Does “Healthy Eating” Mean a Restrictive Diet?

With Weight Watchers’ new SmartPoints, I keep seeing some variation of the following: Weight Watchers is now a diet that isn’t sustainable for the long haul. You can’t eat like that for a lifetime. Weight Watchers is no longer a lifestyle, but a restrictive diet.  Is this true? Or, to broaden it beyond Weight Watchers, is “healthy eating” so restrictive that it can’t be followed for a lifetime? I put “healthy eating” in quotes because different people mean different things by that term.

I am not asking whether the new Weight Weights plan is good or bad, or even whether it is healthy or not. My question goes beyond Weight Watchers. Is changing how you eat in order to eat a healthier diet necessarily so restrictive that it can’t be sustained as a permanent lifestyle? In addressing that question I use Weight Watchers’ SmartPoints as an example, but the question replies to any “healthy eating” plan.

For those who don’t follow the new SmartPoints plan, it is part of the Weight Watchers Beyond the Scale plan. Food is assigned a SmartPoints value based upon the amount of calories, sugar, saturated fat, and protein in the food. This goes beyond simple calorie counting because sugar and saturated fat increase the SmartPoints value of a food while protein decreases it.

To give an example: 150 calories of skinless turkey breast is 1 SmartPoint. 150 calories of sugary Coca Cola is 10 SmartPoints. This is important because you are assigned a certain amount of SmartPoints that you can eat each day and each week. If I get 30 daily SmartPoints to eat, I have used 1/3 of them if I have 150 calories of Coke. The result is that, while I am allowed to eat any food, the points penalty for eating something high sugar or high saturated fat heavily discourages eating very many of those foods.

Essentially, the new plan is encouraging us to eat much less sugar and saturated fat, while encouraging the eating of more lean protein. It is treating other carbs and fats in a neutral fashion. By doing this, Weight Watchers is encouraging what it sees as healthier eating.

For this post, I don’t want to focus on whether Weight Watchers is right in what it considers healthy eating (I do plan to address that in a later post). To use that plan as an example, the issue is whether limiting how much sugar and saturated fat we eat is so difficult that the attempt to do is inherently unsustainable?

Many people who are losing weight are perfectly fine with restricting how much they eat, but balk at being asked to change what they eat. Most of us who have struggled with our weight, often have had difficulty with not even wanting to have to restrict how much we eat. One reason I was overweight for so many years was that I didn’t like restricting how much I ate.   Throughout that time, though, I recognized that I really wasn’t going to lose weight unless I did restrict how much I ate. I just didn’t want to do it.

Eventually, though, I recognized that if I really wanted to lose weight I needed to restrict how many calories I ate. But, I actually didn’t want to change what I ate. I wanted to eat the same types of foods, just less calories. Over time, though, I decided I wanted to eat more healthfully. Just eating fewer calories wasn’t enough. For good health, I needed to eat different foods and needed to eat less of some foods.

I have dual counted both calories and Weight Watchers points for years. And, during most of that time, if I could fit in another 150 calories in my day I was far more likely to eat a cookie than some fruit. But, slowly I changed what I was eating. I began to eat in what I thought was a healthier way, including limiting sugar.

The fact is that, regardless of what foods you consider healthy, when you decide to eat less of one type of food and more of another, you are restricting your eating somewhat. If I decide to eat less sugar and less refined carbohydrates and less saturated fat, I am restricting what I eat. Is that unsustainable? Is “healthy eating” impossible to sustain for a lifetime?

I don’t think it is. No, I don’t think most people will have much success if they are miserable with how they eat. I am mindful of what Dr. Yoni Freedhoff says in his book, The Diet Fix:

If you don’t like the life you’re living, you’re not going to keep living that way.

To put it in food terms: If you don’t like the food you’re eating, you’re not going to keep eating that way. So, no, people won’t be able to sustain a way of eating that they don’t like and that makes them miserable.

But, does healthy eating have to make us miserable? So many of the criticisms I’ve seen of SmartPoints or of clean eating or various other ways of “healthy eating”, just seem to assume that it is impossible to change what foods we like. And, they seem to assume that it is impossible to actually enjoy eating if we are limiting certain types of food. I don’t think that is true.

There was a time that I used to have a full-size Snickers bar almost every day. I used to often buy cookies and eat them. I drank brown sugar water, a/k/a Coca Cola. Or, I would buy half a dozen donuts and eat them all. Some of that was many years ago. But even a couple of years ago, if I went to Panera, I had a Cinnamon Crunch bagel. And, if someone suddenly told me I could never eat those things I would have felt incredibly deprived and restricted and would have thought I couldn’t sustain it for a lifetime.

