Why Restriction Is Never Just About Food & Calories

restriction - abstract picture in blues, pinks, orange, and peach, with flowers at the bottom, and a face above with blue background

For me, the first restriction behaviors appeared when I was a child and they had nothing to do with counting calories.

For instance, I always picked the cheapest item on the menu when my parents took me out to eat. When I deemed the entire menu ‘too expensive’ I’d pick an appetizer and claim I wasn’t that hungry. Instead, I’d load up on the free bread on the table. I didn’t feel I deserved to make anyone pay for an expensive dish for me. It didn’t matter how often they said we were out to celebrate something or that the item price wasn’t an issue.

Early signs of restriction

I also refused to eat nice chocolates, especially those molded into the shapes of cute animals. Thinking they were “too nice” I believed I should save them for a special occasion. But no occasion was ever special enough. I could always wait longer. One chocolate bunny sat on the shelf for 2-3 years. Always in the front row, always to be looked at but not to be eaten.

One day when the chocolate started to slowly turn white, my mum said that now I had to eat it, or it would go bad. It was a big bunny, and I wasn’t strong enough to break the chocolate apart. So, she gave me a hammer and I smashed the chocolate animal into tiny pieces and ate it. I didn’t enjoy any of it. I didn’t think the occasion was special enough to eat it yet. And I was sad that chocolate didn’t last longer.

Not always about food

Restriction behaviors were also not necessarily related to food. Receiving new things in the form of presents almost always presented a challenge for me.

My mother once gave me all of her old necklaces. Most were free jewelry from catalog subscriptions or things she didn’t want. They were big colorful wooden beads or fake pearls, nothing that I really wanted or had asked for. I felt extremely guilty for being so ungrateful. Being confronted with a confusing mix of feelings about not wanting them and feeling guilty for having them, I chose to not ever wear them.

When a friend came over, amazed with all the necklaces (“I would wear a different one every day!”), I felt intense shame thinking I didn’t deserve to have so many things. I was never able to be grateful enough to deserve all these necklaces.

Reward contamination or anhedonia

I now understand that these were the first signs of the restriction that I already displayed as a child, just not always with food. I became aware of this after reading about reward contamination or anhedonia. This means some people struggle distinguishing between reward and punishment. It seems to be more common in people with eating disorders who perceive a pleasant tasting food as punishing (perhaps due to fear of calories). Alternately, they perceive a punishing exercise as rewarding.

It’s possible to demonstrate this issue using an fMRI machine on people who recovered from an eating disorder. When playing a game, their brains showed little to no difference in activity between winning and losing. My personal interpretation of this is that feeling rewarded for restricting can go beyond the territory of just food and ‘actively’ having an eating disorder. In this sense, receiving a present can feel like punishment while not receiving or giving things away may appear like a reward.

Other forms of restriction

And there were many other non-food items I restricted as a consequence. Not sharing school achievements (or feeling joy over completing a degree years later). Not spending my pocket money until the piggy bank exploded from the sheer quantity of years’ long accumulation of cash. And not even telling adults when someone stole from me. Because I took pride in ‘not seeking attention’ for my problems (yes, even restricting attention).

To this day, I get intense pleasure from donating things and ridding myself of the guilt of ownership. I still pick the cheapest item of the menu, even when by myself and especially when someone else pays. And I still don’t like eating chocolates with faces on them. I developed a preference for clothes from second-hand shops and sale items. Because a new, regular price item just feels too good for me.

Restriction Mindset

One of the most important conclusions I draw from all this is that restriction is not as simple as restricting calories. There seems to be an entire ‘restriction mindset’ that is well ingrained into my personality and of which calorie restriction is just one variant. In order to get better I will have to challenge the entire mindset.

It is not just about deleting calorie tracking apps and eating so-called “fear foods.” But also about allowing myself to purchase a more expensive item from the menu, allowing others to pay, accepting presents, and challenging the guilt I experience every single time.

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  1. says: Emma Parten

    I have never connected all these different types of restriction before. Even now, after years of recovering from eating disorder behavior, I struggle those other forms of restriction. Restricting spending, buying, enjoying, accepting presents or opportunities. Fascinating how they all root to the same place.
    Thank you so much for sharing!

  2. Emma,
    Thank you so much for reading! It is fascinating, isn’t it? I had a therapist who used to say all the time, “How you eat says a lot about how you do everything else in life.” I’m glad this article was helpful for you!

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