CDR: The One Concept I Teach All My Clients
The following is an excerpt from Chapter 5 of my recently published book, 100 Days of Food Freedom: A Day-by-Day Journey to Self-Discovery, Freedom from Dieting, and Recovery from Your Eating Disorder...
So, what even is Food Freedom? While the term is used in some other notable places we won’t mention, for our purposes it denotes the ability to eat food freely.
It means rather than basing your allowance of what you eat off caloric content, you have given yourself 100% unconditional permission to eat what you want when you want.
That is the most important part of this: there are no caveats or exceptions. With true Food Freedom, you may eat anything as often as you want.
The reason this is so important is that as an autonomous adult, it makes no sense to let external rules govern your eating decisions. This is where the all-important concept of cognitive dietary restraint comes into play.
Cognitive Dietary Restraint (CDR)
Cognitive dietary restraint (CDR) refers to the perception or intent to limit food intake to manipulate body weight. It does not have to do with whether one actually restricts intake but whether the intent is there.
CDR has been linked to a laundry list of adverse health outcomes, not only psychologically (Kiefer et al., 2008) but physiologically (Rideout, Linden, & Barr, 2006). Certain inflammatory markers, blood pressure, blood lipids, and other negative factors increase in those expressing CDR, along with symptoms of depression and anxiety.
And here’s the most interesting part: the one thing CDR is not well correlated with is change in weight (Le Barzic, 2001).
That’s right, trying to diet leads to all the things we use dieting to run from, but the one thing it doesn’t lead to is weight loss. How could this be?
That’s right, trying to diet leads to all the things we use dieting to run from, but the one thing it doesn’t lead to is weight loss.
Ego depletion is essentially “willpower burnout.” We have limited resources with which we can force changes in thought and behavior throughout the day.
In the landmark “Marshmallow Experiment” by psychologist Walter Mischel in the 70s (Mischel, Ebbesen, & Zeiss, 1972), a child would be given a marshmallow and told that if he or she could wait 15 minutes and not eat the marshmallow, the experimenter would bring in either another marshmallow or some other treat. So, some of the children in the experiment tried to resist the temptation and ultimately most of them gave in and ate the marshmallow.
Those who could resist the temptation so they could get more treats all seemed to use strategies of keeping themselves busy, such as playing counting games with their fingers. Those who gave in all seemed to fixate on the marshmallow and “tried” not to eat it. This told us that when we recruit lots of willpower to resist something, we burn out fast.
With all the other willpower-demanding tasks in our daily lives, adding to that list the need to deny deep-seated biological cues for tasty food can add incredible amounts of stress. And chronic stress means chronically elevated cortisol, a hormone meant to operate in a pulsatile fashion, rather than low-grade amounts humming in the background throughout the day.
It’s this constant cortisol secretion that leads to poorer blood glucose control, blood lipid dysregulation, visceral fat deposition, and inflammation. This is all to say the ego depletion, or willpower burnout, element of CDR is a well-observed variable known to have deleterious effects.
For a pretty cool Venn diagram comparison of the effects of binge-eating to “binge stress” I made, check out 5 Steps to a Binge-Free Halloween.
The second aspect worthy of consideration is that of negative self-perception. It might seem like feel-good fluff to talk about the physiological importance of self-esteem, but it is, again, understood to be a fundamental aspect of proper health.
A negative view of ourselves not only relates back to this low-grade elevated stress response we mentioned but also the same physiological implications alluded to (inflammation, blood lipids, etc.).
On a practical level too, when we see ourselves as incapable and unworthy, this colors everything else we do and try. Dieting efforts borne out of self-disdain result in that familiar self-talk:
“Ugh, I cheated and had a cookie, which just reaffirms my inability to stick to anything, so I might as well eat a loaf of banana nut bread.”
Studies on how prior task performance impacts subsequent task performance (which also ties into the idea of ego depletion) show that the self-defeating “fixed mindset” approach discourages further effort in any realm (Baumeister et al., 1998).
In other words, study subjects given a task and then told that their success in it was the product of talent, rather than effort, were quicker to give up on subsequent tasks.
While CDR relies on self-deprecation, Food Freedom celebrates you and your abilities, and it emphasizes appropriate expectations. The diet industry has survived on perpetuating the CDR approach, as it knows its terrible track record of success keeps customers coming back, and it has tried to quietly dismiss the role of self-appreciation.
While CDR relies on self-deprecation, Food Freedom celebrates you and your abilities, and it emphasizes appropriate expectations.
Baumeister RF, Bratslavsky E, Muraven M, Tice DM. Ego depletion: is the active self a limited resource? J Pers Soc Psychol 74: 1252–1265, 1998.
Kiefer A, Lin J, Blackburn E, Epel E. Dietary restraint and telomere length in pre- and post-menopausal women. Psychosom Med 70: 845–849, 2008.
Le Barzic M. [The syndrome of cognitive restraint: from the nutritional standard to eating disorders]. Diabetes Metab 27: 512–516, 2001.
Mischel W, Ebbesen EB, Zeiss AR. Cognitive and attentional mechanisms in delay of gratification. J Pers Soc Psychol 21: 204–218, 1972.
Rideout CA, Linden W, Barr SI. High cognitive dietary restraint is associated with increased cortisol excretion in postmenopausal women. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci 61: 628–633, 2006.
And if you’re currently fighting through an eating disorder yourself, and you feel trapped in the cycle, without any hope of recovery…
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