Rigid vs. Flexible Control of Eating Behavior

Do you ever just go about your day eating foods you don’t actually like to have? No? Oh… well it does seem pretty silly, right? Like, imagine going about your day and telling yourself that you need to steer away from the typical meals you enjoy. Hell no, I’m eating oatmeal every day and you can’t tell me otherwise.

In all seriousness though, the concept of eating from an approved “food list,” or keeping a strict schedule with the kinds of foods you can eat doesn’t seem like a great idea, and for good reason. This is especially so when you think about the psychological components of weight loss and health-related goals. Recipe for disaster.

Restraint is a well-known eating behavior that we’ve discussed prior (you can read more here). It is thought restraint is made up of rather a combination of approaches – which, in turn, can make each and every individual’s background and dieting behaviors unique in itself. This makes a lot of sense since we know that every client will have a different starting point, dieting history, and even a different mindset towards lifestyle and diet changes.

Rigid vs. Flexible Control of Eating

Within recent studies, there are two kinds of these approaches, or eating controls, that have been identified in the context of dieting status and weight regulation: rigid control and flexible control of eating behavior.

Rigid control of eating behavior refers to a more extreme approach to diets and eating in general. This can be characterized as the typical “all-or-nothing” approach to dieting as well, where strict rules or expectations are set for the individual regarding their meals and eating habits.

Flexible control of eating behavior is described as a much more laid back and malleable approach to one’s eating. In other words, what we’ve come to know as a flexible dieting approach allows us to incorporate all kinds of food and food groups in moderate and reasonable portions.

The Science of Restraint

Prior research has played with the idea that if we can identify the type of eating control being employed by the dieter, we can then predict their current dieting status (i.e. losing weight or maintaining weight) based on common eating behaviors of those two controls.

Not surprisingly, a rigid control of eating behavior has been correlated with those who diet frequently and have a higher susceptibility to overeat. Higher levels of flexible control, however, were shown in those who lost weight and kept it off, or those actively trying to maintain their body weight.

While our behaviors and mindsets towards dieting can be influenced by and associated with the eating control we’re using, whether or not we’re rigid/flexible dieters doesn’t appear to be able to directly predict our dieting status. So in other words, we won’t be able to really identify if someone’s a frequent, yo-yo dieter (high rigid control) or if they’ve taken their time and have successfully made dieting a part of their life (high flexible control).

Correlation doesn’t equal causation.

Application: Practicing Restraint over Restriction

This doesn’t mean that the type of restraint we’re using doesn’t matter though! A relationship does seem to exist here, and that’s worth keeping in mind when we consider our own eating behaviors and how successful (or unsuccessful) we are in the pursuit of our goals.

We see this often enough with clients coming from strict “bro plan” backgrounds that, psychologically, we benefit so much more from having added flexibility when it comes to the diet and working towards weight and health-related goals. It’s realistic to assume that we’ll have dinners out and we’ll be social from time to time, so implementing a dieting strategy where we can still incorporate and account for the foods we enjoy and make room within our plan for those social events is essential.

It’s also important to note the difference between restraint and restriction with clients as well. These can often be mixed up for one another or misinterpreted, but they are very different. Specific goals require specific measures to be taken, so having to modify certain meals or plan ahead for things is never a bad idea and shouldn’t be viewed as if you’re “missing out” or restricting yourself – it’s simply practicing a form of restraint and striking a balance between having a diet you enjoy and a diet that is also conducive to your current goals.


Timko, C.A., Perone, J. Rigid and flexible control of eating behavior and their relationship to dieting status. Eating and Weight Disorders. 2006; 11: e90-e95.

Be the first to know

Get exclusive, no bullshit content from our coaches that is scientifically based and experience driven.