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Restriction diets ‘always backfire’. Nutritional specialist suggests finding nutritious foods you enjoy

It’s a new year, which means many of us have vowed to achieve lofty health ambitions only a week after we stretched our stomachs on one of the year’s greatest days of indulgence, Christmas Day.

But there is some good news — the stomach organ is muscular, so it is malleable and can contract back into shape.

As for our new year’s resolutions, health lecturer Dr Fiona Willer says it is far better to build a good relationship with food to reach long-term goals than to restrict your intake of calories or abolish entire food groups.

Mechanics of the belly

Dr Willer, a specialist in nutrition and food psychology at Queensland University of Technology (QUT), says the stomach can typically fluctuate from a capacity of 500 milliliters to about 2 litres.

She says the stomach contains “mechanoreceptors”, which senses when there is a stretch in the stomach and can help signal a sign of “feeling full” to the brain.

a woman wearing glasses and a white jacket.  She has shoulder length hair.  There are trees behind her.
Fiona Willer says research shows restriction diets do not produce long-term results.(ABC News: Erin Cooper)

“When we’ve stretched the stomach quite frequently, like we often do over the Christmas season, we tend to be less able to sense stretches in the stomach,” Dr. Willer says.

Fortunately, Dr. Willer says the stomach can return to its pre-Christmas size within a few days.

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An international obesity expert says dieting alone isn’t enough. It takes a team of surgeons and psychologists to make it happen.

But she warns people not to take a “restriction” approach to their diet if they are hoping to lose weight this year.

“Restriction is not good psychologically, it means we actually get a higher drive to eat the things we’re telling ourselves we shouldn’t eat,” Dr Willer says.

“Human beings like to protect their autonomy at every turn. That’s how we’re wired.

“So restriction will always backfire, whatever we tell ourselves we can’t eat is what our brain presents to us as [the thing] we want to eat. We’re all rebels at heart.”

So, what can we do?

Dr. Willer says to get your stomach and brain in sync you need to listen closely to your body.

“It’s recognizing that when we feel hungry, particularly after we’ve been eating to capacity for a period of time, that our hunger signals might not be calibrated in the [usual] way,” she says.

To put this into practice, she says you need to envision what an “enjoyable” day of eating would look like for you, including nutritional foods that make you feel energized, and eat like this for a few days.

Dr. Willer says it’s important to include “core foods”, which are essentially less-processed food items that are high in nutrients.

These include meats, seafood, vegetables, fruits, grains and dairy.

“The body needs the core foods to function properly … and if you’re eating a lot of non-core foods, you don’t have room in your day for [nutritional meals],” she says.

Recipe for long-term success

“Diets don’t work,” Dr. Willer says.

She says at its core, eating well is relatively simple — you just need to ensure you enjoy eating the food you’ve chosen.

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