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Mental Restriction & How It’s Keeping You in the Binge Eating Cycle

Have you ever had thoughts like “you shouldn’t be eating this’“ or “you’ll eat better tomorrow”? Those are examples of mental restriction. Mental restriction is born out of food rules that we have created or picked up over time through diet culture. It reinforces to our binge brains that we can’t “trust ourselves” around food because it leads us to anticipate restriction, and therefore binge or eat past comfortable fullness. Even if you have stopped dieting, and aren’t restricting foods, the mental restriction may be keeping you in the binge eating cycle.

Examples of Mental Restriction

For example, say you eat a donut, and while you are eating it, you think “I really shouldn’t be eating this”. By thinking that, you feel bad for eating the donut, and feel like you’ve already “blown it”. At that point, you feel like “well it’s too late today, I might as well eat more of them” which may lead you to binge, or eat past comfortable fullness.

Other examples of mental restriction:

“Tomorrow I won’t eat as much as I did today”

  • This thought tells your brain to anticipate restriction. If you are already planning to not eat tomorrow as much as you did today, your body is going to want to “stock up” on food because it’s anticipating the planned restriction.

“I’ve already ruined my day of eating now, I might as well start over tomorrow”

  • Here, this thought implies that your day of eating is something you can ruin, which is an all-or-nothing thought. If you feel like you have already “ruined” something, you won’t care about the future actions you take and you will be more likely to binge the rest of the day.

“I’m eating X food right now, so I shouldn’t have it again later today”

  • While eating something, if you expect that you can’t have it again later that day, you are more likely to binge on it in that moment, or eat past fullness because you anticipate you won’t be “allowed to” later.

“It’s ok to eat that every once in a while but every day is too much“

“Crap, I shouldn’t have eaten that”

Releasing Mental Restriction

Releasing mental restriction is a process, and it takes a long time to undo the food rules and things you tell yourself about food. The key is identifying the thoughts so that you can reframe and calm your binge brain. The following steps are helpful for this process:

  1. When you notice a mental restrictive thought, take note and write out the thought.
  2. Review the restrictive thought. Remind yourself that this is a restrictive thought.
  3. Reframe the thought, and repeat the reframed thought out loud to yourself (more on this below).
  4. Continue steps 1-3 again and again and again. It takes practice, repetition, and time to rewire your brain to recognize and unlearn the mental restriction.
  5. Continuously remind yourself that you have unconditional permission to eat, and that you can eat what you want.
  6. Don’t give up! It takes time to unlearn the years of food rules and restrictions.

Reframing mental restrictive thoughts

Reframing thoughts is an important part of learning to recover from binge eating. The process of reframing thoughts is essentially taking a negative thought, and changing it to be a neutral or positive thought.

Let’s go over some examples:

“Tomorrow I won’t eat as much as I did yesterday.” —> reframed to —> “I ate to nourish my body today. Tomorrow I will do the same and I will honor my body’s needs.”

“I’ve already ruined my day of eating today so I might as well start over tomorrow.” —> reframe to —> “I can’t ruin anything because there is nothing here to ruin. I will continue to make choices that nourish and respect my body.”

“I’ve already had X food today, so I shouldn’t have it again later today.” —> reframe to —> “I can have that food again later if I want to. There is nothing wrong with having it again.”

If you are struggling to believe your reframed thought, you can always begin the reframed thought with “I am choosing to believe”.

So, to recap, mental restriction can keep you stuck in the binge eating cycle because it creates anticipatory restriction. Start to identify your mental restriction and reframe those thoughts. Remember it takes time to unlearn the thoughts drilled into us by diet culture!

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