In the last article we learned that diets rarely work for weight control, and if they do, not for long. As bad as that news is, surely there is no harm in trying right?
Unfortunately there is. Imagine getting all set to lose some pounds and you end up gaining instead1–3. Or even worse, your diet causes you to because less healthy mentally around food. You might not think it was the diet, (you might just think something is wrong with you) but studies link dieting to disordered eating, fixation on food, emotional eating, increased food cravings, increased risk of depression, and heightened incidence of binge eating 4–9.
Many of our clients say they never had issues with food until they went on their first diet. As children and teens they ate naturally, freely and without guilt. But that first time they clipped out a magazine article on “How to Lose 5 pounds this Month!” it all started. The worrying, the planning, the nibbling in secret and bingeing when upset. The bargaining, justifying and guilty feelings started bubbling up around food, when eating previously had just been an enjoyable and social thing to do.
It was once thought that the aforementioned negative consequences were caused by the calorie restriction of being on a diet, however, more recent investigations indicate that people who are dieting don’t actually eat less than someone who isn’t dieting 10,11. The negative ramifications of dieting seem to be attributable to the mental and psychological processes at work when a free-living person decides to diet. In other words, deciding you’re on a diet (not what you eat) is what starts the domino effect of problems.
Dieting can be defined as “intentionally restricting food intake for the purpose of weight control”. It doesn’t actually mean someone is eating less. You can restrict your intake (and expend a lot of effort) by limiting food groups, sequestering eating to only certain hours of the day, going gluten free, cutting out dessert, demonizing carbs or sugars or fats, or cruelly bashing yourself for having dessert, all of which are no guarantee that your overall calorie intake will be reduced.
When someone says they are dieting, what are they actually doing? Evidence indicates that they are thinking about food a great deal more, worrying more, and feeling more guilt about their food than before 12,13. It’s not clear whether worrying about the impact of one’s food choices causes someone to begin a diet, or if deciding to go on a diet increases a person’s tendency to worry about their food. What is clear is that dieting itself doesn’t seem to lead to any improvement, since long term dieters feel just as guilty and worried as new dieters, if not more.
Concern over one’s food intake is certainly rampant. The internet, news media and entertainment outlets all contribute to an ongoing phobia that we’re collectively somehow eating incorrectly. Go on the internet and article headlines taunt you to click and find out the 8 Foods That Are Poisoning You or Things You Should Never Eat For Reducing Belly Fat. The message is always to stop eating this or that, lest we be fat and disgusting forever. It can feel like unless we are hyper-vigilant and neurotic about our lunch, we won’t live to see supper. We are being sold food worry all day long.
According to de Ridder et al., “the modern food environment is not only ‘obesogenic’ to the extent that it contributes to the overweight epidemic but also to the extent that it produces worries about food that people feel unable to deal with in another manner than calling themselves dieters.” 14 No alternative is usually presented other than avoidance of certain food, or a specified diet.
Guilt doesn’t actually appear to help provide motivation to eat better, either. Associating food with guilt actually contributes to feeling powerless and out of control, and is linked to less success in losing weight 15 and increased prevalence of negative mood states 13,16.
Once a person is toting around their own personal dark cloud of food guilt and worry, coupled with the stress from calorie counting or points tracking, their brain enters a state of heightened susceptibility to food reward – so the very items a person is trying to restrict (high sugar, high fat foods) become ultra-rewarding 17. This may explain why initially breaking one’s diet often leads to continued indulgent eating for a period of time 18,19 further reducing the odds of successful weight loss.
This seems almost cruel.
Given this sobering reality, it may seem that dieting is universally futile and weight control is an impossible pursuit. However there is hope, we know that failure or regain is not always the case since there are rare individuals who change their lives and bodies successfully, and maintain that loss. These outliers, the successful people who lose weight and keep it off, can be studied as examples of the factors that do produce success.
If weight loss professionals and consumers can both set aside what we think works and what we think we need to lose weight, we can take an unbiased look at what behavioral change research shows us. Doing so may make the difference we need in succeeding against the odds. It might mean changing what we’re used to doing. I think it’s worth it.
In part III we’ll explore what successful folks actually do. How do they think? How do they behave? What specifically sets them apart? You won’t want to miss it.
