fad diet – the Spanish girls and I tried it throughout our convent high school years.

We’d lose a few pounds. And then we’d gain them all back – plus a bit more. Then came college and the famous Freshman 15. Those pounds arrived and then departed over the next few years in time for my wedding day photos. By the time I was in my late 20s and had popped out Baby #1, I joined Weight Watchers, lost 27 pounds of baby fat, and became a lifetime member (that’s somebody who meets their goal weight and manages to maintain it).

I was a model lifetime member – mostly because I’d also started running while in post-natal exercise class at the Y. I kept running (taking occasional breaks for sleeping, going to work, and popping out Baby #2) over the next 19 years. That was the only time in my adult life I didn’t participate in some kind of regimented diet program. I became one of those annoyingly smug people that dieters love to hate. I could eat (and drink) whatever I liked because I exercised hard almost every day.  I didn’t know it at the time, but I was following the advice of Kentucky cardiologist Dr. John Mandrola:

“You only have to exercise on the days you plan to eat.”

But like many recreational athletes, I learned that the minute you stop running (or hiking, or cycling) because of injury, illness or any other reason, you soon discover you cannot continue to eat the way you’ve been eating for 19 years with impunity.  When a running injury ended my main form of daily exercise, I didn’t replace all those weekly hours previously spent with my running group.
And thus it was that soon it became time to start yet another diet.
This was not because I didn’t know how to lose weight. Like many women, I’ve lost the same 10 pounds dozens of times, so I’m pretty good at it.
But what I seem to have a wee bit of trouble with is keeping those pounds off permanently. Does any of this sound familiar to you?
Researchers have developed a number of tools that help assess our eating behaviours and their impact on our ongoing weight loss efforts.It turns out that there are two basic types of ineffective dieting behaviours that are commonly observed among serial dieters like me.  One or both of these diet traps, by the way, are often behind extreme diets that tell you to avoid an entire type of “bad” food, from meat to wheat and everything in between, and are also behind falling-off-the-wagon post-diet eating binges.

The first type of eating behaviour is called dietary restraint:

#1:  Dietary restraint is a term that describes how tightly food intake is controlled in an effort to manage weight.

People with high levels of dietary restraint are likely to add up the calories in every bite, read every label, and talk a lot about how they watch what they are eating. But high levels of dietary restraint are not associated with successful weight management and may lead to abnormal eating patterns.2 People with high levels of dietary restraint are also prone to ‘on again/off again’ weight-loss practices.

Wow! They’re describing me and the Spanish girls back in the 1960s. We believed that carefully monitored deprivation was The Only Way to melt away ugly fat as we tracked each lettuce leaf that passed our lips.  Except that this relentless control only worked in the very short term. We were the undisputed champions of on again/off again fad dieting!

Meanwhile, the second form of eating behaviour is known as dietary disinhibition:

#2:  Dietary disinhibition is a term that describes the lack of control over eating.

A person with high levels of disinhibition will have frequent episodes of overeating, is likely to eat rapidly, have more symptoms of disordered eating, and higher ratings of perceived hunger.Not surprisingly, high levels of dietary disinhibition are associated with weight gain.4

Wow! That was me and our Spanish girls, too.  We seemed to be ravenously hungry at all times. We regularly swung from semi-starvation to binge-celebrating at the slightest provocation. During a late study night in the dorms, for example, nothing could cause more hyped-up frenzy than one of our dorm-mates unearthing a cache of Hawkins Cheezies after a long stretch of eating celery sticks or whatever was prominently featured in our latest fad diet. We’d go nuts with the Cheezies, our diet would go out the window, with nary a thought to those size 6 quinceañera ball gowns waiting at home for the Spanish girls. When the Cheezies had been polished off, and the fluorescent orange cheese-like powder licked off our fingers and swept off bed linens or PJ tops before the nuns called “Lights Out!”,  great remorse and shame would descend upon our dorm – at least until the next miracle diet started a few days later. As serial dieters believe:

“Nothing feels better than the first four hours of a new diet!”

Here’s what apparently lies between those two diet extremes of restraint and inhibition: The Right Balance, a.k.a. Flexible Restraint.

Flexible restraint means putting a moderate level of control on eating to manage a healthy weight.

