Are food restrictions necessary?

written by Philip Stefanov  |  SEPTEMBER 21, 2021

Throughout the years, I’ve had the pleasure to work with a decent number of clients and get plenty of questions from readers. Of course, no two cases are the same, and I’ve encountered all sorts of training and nutrition-related problems. But perhaps the biggest issue I’ve seen over and over again is this:

Unnecessary food restrictions.

I’ve been guilty of this, you’ve been guilty of this, and every other person on the planet has been guilty of this.

Picture this scenario:

Johnny has been overweight for a few years, so he’s decided to make a change. In one swoop, he stops eating all of his favorite foods and instead replaces them with ‘clean’ options. You know what they are:

  • Meats
  • Fish
  • Eggs
  • Leafy greens
  • Fruits
  • Nuts

There is nothing necessarily wrong with that because these foods are great for us. But there comes the point where we have to ask ourselves, “Must I restrict myself so much if I want to reach my goals?”

In most cases, the answer would be a no. It’s entirely possible to enjoy our nutrition, treat ourselves from time to time, and still reach our goals. If you’ve read some of the articles on my blog, you know that I’m a big proponent of the flexible approach.

Of course, there is also something to be said about the if it fits your macros mentality, which I disagree with. The idea is to eat whatever you like, so long as you don’t exceed your calories or macronutrients for the day.

I believe there should be a balance between making good food choices and treating yourself. For one, we are humans, not machines. We should enjoy our nutrition because that’s the only real way for us to stick with it in the long run.

And second, research explicitly shows that when people can’t eat their favorite foods, their cravings increase, at least in the short term. Here is a direct quote from a review (1):

“Experimental studies suggest that a short-term, selective food deprivation seems to indeed increase cravings for the avoided foods.”

This could partly be due to habits. For example, you used to enjoy a big bowl of ice cream after dinner for as long as you can remember. You loved it, looked forward to it, and thought about it during the day. But now, you’ve decided to cut the ice cream out of your diet because you’re trying to lose weight. All of a sudden, you no longer get to enjoy that pleasurable activity, which sparks a strong response from your body:

“I want that ice cream, damn it!”

But here is where it gets interesting (1):

“However, experimental studies also show that food craving can be understood as a conditioned response that, therefore, can also be unlearned. This is supported by intervention studies which indicate that long-term energy restriction results in a reduction of food cravings in overweight adults.

So, a good way to ease into better habits is to make gradual changes. For example, instead of cutting out all of your favorite foods, eat less of them. Alternatively, you can replace some of your guilty pleasures with healthier options. For example, replace:

  • Sweets with fruits
  • Sugary drinks with diet soda and tea
  • Processed meats with poultry and fish
  • Potato chips with popcorn
  • Ice cream for fruit smoothies

Over time, your cravings should naturally decrease to the point where you no longer feel an urge to eat certain foods (2).

Thank you for reading. Until next week,


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