How Mental Restriction Messes With Your Hunger Cues (Part 1)

After working with clients for over 5 years now I see that one issue comes up again and again…and not many people talk about this.

Maybe you know by now that to get to full recovery you need to stop restricting, eat enough, challenge fear foods and food rules, take a break from exercising…but actually this is NOT enough to fully recover.

I like the quote from Marisa Peer that says “In order to change your action habits you must also change your thought habits”. Meaning, that unless you address your thoughts, beliefs, and mindset…none of the positive behavioral changes will truly stick.

Our body and mind are extremely connected and to get to full recovery they must align and work together.

Very often I see in new clients that with their actions they appear to be “in recovery” but on the mental level, they are still deep into their eating disorders. On a mental level, nothing much has changed. They have applied a lot of positive behavioral changes but somehow they still feel stuck. Some feel they are still overeating, some have regular feelings of guilt after meals, some have been in recovery for years and are still in quasi recovery

In today’s video, I talk about how important it is to also start working with your thoughts to fully end the restriction. Many people are maybe not physically dieting anymore but mentally they are still *thinking* like dieters – they feel constant shame, judgment, and guilt around food. Their emotional response to food is the same as when they were still physically restricting.

In the video we will cover:

✔️  What is mental restriction and how it causes problems with eating

✔️  How your thoughts lead to the results you are getting (full recovery or eating disorder)

✔️  Scientific research on how mental restriction causes overeating

✔️  How your thoughts affect your hunger hormones

✔️  Why mental food stress changes how your body responds physically

+ and much more!


This post is the first part of a 2-part series:

  1. In today’s post, I will talk about what mental restriction is and share some scientific research on how it causes problems with eating
  2. And in the second part I will talk about how to overcome mental restriction. See that post HERE.

What is mental restriction?

Mental restriction is the constant guilt, shame, and judgment about eating. You are maybe eating physically “whatever you want” but mentally and emotionally you don’t give yourself unconditional permission to enjoy it. You are maybe not physically dieting anymore, but you are still thinking like a dieter. Your mindset and emotional response to food have not changed. Your mental wiring is still like someones who is on a diet. Simply put – mental restriction is the constant mental stress about eating.

Common examples could be thoughts like:

“I can’t be still hungry, I just ate!”

“I will eat whatever I want but I hope I will start eating less soon”

“I can eat this cake but I hope I can settle with just one peace”

“I have gained weight, I can’t keep eating this much!”

“I will try unrestricted eating but if it doesn’t work I will go back to dieting”

With all of these examples a person is still physically eating BUT on the mental level not much has changed from when they were actively dieting. It’s not that they don’t eat, they do, but it comes with constant guilt, shame, and judgment.

How your thoughts lead to the results you are getting

And maybe you think that these are JUST thoughts, so no big deal…but you would think differently if you knew just how much your thoughts affect the results you get.

Because your thoughts —> lead to certain emotions —> which lead to a certain behavior —> which will lead to a certain result.

So if your thoughts are still disordered…you will just continue to get more disorder as a result. It all starts with your thoughts.

No amount of food challenges or “eating whatever you want” will lead to full recovery if on a mental level nothing changes. Because its the mental side, the thoughts, the beliefs, that are actually fuelling everything. You can’t just change your actions if you don’t first change the thoughts that are fueling the actions. Your body and your brain are extremely connected and they work together. For full recovery, your action and mindset have to align and get on the same page.

Otherwise, it’s very confusing for your brain – for example, if with your actions you really seem to eat a lot of food and technically don’t restrict anymore, but if your thoughts are still heavily judging and shaming those actions, then it’s like riding in a car with both gas and breaks on at the same time – you won’t get very far and end up staying stuck in one place. To fully recover your actions and your mindset has to align – to be on the same level and both working in the same direction.

So if you want to fully recover from restriction, you must also work on getting rid of the restrictive thoughts.

How mental restriction causes problems with eating?

We talked about it before that your body and brain are interconnected. They work together. And there are several studies done on how our brain, particularly our thoughts and mindset affects our physical body.

1. Mental restriction leads to overeating

Typically when a normal eater eats something high calorie their hunger decreases, they get satisfied and they stop eating.

But research shows that when dieters think they have eaten more food than they typically allow themselves it causes them to continue eating more, way above their hunger cues.

This is known as the “what the hell effect” or “blown it effect” – when a dieter feels that just because they went off their diet plan and they have already “blown it” they might as well keep on eating.

pizzaThere was a study done on 106 females where some of them were dieters and others non-dieters. And to each group, they gave pizza slices when some appeared to be bigger or smaller slices. And after the pizza slices, they were given free choice to eat as many cookies as they wanted.