An eating plan that incorporates the concept of flexible restraint provides enough structure to limit food intake to encourage weight loss, while avoiding fostering feelings of deprivation and tight restrictions.  Learning and practicing the skill of flexible restraint is a recommended strategy for lasting weight management.5

I long ago decided that certain things like Cheezies can no longer have a place in my grocery cart or kitchen cupboard. Ever. To do so would merely invite “dietary disinhibition” back into my life.  I realize, of course, that many people are not like me – hence the puzzling invention of things like resealable bags of chocolate chips.

I also come from a long line of emotional eaters. Our family ate when we were celebrating, we ate when we were worried, and we ate at any point in between those two extremes.  I’ve never understood people who say things like “I’m too upset to eat!” Do you recall those classic scenes from the old TV series The Golden Girls in which Blanche, Dorothy, Rose and Sophia – at every possible available opportunity – sat down together at the kitchen table in front of a fabulous (whole) cheesecake to solve their problems together? That was my family, too.

Dr. Brian Wansink, a behavioral scientist at Cornell University, describes what we often do as mindless eating. He explains, for example:

“We’re a nation of mindless eaters. We do so many things during the day that when it comes to food. we can just nibble and nibble and nibble, and eat and eat and eat.”

Find out more about Dr. Wansink’s work on why we eat mindlessly – and how we can help ourselves to pay attention.


UPDATE:  As Toronto health journalist Julia Belluz wrote in her Vox column:

“The science about dieting is rather straightforward. What works is cutting calories in a way that you like and can sustain. That’s it. Fewer calories means more weight loss. It’s really that simple.”

1 Bellisle F. Why should we study human food intake behaviour? Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis. 2003 Aug;13(4):189-93.
2 Rogers PJ. Eating habits and appetite control: a psychobiological perspective. Proc Nutr Soc. 1999 Feb;58(1):59-67.
3 Smith CF, Geiselman PJ, Williamson DA, Champagne CM, Bray GA, Ryan DH. Association of dietary restraint and disinhibition with eating behavior, body mass, and hunger. Eat Weight Disord. 1998 Mar;3(1):7-15.
4 Provencher V, Drapeau V, Tremblay A, Despres JP, Bouchard C, Lemieux S; Quebec Family Study. Eating behaviours, dietary profile and body composition according to dieting history in men and women of the Quebec Family Study. Br J Nutr. 2004 Jun;91(6):997-1004.
5 Westenhoefer J. The therapeutic challenge: behavioral changes for long-term weight maintenance. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2001 May;25 Suppl 1:S85-8.

Q: What tips have you learned to maintain a healthy weight?

See also:


5 thoughts on “Flexible restraint: it’s what’s missing from all fad diets

  1. Hello

    Your article is so useful for mindless eating definition. I want to share this post to my site.

    Experts tell us that the key to successful and lasting weight loss is a simple eating plan that provides structure without overly tight restrictions that cause feelings of deprivation. And possibly keeping bags of Hawkins Cheezies out of the house . .

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Always Well Within
  3. Carolyn,
    Even tho I’m a fellow Lifetime Weight Watchers member, a former runner (and distance swimmer), I was fortunate that I didn’t start my diet dashing (it’s now my form of running exercise) until I hit menopause. Unfortunately while my meno was pausing, my weight didn’t.

    I’m an all-or-nothing kinda gal and an emotional/mindless eater to boot. Flexible restraint doesn’t work for me . . . in the long run – wish it did. Something happens, a celebration, a loss, a moment of craving and then I’m off and eating.

    Part of my problem is that my brain craves those serotonin/dopamine hits that only sugar and carbs give it. I just count my blessings that I’m not tempted by gambling, sex or hang gliding.

    I will check out Dr. Wansink’s work after I get something to munch on so I can really pay attention to what he’s talking about.


    1. I hear ya, Judy-Judith! The other day, I compared this odd relationship to food with smoking: if you put a pack of cigarettes in front of me on the table, I could ignore them forever because I quite clearly see myself as a non-smoker. I have no trouble saying no to a cigarette. But if you put a big slice of cheesecake à la Golden Girls (a dessert that’s a perfectly irresistible combo of sugar, carbs AND fat!) in front of me, I’d start sweating. I still see myself as person who has trouble saying no to my favourite foods. But I’d love to start thinking of myself as a person who does NOT have issues with emotional eating. It’s why I like Dr. Wansink’s work…


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