And, yet, I changed my tastes.  And, there we some foods that I liked (and still like) that I realized really weren’t good for me so I either quit eating them or limited my eating of them.  I quit drinking sugary drinks over 20 years ago and I don’t miss them at all. I haven’t had a full-size Snickers bar, or other candy bar, in years. But, I do still have dark chocolate every week in a small portion and occasionally have a funsize candy bar. And, it is enough for me.

I haven’t had a donut in a few years. The Cinnamon Crunch bagel? It has been almost a year since I had one. I am sure I would enjoy one if I had it. I gave it up purely in order to eat in a healthier way. It was 11 points under the PointsPlus, and I could usually “afford” it on points. But, I found out that I am somewhat insulin resistant (although not diabetic) and that it really spikes my blood sugar. So, I don’t eat that any more. Someday, I might eat one. I don’t consider it something I absolutely must abstain from, but it isn’t my priority any more.  Eating in a healthier way for me is more important to me.

Currently I usually eat between 20g and 30g of sugar a day (including natural sugar in berries and vegetables). Occasionally, I eat a little more. I have had no real problem on SmartPoints because the foods I eat have mostly not sharply risen in points. I get confused when I see some people saying that the new plan is a restrictive diet that can’t possibly be sustained. I don’t feel that this way of eating is all that restrictive and I am enjoying what I eat. Is this something that I can’t possibly sustain for the long term?

When I was a big sugar eater, I would have said I couldn’t sustain it. I would have said that I would feel deprived and would soon return to my old way of eating. I would have said, “Moderation in all things.” The problem is that I would have seen “moderation in all things” as meaning that, as long as I watched my calories, it would have been fine to have a candy bar on one day, a Cinnamon Crunch bagel on the next, 2 or 3 donuts the next day, followed by a couple of cookies. I would have considered that moderation because I was restricting my calories.

I think that some people feel that limiting sugar, for example, isn’t moderation because it is seen as being restrictive. But, moderation does not actually mean eating without restriction. Moderation is something in between abstaining entirely and eating without restriction. Moderation always involves restraint and avoiding excess. Moderation means having limits.

The thing is that some seem to feel that it is moderation (and, thus, OK) if you limit what you eat only by limiting the total calories you eat. If you limit the type of food you eat in order to eat in a more healthy way then that is “restrictive” and can’t be sustained forever.

If we see limiting certain foods (such as sugars and saturated fat) as being a restrictive diet then that seems to equate having any limits (other than calories) as all but forbidding foods in a restrictive manner. Limiting how much sugar I eat is not the same thing as abstaining from it entirely. Having a 60 calorie square of dark chocolate a couple of days a weeks is not forbidding chocolate. It is setting a limit.

With PointsPlus it was easy to fill up your points with junky food and feel like you are on program because you weren’t eating more than your points. While I think calorie counting is a great way to lose weight, the great downside of it is that it can be easy to pay attention only to calories rather than food quality and the healthfulness of the overall diet. And, that was something that some (including me, at times) did with PointsPlus as well.

With SmartPoints, no food is forbidden at any point in the program. Any food can be eaten. I can have a fullsize candy bar if I want one. But, to stay within my points and get enough food, I can’t eat one every day and I have to make choices. If I have that piece of pie on Christmas, then I’m not likely to have dark chocolate that day. And, that might have something do with why my dinner out at Chili’s last night was a 15 point dinner and why I didn’t get popcorn when I saw The Force Awakens.

At one time in my life, I would have wanted to have pie on Christmas and would have had popcorn and candy at the movie. And, I would have eaten a Triple Dipper at Chili’s. If I was working on weight loss at the time, I would have met my calorie goal by jettisoning the healthier foods in my diet, in order to eat the junkier foods that I enjoyed. But, over time, I made healthy eating more of a priority and that left fewer calories available for certain foods, including those with high sugar.

And, I am not miserable. I am happy eating the way I eat. I’m not miserable because I changed my tastes and I changed my priorities. I learned to genuinely enjoy eating in a different way. I am not saying that the Weight Watchers way of eating is for everyone. (And I know some people don’t like the new program for other reasons).

I am saying that I don’t feel that limiting certain foods in the interest of health necessarily equates to a restrictive diet that will be impossible to sustain. To say that is to basically say that it is impossible to truly change how we eat.  It is say that it is impossible to change our tastes and our priorities. I have more optimism that change is possible.



