Why there shouldn’t be off limit foods in your dietNutrition
Diet culture loves to demonize foods.
- Carbs make you fat
- Fats make you fat
- Sugar makes you fat
- Artificial sweeteners make you fat
With so many taboo foods, it’s a wonder we’re eating anything. In reality, there isn’t a specific food or food group that makes you fat.
Consuming too much of any food ultimately makes you fat. You gain weight when you eat more calories than you burn, regardless of where those calories come from. And although cutting foods from your diet can help reduce calorie intake, such a restrictive approach is neither necessary nor sustainable. And it often does more harm than good.
In this article, you’ll learn why no food should be off-limits in your diet - and how you can lose weight successfully and sustainably without feeling deprived.
Why diets work
Despite what low-carb, keto, or paleo zealots may claim, you don’t have to eliminate entire foods or food groups to lose weight.
In fact, research finds that all diets are equally effective, assuming dietary adherence(1). That is, any diet works as it creates a consistent calorie deficit. It all boils down to calories in versus calories out, which derives from the first law of thermodynamics…
Energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only transferred or altered in form.
You see, a calorie is a unit of energy. So when you provide your body with excess calories, the energy must go somewhere - and if you don’t burn it, you store it primarily as fat. In turn, your body will break down fat to use as energy only when you don’t consume sufficient calories (i.e., when you create a calorie deficit).
Cutting out certain foods from your diet results in weight loss if it leads to a calorie deficit. But there’s nothing about off-limits foods that is inherently fattening. A calorie is a calorie regardless of its food source.
Flexible versus rigid dieting
Although you can lose weight by eliminating foods(2), adopting such a restrictive mindset is far from optimal. And your mindset matters for long-term weight loss success.
When you set particular foods as off-limits, you start to view foods as good or bad and tend toward an “all-or-nothing mentality.” As a result, when you accidentally indulge in a “bad” food, you’re prone to experience guilt and completely stray from your diet.
Accordingly, research reports that individuals with a rigid dieting strategy are more likely to exhibit symptoms of eating disorders, overeating, and mood disturbances. A flexible dieting strategy, on the other hand, is associated with fewer instances of overeating, lower body mass, and lower levels of anxiety and depression(3, 4).
Then there’s the “forbidden fruit effect,” in which items become instantly more attractive simply because they’re forbidden. That is, by telling yourself you can’t have a particular food, you actually want it more - predisposing cravings(5) and overeating(6, 7) when you finally give in to temptation.
Rather than shunning certain foods, consider following a flexible dieting strategy, in which no foods are off-limits, and anything is fine in moderation.
Flexible dieting allows you to eat the foods you truly enjoy, so you can lose weight without feeling deprived and form a healthy relationship with food.
In the short term, it’s just as effective as a rigid approach; and in the long term it’s a clear winner.
Keys to long-term weight loss success
While there isn’t one “magic” food to cut out or consume for weight loss, there is a more generic recipe to ensure you lose weight and keep it off. By capitalizing on the psychology of sustainability, you can support the lasting behavioral change needed to adhere to your diet in the long term.
1. Form healthy habits
Many people mistakenly associate dieting with willpower. In truth, most of our daily behaviors and dietary decisions depend on habits, which are relatively “automatic.” Consequently, successful weight loss should emphasize healthy habit formation, which requires consistent repetition of a behavior until it becomes second nature(8). Because consistency is crucial for forming habits, it’s best to make small behavioral changes that you can more realistically implement and sustain.
So start with minor behavioral tweaks that you can cement into habits, such as…
- Including one more serving of veggies daily
- Eating protein and veggies first in your meals
- Bringing a protein-packed lunch to work
- Drinking enough water each day
Habit formation is a naturally slow and incremental process - but small changes add up and compound over time, yielding bigger, better, and longer-lasting results than any crash diet.
And to make forming habits easier, you can try habit stacking, a strategy in which you attach a desired behavior to an existing habit(9). For example, you could plan to prepare tomorrow’s lunch for work after finishing dinner. By associating meal prep with a current habit (i.e., eating dinner), you’re more likely to do it consistently until it becomes its own habit.
2. Monitor your food intake
People are notoriously poor estimators of calorie intake and portion size, often assuming they eat less than they really do(10). Tracking your food intake helps counteract this tendency and increases awareness around your food choices - so you’re less likely to eat mindlessly and exceed your calorie target(11). Accordingly, it’s no surprise that monitoring food intake is a common strategy among long-term weight loss sustainers. Nonetheless, such monitoring can take many forms. For instance, individuals who find calorie counting stressful can simply practice mindful eating for fairly similar benefits(12).
3. Optimize satiety with food selection
Just because you’re cutting calories doesn’t mean you have to starve. In fact, satiety plays a major role in dietary sustainability: a diet that leaves you constantly unsatisfied likely won’t last for long.
Fortunately, you can maximize satiety by selecting foods that are inherently more filling, including…
- Fruits & veggies - which tend to be less calorie dense so that you can eat more volume per calorie.
- Minimally processed (or “whole”) foods - which are typically less palatable than processed foods and require more time to eat and chew.
- High-protein foods - since protein is considered the most satiating macronutrient.
- High-fiber foods - since fiber expands in the gastrointestinal tract and slows gastric emptying, which enhances satiety signals.
