Recently, I asked a friend if she wanted to get some ice cream.
“I can’t,” she said. “I’m on a diet.”
A few years ago, when I was stuck in my own cycle of chronic dieting, I would have felt fear for giving in to this craving, and some shame that I didn’t have the “willpower” to abstain from the ice cream to “lose weight.” After years of education and self-reflection on my own eating habits, hearing this comment made me cringe a bit inside. Through my own experiences and research on chronic dieting, I’ve learned how easy it is to fall into the trap of the empty promises, unsustainable results, and self-deprecating cycle of dieting. Moreover, as an eating disorders therapist, I recognize that dieting is a risk factor for developing such disorders. Thus, I feel inclined to underscore the elusive nature of dieting to prevent others from following a potentially destructive path with regards to their food and body image. Here are some factors that make diets ineffective:
A Starvation Response. One of the goals of your body is to maintain homeostasis, or a status quo in its internal processes. For example, your body regulates your temperature, sending signals to produce sweat when your temperature rises on a hot day. This same process applies during weight loss. When you engage in dieting behavior for rapid weight loss (i.e. calorie restriction, excessive exercise), you create a depletion of fat mass and fat-free mass and reduce the size of your adipocytes (fat cells). The body’s “defense system” is then triggered to restore these depleted energy reserves (MacLean et al., 2015). Subsequently, your body tries hard to restore this fat by slowing down your metabolism and suppressing calorie burn so that you can conserve energy. Thus, your appetite increases, leading you to overeat, and as fat recovery increases, you will gain weight.
The Brain Fights Back. Not only does your body try to defend against rapid weight loss through dieting, but your brain will also intervene. Your brain does so by measuring the amounts of leptin (a hormone secreted by fat cells) in your blood. Higher leptin levels indicate less hunger; as you lose weight through dieting, you lose fat, leading leptin levels to decrease and therefore signaling to the brain that you’re hungry (Aamodt, 2016). This contributes to the starvation response and creates cravings that lead many to “cheat” on their diet. Your brain wants you to have the amount of body fat that is appropriate for your body, and therefore will fight back for you to reach weight stability, or as some researchers call it, a “set point weight” (Aamodt, 2016)
Similarly to the biological “defense” to rapid weight loss, dieting can also induce an emotional response that makes dieting unsustainable. Just as dieting leads to a reduction of physical reserves, someone who diets can also feel a sense of emotional depletion. Kalm and Semba (2005) describe a 1944 Minnesota study on 36 mentally and physically healthy men from the Civilian Public Service. The researchers put these men on a restrictive diet to study its effects: over the course of approximately a year, their diet reduced from a normal 3,200 calories per day for three months, to six months of semi-starvation on 1,570 calories per day. This was followed by three months of 2,000 to 3,200 calories a day. Meanwhile, the men worked 15 hours and walked 22 miles per week.
During their semi-starvation period, they portrayed significant psychological effects: their hunger made them preoccupied over the thought of food, as they dreamt, fantasized, read, and talked about eating. They reported depression, fatigue, irritability, apathy, reduced libido, and a perceived decline in mental ability. Their only rehabilitation, both physically and emotionally, was to increase their calories, demonstrating their low-calorie diet had contributed to both their physical and emotional distress. Moreover, eating is a pleasure-inducing activity which increases the release of dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter (Bello & Hajnal, 2010). Calorie deficits and less frequent eating reduces this release, and therefore the experience of pleasure. In conclusion, being on a restrictive diet does have psychological effects that interfere with emotional well-being, which reduces the sustainability of dieting behaviors.
Environmental limitations also contribute to the failure of diets. Imagine that you want to go on a trip to France while you are on a diet. How would this work? Could you fully enjoy the cultural experience of the trip as you stick to only certain food choices? Moreover, whether you are traveling or not, you will not always find foods or accommodations that are compatible with your diet (and if you do, they may be expensive), again highlighting the lack of sustainability of this practice. Regardless, even if you are able to maneuver these environmental obstacles, think of how much dieting will compromise your experiences of eating and socializing with others. While you try to commit to your diet practices, there is a high likelihood that this will interfere with your ability to have a flexible, healthy, and fulfilling social life.
Bio: Bahar Moheban, M.A. is a clinical psychology doctoral candidate and registered psychological assistant in Torrance under the supervision of Dr. Nazanin Moali. She provides individual and group psychotherapy to adults and adolescents with disordered eating, negative body image, and comorbid disorders. If you feel trapped in your dieting behaviors or any other type of disordered eating, contact Bahar for a counseling appointment to create a more peaceful relationship with food.