When dieters thought that they had eaten bigger slices of pizza they continued to eat 67% more cookies than non-dieters who also thought they had eaten a bigger slice of pizza.

So people on restrictive diets are way more likely to eat more food compared to non-dieters even when the food served was the same amount.

This is one example of how just thinking like a dieter will lead you to overeat.

2. Mental restriction signals deprivation to your brain the same way restrictive diets do

There is a common phenomenon called the “Last Supper Eating” that I’m sure many dieters have experienced.

I have personally experienced this so many times. Whenever I told myself that a “diet starts tomorrow!”, it automatically made me feel so deprived that I had my “last and final binge” the evening before. I wasn’t even hungry before thinking that thought, but as soon as I knew another diet is right around the corner I suddenly felt so deprived and it drove me to binge and overeat.

And the more years went by with dieting the more sensitive my body became not just to physical restriction but also to my restrictive thoughts – to the point that I could just think about eating a salad for lunch instead of pasta (that I truly wanted) and in the next minute find myself eating an entire potful of pasta.

So just thinking about an upcoming restriction can lead you to binge and overeat. Typically you overeat the exact foods you are planning to start restricting later. You find yourself eating all foods that soon will be forbidden even if currently you are not hungry.

3. Mental restriction affects your hunger cues

At the University of Columbia, psychologist Alia Crum conducted a study to research how our hunger hormone ghrelin works.

Ghrelin is one of our hunger hormones that control our appetite, metabolism, and so on.

For that study, she had two groups of participants and she made them a milkshake with 360 calories and poured it into two glasses.

1) The first glass was labeled 140 calories ”Sensishake: guilt-free fat-free”

2) And the second one was labeled 620 calories “Indulgence: Decadence you deserve”

People who drank the milkshake they thought was low in calories didn’t notice any changes in their hunger, their hunger hormone ghrelin didn’t decline. They thought that they didn’t get much food so their hunger didn’t go away and their metabolism also didn’t speed up.

But the group who thought they were drinking the 620 calorie milkshake had a ghrelin drop 3 times as much and their metabolism also sped up!

This very clearly shows how our thoughts and beliefs can affect our eating and even the way our body physically responds to food. Our body and mind are very much connected and they work together.

4. Mental restriction signals stress to your body

There is something called cognitive dietary restraint which means that stress hormones are released by your body just by your thoughts about restriction.

Even if you are not actively dieting but constantly thinking about restriction it’s already signaling stress to your body.

For example, everybody knows that our body produces stress hormones when something bad is happening BUT our body also produces those stress hormones when we are just imagining something bad happening.

For example when you are walking on a hiking trail, and suddenly you think you saw a snake on the ground in front of you. You jump from fear, you feel the surge of adrenaline and cortisol, your heart beats faster, maybe you start sweating a little bit. And this happens in a matter of seconds… BUT on a closer look, there was just a stick on the ground. You imagined something scary even though there was nothing there. But notice how your brain and body physically responded to it.

No wonder when we are still eating with lots of guilt, shame, anxiety, and judging our eating our body and brain feel like we are still under the stress of dieting. Your thoughts and what you choose to focus on makes a huge difference!

This is why it’s so important in recovery to not just physically eat, but mentally also give yourself unconditional permission to eat without guilt, shame,  judgment and stop the diet mentality that is the root of mental restriction.

5. Focusing on your appearance reduces your ability to respond to fullness signals.

And lastly, I also want to point out another part of mental restriction that comes from your focus on how your body looks.

Because most often mental restriction is rooted in our fear of weight gain.

There is a study done on this that discovered that people who focus on their body’s appearance have a hard time responding to their body’s satiety signals. They are much likely to overeat.

This makes perfect sense because if we are focused on the external things we get disconnected from what’s going on internally, meaning – we lose touch with our intuitive eating signals.

The mental restriction is very closely tied to our obsession with our bodies and how it looks which as a result makes us feel guilt, shame, judgment about our eating.

This is why I always say that to fully be intuitive eaters and to be able to eat normally, listen to our bodies, then shifting from the weight and body focus is a super important step towards intuitive eating.


These are just some of the examples of how mental restriction affects your eating the same way restrictive dieting does and why it’s so important to address it. Because as I have said many times in this video that our physical and mental sides are interconnected and they affect each other.

In the next video, we will talk more about how to overcome the mental restriction. See the second post HERE.

If you want to learn more about recovery and how to do it step by step then please read my book “BrainwashED”

And also please check out my recovery courses: Kickstart Your Eating Disorder Recovery and How To Get Back Your Period

If you wish to work with me one on one, then I offer 12-Week Recovery Coaching where I can help you go through your recovery step by step and offer support and accountability. Read more and apply HERE.

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