- French SA, Jeffery RW. Consequences of dieting to lose weight: effects on physical and mental health. Health Psychol. 1994;13(3):195-212.
- Lowe MR, Annunziato R a, Markowitz JT, et al. Multiple types of dieting prospectively predict weight gain during the freshman year of college. Appetite. 2006;47(1):83-90. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2006.03.160.
- Savage JS, Hoffman L, Birch LL. Dieting, restraint, and disinhibition predict women’s weight change over 6 y. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009;90(1):33-40. doi:10.3945/ajcn.2008.26558.
- Neumark-Sztainer D, Wall M, Guo J, Story M, Haines J, Eisenberg M. Obesity, disordered eating, and eating disorders in a longitudinal study of adolescents: how do dieters fare 5 years later? J Am Diet Assoc. 2006;106(4):559-568. doi:10.1016/j.jada.2006.01.003.
- Stice E, Burger K, Yokum S. Caloric deprivation increases responsivity of attention and reward brain regions to intake, anticipated intake, and images of palatable foods. Neuroimage. 2013;67:322-330. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2012.11.028.
- Nguyen C, Polivy J. Eating behavior, restraint status, and BMI of individuals high and low in perceived self-regulatory success. Appetite. 2014;75:49-53. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2013.12.016.
- Massey A, Hill AJ. Dieting and food craving. A descriptive, quasi-prospective study. Appetite. 2012;58(3):781-785. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2012.01.020.
- Andrés A, Saldaña C. Body dissatisfaction and dietary restraint influence binge eating behavior. Nutr Res. 2014;34(11):944-950. doi:10.1016/j.nutres.2014.09.003.
- Cairns KE, Yap MBH, Pilkington PD, Jorm AF. Risk and protective factors for depression that adolescents can modify: a systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal studies. J Affect Disord. 2014;169:61-75. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2014.08.006.
- French SA, Jeffery RW, Wing RR. Food intake and physical activity: a comparison of three measures of dieting. Addict Behav. 19(4):401-409. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7992675. Accessed November 23, 2014.
- Goldstein SP, Katterman SN, Lowe MR. Relationship of dieting and restrained eating to self-reported caloric intake in female college freshmen. Eat Behav. 2013;14(2):237-240. doi:10.1016/j.eatbeh.2012.12.002.
- De Witt Huberts JC, Evers C, de Ridder DTD. Double trouble: restrained eaters do not eat less and feel worse. Psychol Health. 2013;28(6):686-700. doi:10.1080/08870446.2012.751106.
- Macht M, Mueller J. Interactive effects of emotional and restrained eating on responses to chocolate and affect. J Nerv Ment Dis. 2007;195(12):1024-1026. doi:10.1097/NMD.0b013e31815c0878.
- De Ridder D, Adriaanse M, Evers C, Verhoeven A. Who diets? Most people and especially when they worry about food. Appetite. 2014;80:103-108. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2014.05.011.
- Kuijer RG, Boyce J a. Chocolate cake. Guilt or celebration? Associations with healthy eating attitudes, perceived behavioural control, intentions and weight-loss. Appetite. 2014;74:48-54. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2013.11.013.
- Hart KE, Chiovari P. Inhibition of eating behavior: negative cognitive effects of dieting. J Clin Psychol. 1998;54(4):427-430. doi:10.1002/(SICI)1097-4679(199806)54:4<427::AID-JCLP4>3.0.CO;2-K [pii].
- Wagner DD, Boswell RG, Kelley WM, Heatherton TF. Inducing negative affect increases the reward value of appetizing foods in dieters. J Cogn Neurosci. 2012;24(7):1625-1633. doi:10.1162/jocn_a_00238.
- Avena NM, Murray S, Gold MS. Comparing the effects of food restriction and overeating on brain reward systems. Exp Gerontol. 2013;48(10):1062-1067. doi:10.1016/j.exger.2013.03.006.
- Demos KE, Kelley WM, Heatherton TF. Dietary restraint violations influence reward responses in nucleus accumbens and amygdala. J Cogn Neurosci. 2011;23(8):1952-1963. doi:10.1162/jocn.2010.21568.
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