Caloric restriction has become somewhat controversial. With Social Media at the helm of daily influence, tight bodies abound but mental health and eating disorders are very real concerns. Mere mention of the word 'restriction' elicits a visceral stress response in many who have struggled with diets and weight fluctuations over the years.
The hard truth, however, is that calories must be managed for weight loss to occur and doing so in a healthy manner is critical for long term success. You can live by keto, low-fat, paleo or whatever diet derivative you want: If you are eating too much, you will not lose weight.
So how does one restrict without putting mental health at risk? It starts with the right expectations and mindset:
Strategically restricting calories is good for overall health and weight loss, but restricting nutrients will damage health and hold back results.
Here are some lessons to remember while you tackle losing weight.
Lesson #1: Stop living in extremes. Live with moderation.
The hardest thing about the health and fitness industry is that people get caught up chasing perfection with black and white rules. When the only acceptable outcome is perfection, anything that falls short is perceived as a complete failure.
Ate a cookie? Failed, might as well eat a whole pizza.
Missed a workout? Failed, might as well quit the gym.
Want to stay sane? Make room in your plan for a treat or two. Eating a cookie won't make you gain weight. Eating several cookies as a daily staple, however, will contribute to gaining weight. There's a huge amount of grey space between the two options.
Live in moderation: Plan in guilt-free small treats among a diet rich in nutrients.
Lesson #2: You can restrict calories without being extreme.
What does caloric restriction even mean?
What it doesn't mean: Eat nothing (because this inevitably leads to bingeing, which means you aren't actually restricting at all).
What it does mean: Eat less than you normally would in a stepwise process.
A few strategies to help you eat less without overthinking:
1) Set a timer, and make sure it takes you 20 minutes to eat your meals. This means chewing and tasting your food, putting utensils down between bites, etc.
2) Use smaller plates & always serve yourself: the combination of the two can lead to 30% fewer calories consumed.
3) Skip one typical meal or snack every day; otherwise known as Intermittent Fasting.
4) Observe your "normal" serving and reduce portions of non-green items. Do you usually eat two cookies in one sitting? Cut that down to one. 10 pieces of sushi? Cut that down to 6. That's caloric restriction.
Lesson #3: Caloric restriction is healthy.
Research shows the following benefits of caloric restriction:
- Slows down aging. Yes, eating less keeps you looking young.
- Protective against cancer
- Protective against cardiovascular disease
- Protective against diabetes
In my practice, most people eventually realize: We all eat more than we need to. We live in an environment where food is literally everywhere, and we've been trained to believe we all need at least 3 meals per day along with snacking to "keep our metabolism up" (which is a myth).
Eating nowadays could be described as more of a hobby than it is a necessity. Accepting this fact- that you can and will thrive with less- is when it becomes easier to change your habits.
Lesson #4: Focus on what your body truly needs (nutrients).
If you want to lose weight without feeling mentally overwhelmed and restricted, focus not on what you're missing, but on what you're giving your body. Fill your life with food items that are nutrient-rich but calorie-poor, which fall into 3 calories:
- Things that grow from the ground/bushes/trees: The more colour the better with everything from blackberries to red beets and green spinach to orange sweet potatoes.
- Lean protein sources: Fish, poultry, lean red meat, etc.
- Whole grains: Rices, oats, buckwheat and amaranth tend to be the best tolerated. Be careful with wheat, barley and quinoa, which give many people digestive/allergen issues.
Lesson #5: Reshape what "healthy eating" looks like to you.
A healthy meal isn't one that contains zero sugar, or zero fat, or zero carbs. A healthy meal is one in which you prioritize the things your body needs (nutrients) while minimizing the things it doesn't (excess calories).
Here are some examples of healthy meals that can contribute to weight loss:
- Chicken, greens, and one slice of avocado toast
- Hamburger (with bun!) and large salad (but avoid adding bacon/cheese/mayo, etc.)
- Grilled salmon, any veggies you want, and berries
When you combine meal choices like this with the strategies from Lesson #2 above, you manage calories, promote nutrients, and maintain mental health.
Caloric restriction is necessary for weight loss but avoiding extremes will preserve both mental & physical health and ensure long term success. In order to restrict calories without risking health, follow this plan:
- Remember that the plan isn't about being perfect, it's about making small improvements over time.
- Pick a strategy from Lesson #2 to eat less overall.
- Remember that restricting calories is good for your mind and body.
- At your meals, pick 2 foods from the Lesson #4 groups, plus another food you really enjoy (see Lesson #5 for examples).
- At all times, focus on what you're giving your body, not what you're withholding.