What is the first thing you think of when you think about “going on a diet”?  Probably “restriction”.  Something has to go, whether drastically cutting calories and eating way less, or cutting out specific foods (which will most likely just cause you to be eating less).   This makes sense, if you want to lose weight, and even if you are just seeking a healthier lifestyle, there is still restriction to be had.

Lately though, we have been having a bit of a cultural pushback on the idea of restriction.  In general, we have become very pro “whatever you want”.  This starts applying to nutrition and diet.  Some mental health professionals have added to it by showing how restriction is bad because it can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food.

But, obviously creating change requires changing inputs.  If a smoker is going to quit smoker, he needs to restrict cigarettes.  If an alcoholic wants to be sober, she needs to restrict alcohol.  So, it makes sense to assume that achieving weight or health changes, the input will (most likely, barring a larger problem), have to change.

So, how should we approach nutrition?  To restrict or not to restrict?  My answer?  Don’t restrict what your body NEEDS.

Your body needs a diet made up of all three macronutrients (fats, carbohydrates and protein).  While perhaps you can skip certain types of the macronutrients, you do need them all.

Your body also needs enough calories to operate.  Imagine going on a 500 mile car trip with a half tank of gas.  You know your car isn’t going to operate without the proper amount of foul, so why expect your body to be able to?

But of course, restriction is required to make change.  So what should be restricted?  I should hope my answer is obvious: restrict what your body does NOT need.  This could mean excessive calories (and yes, it may take time to figure out what is the right calorie balance for you, because you don’t want to be too far over or under), drastic macronutrient imbalances, added sugars, and artificial, unhealthy ingredients.

So yes, restriction is necessary, but unhealthy restriction is not only unnecessary, it is what can bring about an unhealthy relationship with food.  Taking out what your body needs is going to create cravings, and ignoring those cravings for what your body needs is going to lead to the emotional struggles we often equate with “dieting”.

So, we need to rethink two things: first, that restriction is GOOD for us as we pursue nutritional changes, because it means taking out what our bodies don’t need.

The second thing to rethink is our perspective on restriction.  Instead of worrying about the foods we don’t get, let’s consider what restrictions we face, or will face, if we are not living our healthiest lives?  Inability to be active and do the things you want to do (playing with kids/grandkids, participating in group activities, etc)?  Self-satisfaction and confidence?  And eventually, being secure in your health as your age.

One final thought: we really need to be considering our restriction mindsets in terms of what the next generation is seeing.  No, we should not vilify food groups, or be obsessive about “not eating too much”.  But we do need to teach our kids what the better choices are, and why we should want to restrict the poor choices.  But we need to do it carefully—allow for the occasional treat, and a sane, “sometimes food” approach.  Be careful with labeling good foods and bad foods, because children (and many adults) can start equating eating them with their own goodness or badness.  Like I mentioned last week, morality in nutrition is never a good thing!

So, let’s redefine our ideas of restriction.  Restrict what is bad for your body (restrict, not necessarily eliminate!), go crazy on what is good for you (within ideal caloric range), and overall, make sure you are staying sane about it!