July 17, 2024
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Qualitative and Quantitative Restriction

The glamorization of restriction has led so many of us to wrongly believe that not eating is okay. I would even go so far as to say that some readers adamantly puff out their chests from reading that previous sentence, believing that not only is restriction okay, it is good! Look at the countless ads and other articles that promote restriction and the pursuit of weight loss. There is a false idea, disproven by research, that dieting always works and will allow us to feel better about ourselves.

Wrong.

Dieting often causes people to invest billions of dollars in an unhealthy relationship with food, their bodies and exercise, and the results generally do not last. And if they do, the person typically has become so consumed and preoccupied by the fear of gaining weight, that he or she misses out on life and begins to live in a rigid, fearful manner, not recognizing how much more full his or her life— and stomach—could be.

Restriction can be defined as limiting oneself. When I am meeting with a client or the loved one of a client and ask about the use of behaviors—let’s remember that restriction is just one of many eating disorder behaviors, certainly not the only one—people typically balk and say, “It’s not like I don’t eat!” As if restriction is about skipping meals entirely, or as if so many misguided individuals in our society who do not have an eating disorder but who struggle with disordered eating don’t subscribe to dangerous practices like intermittent fasting or ignoring hunger cues.

It is important to note that ALL restriction promotes an unhealthy relationship with one’s body. I’ve categorized restriction into qualitative and quantitative restriction, as I think this helps paint the picture of my message. Quantitative restriction may be what folks typically bring to mind when they conjure up the image of an individual engaging in food deprivation or limitation: skipping an entire meal, snack or whole components of a meal or snack.

Skipping a meal when the person knows it is time to eat, needs energy or feels hungry is considered restriction. People tend to rely on their stomachs growling for hunger, when in reality, physiologically this means the person is past hungry and moving into starvation. When we think about food or what we might want to eat for our next meal this is actually a sign of hunger. People may need to eat at wacky times due to scheduling or obligations and some folks only feel “ready” to eat after a cup of coffee, but it is important to acknowledge the gut feeling of knowing when we are not hungry versus when we tell ourselves we are not hungry. Additionally, those people who may not be hungry first thing in the morning might end up eating later in the evening. It is about knowing your body and knowing when you’re sending a message of deprivation and also knowing if years of deprivation or disordered behaviors have impacted your hunger/fullness cues.

Qualitative restriction is when someone limits a food choice based on food judgment. This person may eat a full meal, but choose an option according to the pursuit of weight loss or categorization of food as good or bad. For instance, someone who goes out with friends and recognizes being hungry and in the mood for one dish but tells him/herself not to have this, and chooses a restrictive alternative. Though the person did eat, s/he still restricted based on choice. Sometimes we don’t have the funds or opportunity to choose what we really want, but for the sake of this piece let’s focus on the incidents when choice is possible and an internal narrative that equates worth with food intake or appearance is the one calling the shots.

When we restrict, in either form, we send messages to our brains to go into survival mode—we lose the ability to assess hunger/fullness and tend to become obsessive, which will likely impact other areas of functioning and bodily systems such as digestion, sleep, energy, social battery, etc. Yes, even the qualitative restriction. Because what we’re doing is equating our sense of selves and achievement on depriving ourselves and not having our needs met.

Your life is so much more than telling yourself not to eat. You are so much more than a size or shape or how often you exercise. Your life can be so unbelievably colorful and wonderful, and overcoming the messages you’ve learned from society or the ways that you’ve learned to cope by punishing your body can be tough. And there’s hope. Notice how restriction might play a role, know you aren’t alone, and take steps to know yourself as so much more than the vessel that is housing you.


Temimah Zucker, LCSW, works with individuals ages 16 and older in New York and New Jersey who are struggling with mental health concerns, and specializes in working with those looking to heal their relationships between their bodies and souls. Temimah is an adjunct professor at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, an advocate and public speaker surrounding eating disorder awareness, and a Metro-New York supervisor at Monte Nido. To learn more or to reach her, please visit www.temimah.com.

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