  1. LavonM says

    One of the biggest issues I have with SmartPoints has nothing to do with sugar. For medical reasons, I cannot plan meals with large portions of meat. Extra protein comes in the form of grains & beans. These healthy foods have increased in points but the amount of points I can eat haven’t increased (I may have a different mix but I have the exact same total). I’m a Lifetime member at goal so my plan is to incorporate the good points of this plan. Products in my house that have too much hidden sugar or sat fat are being replaced by better choices. As I make these changes, I may find SP doable but for now, I’m happy with my PP lifestyle. I’ll cheer for those that do SP & are successful.

    • says

      I agree in your case that you obviously need to follow your own medical requirements. I think as someone lifetime at goal, though, you could mostly follow SP by adjusting your points to where you will maintain. I know that right now the website doesn’t let someone lifetime add more than 6 points to their daily total. Reportedly, that capability will be added back in for lifetime members. And, of course, lifetime members always have been able to increase their food so they don’t lose too much. I think you may find it will work well for you.

      By the way, I love black beans and I know that a cup of them have not changed in points.

      • LavonM says

        I’ll check into the black beans. The beans i currently have on my shelf went up a point. It’s not a lot but a point here & a point there add up quickly. Thanks for the info.

      • LavonM says

        By the way, I just got back from the grocery store & I checked black beans. According to the manual calculator, the black beans went up 1 point. I’m not sure why but keep it in mind since you eat a lot of them. I checked a few others & the kidney beans stayed the same.

          • LavonM says

            The brand might be the issue. I didn’t check other brands since the one I buy has the least amount of sodium. I’ll have to check next time I’m at the grocery store just out of curiosity.

  2. says

    Kitty, I agree that change is possible too. I had a tough time recently getting back to eating on plan, but once I made it through those first few days, it was better. Some of the pain is just the pain of transition. Then, though, we have to live in that new paradigm, and find out if it does work for us as a long-term plan. Hopefully we can find ways to tweak our plan, if necessary, rather than chucking it altogether and heading straight back to the full-size snickers + soda + donuts. Hopefully we can manage something between two extremes, that is something that improves weight and health. Cheers.
    Wendy recently posted…Waiting for a whoosh.My Profile

    • says

      I agree. I think that changing from one way of eating abruptly to another can be very difficult. I know it has taken me awhile to really internalize that. And, sometimes it is hard to get back on track. I was like that in November, but finally got back there. I know you will do it as well.

  3. says

    The issue I have is that I’ve never been a person that craved “sweets”; “salt” is normally my craving…until Smart Points came around now sweets are all I want. My doctor always told me “don’t ever do a “diet” that restricts a certain type of food; you’ll want that food and then you’ll fail; work on portion control and moderation to stay on track” Points Plus was that program that correctly did portion/moderation with success.

    I dove right into Smart Points as I figured it was the way to go…..each day got harder and harder but I keep telling myself I can do it; but deep down I know I’ll end up back with Points Plus but will still go to meetings/weigh-in until I’m back at goal.

    • says

      I do think that if, after giving SP a good attempt, you find that your weight loss and health do better on PP then it is entirely reasonable to follow PP. It is important to find the plan that works best for you.

      I do wonder about your doctor’s statement about not restricting a certain type of food, but suggesting moderation. That is because moderation is restricting. Moderation is some point between totally abstaining from a type of food to eating that food with no restriction. I wonder if by restriction your doctor really meant abstaining. I have eaten chocolate, pie, chips, etc. on SP. I have not abstained from them (and have no plan to). But I do restrict how much I eat of them. To me, another way to say that exact same thing is to say: I do eat them in moderation.

  4. says

    Well, I have had to stop dual-tracking calories and SPs because this time of year is just too busy to do all that work! :p It’s strictly calories at this point, though I do plan to go back and track SPs later. So although I can’t report on my results at this point, I can definitely agree that it IS possible to change your way of eating. There are SO many things I once thought I could never live without that I don’t even think about anymore. Or in some cases, can’t stand! Pizza, Diet Coke, tater tots… :p I’m still a sugar-lover, though, ha ha! But I know that it’s something I really need to work on. We shall see!
    Stephanie Hawkins recently posted…Merry Christmas 2015My Profile

  5. K says

    I think a lot of people feel restricted now because the WW plan used to allow for a ton of processed food – sugar free, low fat, etc etc. People learned how to “game” the system in order to get a ton of food for little points but there wasn’t much real food. I actually found PointsPlus to be difficult to follow because I don’t eat any artificial sweeteners and felt like everything I wanted to eat was high in points. I’m looking forward to SmartPoints!

    • says

      Good point. I think in some ways it is easier for me because I originally started WW on the exchange plan where you could eat anything, but the exchanges meant that most of your food needed to be real food.

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