Kiefer et al. describe dietary restraint (DR) as the desire to restrict food intake in order to lose or maintain weight. This may seem like a good thing to those who are trying to lose weight, but letting your mind fixate on it can cause the long-term outcome to be far from good.

In other words, you may be thinking about what you’re eating all the time and how it might make you gain weight. The act of eating may stress you out. You may fixate on eating “good” and “bad” foods and let those foods dictate your mood/thoughts towards yourself. Or, you may get anxious thinking about what you’re going to eat while going out to eat or at a dinner party. Sound like you? No worries, you’re not alone.

Dietary restraint is a topic of interest due to its possible negative impact on our long-term health goals.

Let’s say you’re a 21-year-old college student or a 42-year-old mother of three. You like to exercise and eat well, but you also like to go out on the weekends and you have a consistent hankering for fast food, wine or chocolate (I’m sure you can’t relate). You’re very hard on yourself when it comes to screwing up on your “diet,” and the negative self-talk (I’ll never see my abs, my legs are so jiggly, I can never control what I eat, I’m doomed to be skinny-fat the rest of my life, I can’t do anything right, etc.) is constantly playing inside your head. You think your hard work should be paying off because you exercise and eat well most of the time, but you can’t handle what happens on the weekends or control your thoughts and judgments towards yourself. You can never seem to get your thoughts and your actions under control, and constant frustration with your results ensues.

Dietary restraint has been associated with greater perceived stress along with stress-related physiological factors such as increased cortisol, reduced bone mass, and irregular menstruation. Most people would guess “more stress = not good,” but not many would correlate their daily thoughts with negative health consequences such as these.

Those who are likely to have chronic DR are also likely to have issues with negative body image. To add to the list of problems these individuals may have, a study in adolescents by Sabiston et al. found negative body image to be associated with increased C-reactive protein (CRP) and adverse health effects including increased risk of diabetes and heart disease. These two (DR and body image) go hand-in-hand, and chances are if you’re reading this, you’ve struggled or currently struggle with one or both of these.

It is extremely important to start learning about this at a young age – possibly just as important as teaching kids and adults how and what to eat. The mind is a powerful tool. It requires just as much attention and practice to master our thoughts as it does to practice habits to master our actions.

There’s something called an “allostatic load” that is essentially the amount of stress that adds up in your daily life – where dietary restraint makes a big impact if you let it. The heavier your allostatic load, the more chronic stress you experience. Your thoughts have a lot to do with the amount of stress you’re under and how you deal with that stress, and the consequences aren’t just psychological, they’re physical as well.

I like to believe “the body achieves what the mind believes.” Positive attitude = positive results. Negative attitude = negative results. Many successful achievers believe the same. It has been true throughout my experiences and through the experiences of those around me.

No need to pretend you’re calm, cool and collected while you feel the pressure of your everyday life pressing down on you. Work on reducing your daily stressors now and you can thank yourself later.

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McLean JA, Barr SI, Prior JC. Dietary restraint, exercise, and bone density in young women: are they related? Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2001; 33(8):1292–1296. [PubMed: 11474329]

Pradhan AD, Manson JE, Rifai N, Buring JE, Ridker PM. C-Reactive protein, interleukin 6, and risk of developing type 2 diabetes mellitus. JAMA 2001; 286: 327–334.

Rideout CA, Linden W, Barr SI. High cognitive dietary restraint is associated with increased cortisol excretion in postmenopausal women. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2006; 61(6):628– 633. [PubMed: 16799147]

Vescovi JD, Scheid JL, Hontscharuk R, De Souza MJ. Cognitive dietary restraint: Impact on bone, menstrual and metabolic status in young women. Physiol Behav. [published online ahead of print April 11, 2008].

Photo: K.C. Green’s Gunshow comic #648