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Nutrition

“I’m a Dietitian, and Here’s Why an Overly Restrictive Diet Can Backfire”

Plus see the 'fluids, fillers, feast' trick that can help you lose weight without giving up all your favorite foods

At some point, you’ve likely heard that a certain food or food group is “bad for you.” You might have even consider adopting a diet that completely eliminates the offending fare. But the good news is that experts agree you don’t have to follow a restrictive diet or completely give up sweets or snacks. In fact, you can consume your favorite food (in moderation) in addition to more nutritious picks while improving your health. Here’s how.

The problem with a restrictive diet

“There is a lot of nutrition misinformation out there, so it’s not uncommon when someone thinks they have to completely cut certain food groups out of their diet to be healthy,” says Shelley Balls, MDA, RDN, LDN, registered dietitian and nutritionist for Consumer Health Digest. “There are numerous studies, books and social media posts that we are exposed to every day. Some are more helpful than others when it comes to nutrition.”

That’s why Jessica Alfano, MS, RDN, CNSC, CDN, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Nutrition Support Clinician with Huntington Hospital Northwell Health, says she makes a point to remind her patients that all food has place in their diet — everything in moderation truly is key. Why? Most food groups do provide different nutritional benefits, Alfano explains. When you cut an entire food group, you could be missing out on important nutrients that keep the body functioning and feeling its best.

One example: dairy. Eliminating this group will make it difficult to consume sufficient calcium and vitamin D, says Jessica Garay PhD, RDN, CSSD, FAND, a nutrition professor at Syracuse University and founder of nutritional consulting company Major League Wellness. “Plus milk, yogurt and cottage cheese are great sources of high-quality protein,” she adds. “And they are an easy drink or snack option.” (Discover the benefits of getting more protein in the morning.)

A gold fork and knife on a mint-green plate against a pink background
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Finding room for your favorite foods

Incorporating foods that aren’t as nutrient-dense as healthier fare is important for creating a sustainable eating pattern.

“It is so important to eat our favorite foods,” explains Alfano. “Our cultures heavily involve food. Food is comfort, love, social interaction, fuel, holidays and more. Most importantly, eating our favorite foods makes us feel happy and satisfied! When we restrict ourselves, it actually tends to make us binge eat other foods instead of satisfying our cravings appropriately. Eating too much of any food — even vegetables — can be harmful or unpleasant.”

For more, check out this video from dietitian Steph Grasso, MS, RD:

@stephgrassodietitian

How I established a healthy relationship with food. Why restrict your favorite foods when you can just add more nutrients?! Best of both worlds 🫶🏼 #dietitian #nutrition #healthyrelationshipwithfood #add #macncheese #healthtips

♬ original sound – Steph Grasso, MS, RD

Ditch the restrictive diet: You can eat these foods

We know that a balanced diet consists of whole grain carbohydrates, protein and a small portion from healthy fats. Despite being components of a balanced diet, some of these food groups tend to be vilified. Here, some of the most common foods people avoid while following a restrictive diet — plus why you shouldn’t cut from your eating plan.

1. Fats

“A nutrient that has been wrongly shamed is fat,” says Balls. “Fat — particularly healthy fats such as omega-3 fatty acids — should be part of a well-balanced diet. We need healthy fats to absorb vitamins, form cells, provide energy, protect our organs and keep cholesterol and blood pressure under control. By cutting out all fat, you can actually be hindering your body and overall health.”

The key: Opting for foods with healthy fats, such as avocado, nuts and olive olive. Trans fats, on the other hand, should be limited. Found in many baked and fried foods, trans fats have been linked to cardiovascular disease, breast cancer, colon cancer, diabetes, obesity and allergies.

2. Carbohydrates

“Right now, low-carb diets are trendy,” says Alfano. “Carbs are definitely demonized. And yes, some carbohydrates are unhealthy. But there are lots of carbohydrates that provide us with vitamins, minerals and fiber such as whole grains, beans and fruits.”

Grains such as white bread, white rice, donuts and pastries should be relatively limited, Balls says. However, whole grains should be included in a well-balanced diet, and may even help lower A1C, a marker of blood sugar, one study suggests.

