Why eating without restriction really is the healthiest option

There was a heated discussion on Facebook after I posted a podcast on orthorexia last week. It seems that many people interpret the message of “it is okay to eat “unhealthy” food without restriction” as “all you should eat is “unhealthy” food all the time.”

And it is very interesting to me that many people are so binary about this. You are either restricting, or you are eating “junk” food 24/7. The reality is that eating without restriction tends to actually result in a naturally balanced diet that suits your, unique, body. This is because the human body is super-smart, and the less you interfere with what it asks for and the more you provide it with what it asks for without judgement, the more it is able to self-regulate.

Let’s talk about sex for a moment.

Say you meet a new partner. And you start dating. There is all this anticipation. Lust. You want what you can’t have or have not yet had. When you really get it together and start having sex, you likely have a lot of sex. Then, after that lovely little “honeymoon” period, you become less like rabbits and you settle into having sex when you both want it. Not all the time. Hopefully not none of the time. Just when you feel like it.

Most of us are the same way about food. If you are not allowed a food, or only allowed it on special occasions, you want it. So then, when you do have it, you want a lot of it. On the other hand, if you were to allow yourself to have it without restriction, after a while you would settle in to having this food when you felt like it. Not all the time. Not never. Just whenever you felt like it.

What does eating without restriction actually mean?

Eating without restriction means that you eat what you want when you want it — in the quantity that you want it. That doesn’t necessarily equate to eating tonnes of chocolate and burgers every day forever. Unless that is what your body wants and needs, and who am I to judge if that is the case. For a body in a state of malnutrition, highly caloric foods are often wanted by the body for the duration of the recovery period. This is because the body is smart, and it knows it needs these types of foods. (Note: you do not have to be clinically underweight in order to be in malnutrition, and that restriction can lead to malnutrition in any size body.)

Taking malnutrition out of the picture, the same applies for many people who do not allow themselves to eat what they want: they want it more. Ironically, when we restrict a food and we do not allow ourselves to have that food as often as we would really like, the brain starts of overly focus on that food. The brain wants that food more. We desire what is forbidden. It’s a bit like if someone tells you not to push the red button, then all you can think about is the red button. So if one restricts chocolate, one is more likely to want to eat chocolate. If one restricts sugar, one is more likely to want to eat a lot of sugary food when faced with it. Therefore it is restriction that results in an upset of the natural balance. Because you have interfered with the bodies ability to self-regulate, it reacts by going into a scarcity mindset.

Thankfully, studies are beginning to find evidence to support what to my mind is common sense: that is is actually restriction that influences a tendency to “binge” on highly palatable foods. This study here shows that sugar addiction may not actually be addiction at all. Rather, that the problem is not allowing access to sugary foods creates a very strong desire to eat sugary foods in high quantities.

We find little evidence to support sugar addiction in humans, and findings from the animal literature suggest that addiction-like behaviours, such as bingeing, occur only in the context of intermittent access to sugar. These behaviours likely arise from intermittent access to sweet tasting or highly palatable foods, not the neurochemical effects of sugar.

Yes, if you restrict something, you are more likely to binge on it. The restriction is the problem, not the food.

Eating without restriction in recovery

When I was in recovery from anorexia and the malnutrition that it created, eating without restriction meant I ate a lot lot lot of food. While this was scary for me, it was needed. My body was in malnutrition, so it is common sense that it would need a lot of food in order to get out of malnutrition. To be clear, nutritional rehabilitation should not look like eating a “normal” amount of food. If you have been eating an abnormally low amount of food for some time, you will need to eat an abnormally high amount of food in order to get back into balance.
For me, eating without restriction looked like a lot of processed and “unhealthy” food. This was because these were the foods I had been the most restrictive about. These were also the foods that my body new would be easy to digest and therefore be the fastest source of readily available calories. And it needed calories! Eating fast food was pleasurable for sure. What was difficult was letting go of my own judgement about it!
Eating without restriction means not judging the what, the why, the when, or the quantity of the food that you eat. It means not waiting until the right time to eat, and not saving that chocolate bar until the end of the day or until you think that you have earnt it. It means responding to desire in the moment that you are in without compromise or negotiation.

Eating without restriction once fully recovered

The notion is the same. I still eat what I want, when I want it, in the quantity that I want. However, because my body is no longer in a state of malnutrition, it doesn’t need to be telling me to eat 10,000 (or more) calories a day any more. I’d say I still eat more than most people, but that is only because — let’s face it — most people have fallen into the restriction trap. Our culture makes it seem normal to suppress your bodyweight and be on a diet. Fuck that. It evidently doesn’t work.

Because I have, for years, allowed myself to eat “unhealthy” foods without restriction, my brain doesn’t crave them every second of the day. So, the notion of unrestricted eating is still the same, but as you move through recovery you will find that eating without restriction looks different depending on where your body is at and what it needs.

Now, eating without restriction looks like on between 3-4000 calories a day. I dunno. I haven’t counted in a while. It also looks like a very varied diet. Sure, I eat a fair amount of burgers (because I love them) but that is not all I eat.

The point is, if you keep your judgement out of the way, and if you stop trying to suppress what you eat, your body will get out of malnutrition and then it will self-regulate. Your diet will naturally balance itself. Your metabolism will settle and you will desire to eat what you need in order to sustain your natural, healthy, body weight.

