How restrictive eating impacts your body and mind

If you are struggling with an eating disorder or disordered eating behaviours, you are likely to be engaging in some form of restrictive eating, this being driven by a powerful desire to change your body weight and shape. 


We often think of restrictive eating as the conventional calorie-controlled diet but in fact, it can take several forms. Below are three examples.

Delaying eating

This means putting off eating, to reduce overall calorie intake. It could result in you having your first meal at lunchtime, with your evening meal happening at 9 pm each night. You might feel rigidly bound to eating times and social eating brings undue uncertainty and anxiety.

Cutting out a major food group

This involves eliminating or reducing a food group. Historically, fats were the food demons of dietary restriction, whereas, in recent years, carbohydrates have taken pride of place here, particularly with the advent of the wellness movement. For example, spiralised courgettes replacing pasta and bread becoming “off limits”.

Not eating enough

This third category and possibly the more obvious one involves counting calories or micro-managing food portions or groups. Calorie counting apps and fitness dietary regimes have often normalised this behaviour as ‘healthy’. But for many, this ultimately leads to undereating and a restrictive food intake.

Regardless of the method of dietary restraint, this is going to lead to an unbalanced and poor nutritional intake and reduced energy absorption by the gut.

Importantly, this is not only relevant to the person who is underweight but can be experienced by anyone, regardless of weight and size.

We know from the Minnesota Starvation Study that when human beings have their food intake restricted, several changes occur in the body, including physical, emotional, social and thinking. Starvation can have a powerful and potentially devastating impact.

You might think that this sounds extreme or irrelevant to your personal situation. You might have even become accustomed to food restriction or chronic dieting, so experiencing the impact as ‘normal’. Nevertheless, it might be worth reflecting on whether you identify with some of these impacts below. 

Physical changes

  • Feeling freezing cold all the time, even on a warm summer’s day.
  • Your hair becomes thinner and might fall out.
  • Your skin is dry.
  • Your gut movement slows and you experienced constipation, bloating and pain. This can often be confused with food intolerance, when in fact restriction is at play.
  • Extreme hunger and binge eating. You might feel a loss of control around food.
  • Excessive fullness, as your stomach shrinks due to food restriction.
  • Dizziness, feeling faint and lightheaded.

Emotional changes

  • Low mood and a lack of enthusiasm to do anything.
  • Anxiety around food, socialising with others and your body image.
  • Irritability. Maybe someone breathing too close to you can activate irrational rage.
  • Losing interest in the things you used to enjoy.

Social changes

  • Withdrawing from friends due to lack of energy and anxiety around food routines.
  • Social anxiety. It becomes difficult to socialise and eat out.
  • You lose your sense of humour and nothing seems funny anymore.

Changes in thinking

  • Food preoccupation through scrolling, recipe books and constant meal planning (even when you’re not eating very much).
  • It’s hard to concentrate and make decisions.
  • Your thinking becomes rigid and obsessional.

Be curious and compassionate towards yourself, as you reflect on the potential impact of restriction. If you recognise that you are experiencing some impacts, you may wish to think about this and the costs and benefits of pursuing restraint. 

If you’ve been dieting for a very long time, it can be extremely challenging to think about stopping this and how you might manage your thoughts, feelings and overall relationship with food. This can be an incredibly difficult journey, but you don't have to go through it alone. Counselling is one avenue of support that may be worth considering. You can browse UK-based eating disorder professionals right here on Counselling Directory, or you can contact me via my profile.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Cambridge, CB1
Written by Harriet Frew, MSc; MBACP Accred
Cambridge, CB1

Harriet Frew is a counsellor specialising in eating disorders and body image. She has worked in the NHS and private practice since 2003, and is passionate about supporting and educating others through therapy, writing and social media.
Instagram: @theeatingdisordertherapist_; Podcast - The Eating Disorder Therapist Podcast

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