Restriction is defined as a limiting condition or measure. My therapist read this definition to me once when I was in the initial stages of healing for my eating disorder.

The word limiting sticks with me, not just because of the clear connection between limiting food in various ways and my eating disorder, but because of the way this word is woven in and throughout the very nature of certain eating disorders: limiting the amount of food you eat during a meal, limiting the number of meals you eat in a day, limiting the times of day you are allowed to eat, limiting the type of food you are allowed eat, and, probably the most poignant application of the word is the limiting of a social life, the limiting of emotions you are able to experience, the limiting of opportunities you can partake in, the limiting, restricting, and shrinking of your physical body.

I started taking restriction seriously when I realized and started to believe that restriction, by its very nature, was the limiting of my experience as a human being.

Depending on a myriad of both static and fluctuating factors, restriction’s presentation and hold can show up in a variety of ways for those who have an eating disorder. It can take on many different forms that may not be as perceptible as skipping breakfast or foregoing dessert. These less overt, slightly more subtle ways of restricting can be equally as concerning, though, and are limiting factors for the life you could be experiencing outside the grips of your eating disorder. 

Why Talk About Restriction?

Understanding the less obvious ways restriction can show up can help you identify ways that restriction is in the driver’s seat when you are struggling with or healing from an eating disorder. You may not realize you are engaging in restrictive behaviors because you might not be skipping whole meals or cutting out entire food groups. Awareness, though, is the first step towards action, and identifying these subtle forms of restriction can help you take the first steps or help you to continue taking steps toward healing.

11 Subtle Ways Restriction Can Show Up for Someone With an Eating Disorder

1. Rice Cakes in Lieu of Bread

Avocado toast is my jam. I love it. But I didn’t allow myself to eat it in its truest form when I was engaging in restrictive behaviors. I would use far less avocado than I wanted to, and my “toast” was a plain rice cake. And, hey, no hate to rice cakes– I actually do enjoy them, but let’s be real: avocado toast on a rice cake is just not the same, and I was choosing it to “save calories.”

2. Going for an “extra” walk at night when I didn’t want to to “make up for” eating something

While walking has become a form of movement I genuinely enjoy, it used to be an obligatory part of my day,  an “extra” work out to round out my calorie intake at the end of the night.

3. Ordering things you don’t really want at a restaurant

A salad instead of a sandwich, a water instead of a glass of wine, broccoli instead of french fries – restricting zapped the joy right out of going out to eat. I was so fixated on making the “healthiest choice possible” that I would often end up with meals that I didn’t even want.

4. Using (a spritz of) olive oil spray instead of olive oil when cooking

I would take the “pour two tablespoons of olive oil in the bottom of a pan” part of a recipe and turn it into two tiny little sprays of olive oil cooking spray to keep my meal’s calorie count low. This mentality ended up limiting what I would order in restaurants (because, umm, what if they cooked the chicken in “actual oil!?”) and because obsessive to the point where if I ran out of the olive oil cooking spray, I wouldn’t eat what I was intending to make.

5. Chewing food for the taste and then spitting it out before you swallow it

I would do this to “enjoy the taste” without consuming the calories of something – often a dessert of sorts. Someone around me may see me take a bite out of a cookie and not realize that I was discreetly spitting it out after.

6. Always having mints (or gum) on hand to curb hunger

I would go through a package of Icebreakers duo fruit & cool mints every day. Anytime I was hungry or thinking of food, I would have a mint to help “hold me over” until my next self-appointed eating window.

7. Bringing your own salad dressing to restaurants to ensure your salad is “low calorie”

To avoid the anxiety that would come with not knowing how “calorie dense” a dressing was at a restaurant, I would have packets of my own dressing always on hand.

8. Eating slowly to try to get full on less food

I would eat as slowly as possible to make it look like I was eating a lot to other people and to make myself feel full. Even when I was incredibly hungry, I would “pace myself” so that I was better able to detect fullness.

9. Developing food rituals (like eating the same snack at exactly the same time each day)

Eventually, I got to the point where I was eating the exact same breakfast, lunch, and snacks at the exact same time every day. I was so scared of “ruining something” or being “tricked” by “hidden calories” that I limited myself to the same foods on a daily basis. I would find myself fixating on my 3pm snack – two carb smart tortillas – for hours before I allowed myself to eat them.

10. Cooking and baking food more often than normal

I enjoy cooking and baking, but I turned into a baking queen at the pinnacle of my struggle with my eating disorder. It didn’t strike me as problematic until my therapist noted that this was likely an eating disorder behavior. I would bake for other people, but then I wouldn’t eat anything that I baked. I think it was a restrictive behavior of mine that acted simultaneously as an overcompensation for all I wasn’t eating and a way for me to “prove” my level of self-control.

11. Filling up on only fruits and vegetables at a BBQ

I would often graze constantly, but I would grae solely on cucumbers, peas, grapes, sliced bell peppers. So, I was eating “a lot,” but I was eating food that I had strategically chosen.

Living Life Free from Restriction

Understanding that restriction goes beyond simply “not eating enough” can lead to being more equipped to recognize how an eating disorder infiltrates many many layers of our thoughts and behaviors. Acknowledging and addressing these sneaky, more subtle forms of restriction can help you take back control during your recovery, and it can help you stay vigilant to any temptations to start leaning back into restrictive behaviors throughout and beyond your initial recovery journey.

You do not need to take up less space and consume less in order to be more; this is a lie that will leave you as a shell of who you were and who you are meant to be. You are designed for much more than living a life full of restriction in the name of “restraint,” “health,” and “self-control.” And no matter where your journey has taken you or where you are today, I promise a life without restriction is possible.

By: Erika Muller, Assistant for Wildflower Therapy LLC

All images via Unsplash

How Can Wildflower Therapy in Philadelphia, PA Help You?

If you’re looking for someone to come alongside you to help you unpack and approach the the complex set of experiences and emotions that come with having and healing from an eating disorder , our therapists in Pennsylvania are honored to help!  In fact, you can get to know a little bit more about them here and book a free consultation here.

Other Mental Health Services Provided by Wildflower Therapy, Philadelphia, PA

Life is a unique and sometimes messy journey for each of us; we all have our own individual battles to fight. Our therapists know there is no one-size-fits-all approach to any of life’s challenges and because of that, we offer many unique perspectives and approaches to help meet you where you are with our Philadelphia, PA Therapy services.

With this in mind, we offer services for eating disorder therapy, services for anxiety, and depression, and have practitioners who specialize in perinatal mental health maternal mental healththerapy for college students and athletes. As well as LGBTQIA+ Affirming Therapy. Accordingly, we have something to offer just about anyone in our Philadelphia, PA office. Reaching out is often the most difficult step you can take to improve your mental health. We look forward to partnering with you on this journey!