The even more important point is this: You eat without restriction for life! Not just for recovery. You never, ever, restrict. It is not like you get to a certain weight and then you start restricting again. That is not recovery, that is restriction and weight suppression. That is just anorexia at a higher weight.

Do not judge what you want to eat

Do not judge when you want to eat

Do not judge the quantity that you want to eat

Do not judge why you want to eat.

Is eating unrestricted the same as intuitive eating?

Not really and kind of. If you are not a person with an eating disorder the you be as intuitive as you like. If you are a person with an eating disorder you have to be smart about it. If your “intuition” tells you that you want to eat salad for lunch you have to know that is not enough, and you have to be suspicious. Anorexia can dress up as intuition in that way. Basically if your intuition is asking for overly healthy foods the whole time, or low-calorie foods, then you have to push it aside and dig a little deeper. When you do, you will likely find that the real, honest you would love pizza, but that desire is being suppressed by fear.

Be wary. Sometimes you are restricting without even knowing it. But you are smart, I know you are, so I know you can work this out.

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What do you think?

  1. Oh my gosh the whole hype about ‘serving sizes’ and ‘portion sizes’ annoys me so much! The last thing someone with an eating disorder needs to hear is that you can only eat x amount of a food!
    It is so irritating, when you search on Google ‘what does a normal sized meal look like’ (by the way, I was searching this up because, for the duration of my anorexia, my idea of a ‘large meal’ was 250 calories- which is obviously nowhere near enough. So I wanted to see if there was any examples of what a normal person eats.
    Literally everything that came up was diet advice on how to make your portion sizes smaller and that, if left unchecked, you will almost certainly eat ‘too much’.
    This is a particularly annoying article that made me want to throw something at my computer screen- http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-3331095/Handy-guide-portion-sizes-Never-know-food-Use-formula-figure-right-eat.html
    (Note- if you are likely to be triggered by this sort of diet advice and calorie talk, do not read it.)
    That is the most restrictive ‘guide’ to ‘healthy eating’ that I have ever seen.
    No, it’s not actually, because apparently you’re allowed two serves of fat a day- but a serve of fat is the size of the tip of your thumb. Gosh, shouldn’t we all be glad that there is any fat on there at all????!!! Ridiculous!
    Ironically, it made me realise that what I had just eaten for lunch was nowhere near enough. I had had a 300 calorie salad for lunch- which I’m sure the person who wrote this article would think is a good amount. Well, I was nowhere near full after it, and obviously 300 calories is a pitifully small amount, so I ate a plate of lasagna and a Snickers bar as well! Much better! It was absolutely terrifying, but felt great at the same time.
    You won’t ever catch a ‘nutritionist’ telling someone to eat a ‘regular’ Thai beef salad, a plate of lasagna and a chocolate bar for lunch, but that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t have eaten it.
    I really hope that, one day, people will realise that is it restriction, and not unrestricted eating, that is the bad thing,
    Thanks so much for another immensely helpful post, Tabitha.

  2. I was struggling with this today..i enjoy reading what u write..im recovering on my own but u make it feel safe. .u give me permission…thank u

  3. I agree 100%. I remember being in inpatient rehab…..they were very rigid about what we got to eat-for obvious reasons- but I remember after evening snack every night thinking: “why wont they let me have more cereal and milk? I’m still hungry and they have me on a short leash so I wont exercise….I just need more food!”. The dietitian was doing her job and feeding me the amount of calories they thought would put weight on me in the 2-3 moths I was there but I know my body needed more. The result of that is that I left at about the same weight at which I arrived. Maybe they Believed that my body couldnt handle it….or my mind? But I’m just saying….I could FEEL that I needed more.

  4. Is it possible for people to actually develop binge eating disorder? Could it be harder to stop the intense days of high caloric intake for some people? I had bouts of binge eating before I ever restricted. My immediate family has weight issues, I have had a hunch that binge eating disorder “runs” in the family if that is possible?

    I guess I am just asking if you have had any experience where a patient has developed another eating disorder and can’t stop the binging.

  5. Thank you for writing this, Tabitha. Sometimes it is really hard to believe that eating without restriction doesn’t result in disaster.
    Actually, I am really panicking at the moment. I am seriously freaking out, everywhere I go I am seeing messages saying that I can’t eat unrestrictedly, that I will get enormously fat and it is bad.
    In fact, I freak out even more when I see articles like this in a scientific magazine that say that, if left to our own devices, everyone would eat themselves into extreme obesity, and that the only way to prevent this is to basically make sure that you don’t eat a lot. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/beastly-behavior/201710/we-are-programmed-gluttony-and-weight-gain
    Tabitha, please say something to me that will make me calm down- I am terrified that I will do exactly what articles like the one above promise- that I will eat myself into such extreme obesity that I’m not even recognisable.
    Note- I am weight restored, in fact I am overweight, my BMI is 27, which is really fat, and I am really panicking because I’m not supposed to be eating a lot, I’ve finished gaining weight but its not stopping… Tabitha please help me.

    • That article is nonsense. Obesity isn’t caused by unrestricted eating, it’s caused by overavailability of cheap, processed foods high in fat and sugar but low on actual nutrients. If you eat proper food, including high calorie foods like cheese, meat and peanut butter, you’ll get full and satisfied without getting fat.