3. Snack foods

We all have cravings for sugary, high-fat or ultra-processed fare like candy or chips now and then. “Many diet programs focus on cutting out the foods that people often over-consume, such as sugary foods and beverages,” says Garay. This is not a bad strategy, but it does not have to be an all or nothing strategy either.”

The reason: “Those are exactly the types of foods that can be difficult to eat a small portion of,” Garay says. “I often talk with clients about identifying their ‘trigger’ foods – the ones we can eat an entire package of in one sitting or the ones we gravitate towards when we’re stressed or upset. For those foods, I recommend not having them readily available to eat, or pre-portioning them so there’s no opportunity to eat straight from the package.”

4. Fruits and veggies

Mature woman eating an apple and smiling while not following a restrictive diet
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Surprisingly, even fruits and vegetables are susceptible to criticism. “Fruits and even vegetables lately have been taking a hit from food critics,” says Balls. “It’s not rare to hear that people avoid fruits because of their sugar content. [Whole] fruits provide a unique nutrient package which include energy as well as dietary fiber, antioxidants, phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals. [They] deserve a spot in a well-balanced diet.”

Adds Garay: “When you cut fruits, you are going to miss out on fiber, potassium, vitamin C and more. These are things that you cannot always find in the right amounts in other food groups.”

Balls also notes that certain vegetables have been under fire lately due to their oxalate content. Oxalates are plant compounds that can block mineral absorption and, in some cases, contribute to kidney stones (learn more about how oxalates impact weight loss). However, Balls says this is typically only an issue for a person with a kidney injury or who is prone to kidney stones. Otherwise, avoiding vegetables that contain oxalates is more likely harmful than beneficial.

3 tricks for healthy eating without following a restrictive diet

Woman happily eats colorful salad in her kitchen while not on a restrictive diet
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To eat healthily without following a restrictive diet, the secret is being mindful, kind to and in tune with yourself. Here’s how to do it.

1. Do a hunger check-in

“Instead of watching your TV show while mindlessly eating a whole bag of chips, measure out some of the chips into a small bowl to satisfy the craving,” suggests Alfano. “Then ask yourself when you are finished if you still feel hungry.”

If you are, eat some more. “But most of the time, you’ll be surprised to find these hunger check-ins with yourself help you recognize that you’re actually full and satisfied. You can also pair your favorite unhealthy foods with a healthy food. Make yourself a snack plate with your favorite candy or chip, fruit, nuts and some veggies for a filling and satisfying snack.”

2. Try the ‘fluids, fillers, feast’ trick

Garay recommends what she calls the “fluids – fillers – feast” strategy. This starts with ensuring you are always staying well-hydrated with fluids (ideally water). Then eat a meal built around fillers, which are the nutrient-dense foods low in calories but high in fiber or water, such as produce. Finally, you can enjoy your “feast” item, which is the food that you want to eat.

That’s especially helpful if you’re trying to shed a few unwanted pounds. “Lifestyle changes that are sustainable are going to help us lose weight and keep it off,” Alfano says. “Allowing yourself to eat your favorite foods in moderation is realistic for the long-term and will help you stick to your health goals or weight loss journey. Remember, one ‘bad’ day does not mean the next day you can’t get back on track!”

3. Add instead of subtract

Alfano suggests thinking about adding instead of restricting when it comes to your diet. This means focusing on adding fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and drinking more water.

“If your diet consists of mostly healthy food such as these, it is perfectly okay to enjoy a slice of cake every now and then,” she says. “This keeps our relationship with food healthy and enjoyable. At the end of the day, you always want to eat foods that make you feel good!”


For more on the benefits of a balanced diet:

This 30 Plants a Week Hack Helped One Woman Lose 227 lbs — How It Can Work for You

Top MD: Easy Big-Breakfast Hack Helps Fight Diabetes and Boost Weight Loss After Age 50

Scientists: This Simple Hack Makes the Mediterranean Diet 5x More Effective for Women Over 50

This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.

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