4. Eat foods you enjoy
Food isn’t just fuel: it’s also a source of pleasure, which is yet another key component in dietary adherence. The more you like your diet, the more likely you’ll follow it long-term(13). You don’t have to deprive yourself of the foods you enjoy to lose weight. Instead, following a flexible dieting approach will allow you to eat whatever foods you prefer while reducing your calorie intake to enable weight loss. And since you’ll actually enjoy your diet, you’ll never feel the need to stray from it!
5. Follow a diet that fits your lifestyle & schedule
Why change your lifestyle to fit your diet when you can follow a diet that fits into your lifestyle?
Far too often, people pigeonhole themselves into a restrictive or rigid diet that simply isn’t realistic given their current circumstances. To avoid such a scenario, ask yourself…
- Does this diet reasonably match my personal preferences?
- For instance, you don’t have to follow a keto or low-carb diet if you love carbs. And you don’t have to follow intermittent fasting if it leaves you hangry for half of the day. All diets work if they reduce your calorie intake - so don’t choose one that makes your life miserable.
- Does this diet rely on foods I can’t easily purchase or prepare?
- Consider whether you have the time and money to follow a particular diet. If its approved foods are unaffordable, inconvenient, or require too much time to prepare, it might not be the diet for you.
- Does this diet require too many restrictions that make it hard to follow?
- Don’t choose a diet that requires meal-prepped foods if your job involves frequent restaurant trips. If your diet makes eating out or socializing nearly impossible, consider a different diet.
- Is this diet do-able in my current food environment?
- When you live with others or aren’t fully in charge of food shopping, it’s hard to control your food environment completely. As a result, you’ll probably need a diet with a bit more flexibility, that makes room for whatever foods you’ll have around or cook for your family.
You’ll better adhere to a diet suitable for your lifestyle and schedule - so be honest with yourself about what dietary changes you’re really able to make. There are countless ways to hit your macros. Don’t box yourself into a strategy that forces you to overhaul your life.
A final word on “forbidden foods”
You don’t have to banish your favorite foods to lose weight. In fact, you don’t have to forbid any specific food.
Weight loss is an issue of quantity, not quality: how many calories you consume matters more than where those calories come from. That said, you can strategically structure your diet to ensure you’re satiated and satisfied, so you attain and sustain your weight loss goals.
And a key part of sustainability is having a healthy mindset and relationship with food, which accompanies a more flexible dieting approach.
So stop eliminating foods. Eliminate the restrictive dieting mentality instead.
- Alhassan, S., Kim, S., Bersamin, A., King, A. C., & Gardner, C. D. (2008). Dietary adherence and weight loss success among overweight women: results from the A TO Z weight loss study. International journal of obesity (2005), 32(6), 985–991. https://doi.org/10.1038/ijo.2008.8
- Conlin, L. A., Aguilar, D. T., Rogers, G. E., & Campbell, B. I. (2021). Flexible vs. rigid dieting in resistance-trained individuals seeking to optimize their physiques: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 18(1), 1-10.
- Smith, C. F., Williamson, D. A., Bray, G. A., & Ryan, D. H. (1999). Flexible vs. Rigid dieting strategies: relationship with adverse behavioral outcomes. Appetite, 32(3), 295–305. https://doi.org/10.1006/appe.1998.0204
- Stewart, T. M., Williamson, D. A., & White, M. A. (2002). Rigid vs. flexible dieting: association with eating disorder symptoms in nonobese women. Appetite, 38(1), 39–44. https://doi.org/10.1006/appe.2001.0445
- Polivy, J., Coleman, J., & Herman, C. P. (2005). The effect of deprivation on food cravings and eating behavior in restrained and unrestrained eaters. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 38(4), 301-309.
- Stirling, L. J., & Yeomans, M. R. (2004). Effect of exposure to a forbidden food on eating in restrained and unrestrained women. The International journal of eating disorders, 35(1), 59–68. https://doi.org/10.1002/eat.10232
- Soetens, B., Braet, C., Van Vlierberghe, L., & Roets, A. (2008). Resisting temptation: effects of exposure to a forbidden food on eating behaviour. Appetite, 51(1), 202-205.
- Cleo, G., Beller, E., Glasziou, P., Isenring, E., & Thomas, R. (2020). Efficacy of habit-based weight loss interventions: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of behavioral medicine, 43(4), 519-532.
- Clear, J. (2018). Atomic habits: An easy & proven way to build good habits & break bad ones. Penguin.
- Connor, S. (2020). Underreporting of dietary intake: Key issues for weight management clinicians. Current Cardiovascular Risk Reports, 14(10), 1-10.
- Hartmann‐Boyce, J., Johns, D. J., Jebb, S. A., Aveyard, P., & Behavioural Weight Management Review Group. (2014). Effect of behavioural techniques and delivery mode on effectiveness of weight management: systematic review, meta‐analysis and meta‐regression. obesity reviews, 15(7), 598-609.
- Fuentes Artiles, R., Staub, K., Aldakak, L., Eppenberger, P., Rühli, F., & Bender, N. (2019). Mindful eating and common diet programs lower body weight similarly: Systematic review and meta‐analysis. Obesity reviews, 20(11), 1619-1627.
- Coyne, T., Olson, M., Bradham, K., Garcon, M., Gregory, P., & Scherch, L. (1995). Dietary satisfaction correlated with adherence in the Modification of Diet in Renal Disease Study. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 95(11), 1301-1306.