[This article is an excerpt from my book “BrainwashED: Diet-Induced Eating Disorders. How You Got Sucked In And How To Recover”]
Some people think that “healthy” restriction is okay – that you have to restrict to remain healthy and not become overweight – and this may sound logical to most people, but it could not be further from the truth!
Diets are an ineffective tool to lose weight or get healthy, and science has proven dieting actually triggers binge eating, overeating, eating more food than you need, and eating more junk food than you would normally want. It can result in the loss of normal hunger cues and can even initiate eating disorders. Actually, the most common trigger for a full-blown eating disorder is – you guessed it! – DIETS!
But let’s focus on why dieting is a bad idea and why it’s not healthy.
Yo-yo dieting increases your risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, immune system failure, impaired cognitive function, chronic fatigue, depression, and again…eating disorders.(1)
This study shows that doing nothing in regards to eating is four hundred percent better (!) for weight than dieting.
In The University of Pennsylvania study, rats’ weight was decreased and increased by weight cycling (yo-yo dieting). The second time the rats tried to lose weight by eating less, they lost weight one hundred percent more slowly and regained the weight three hundred percent faster than the first time they ate less. The rats who yo-yoed the second time stored food as body fat four hundred percent more efficiently than rats who maintained a fattening diet! This study shows that doing nothing in regards to eating is four hundred percent better (!) for weight than dieting. (2)
Arthur Frank, medical director of the George Washington University Weight Management Program, reports that out of every two hundred people who start a diet, only ten of them will successfully meet their weight-loss goals. And the odds get significantly worse when you look at the long-term outcomes. Out of those ten people, only one of them will keep the weight off over time. That’s a failure rate of 99.5%! (3)
A team of experts at UCLA (The University of California, Los Angeles) analyzed every study that followed dieters over a two- to five-year period. Every published, long-term dieting study was included. The results were published in the APA (American Psychological Association) journal, American Psychologist. When interviewed about the findings, UCLA researcher, Tracy Mann, said that the results of their data were conclusive: “Diets do not lead to sustained weight loss, or health benefits, for the majority of people.”
She added that most people would be “better off not going on a diet at all. Their weight would be pretty much the same, and their bodies would not suffer the wear and tear from losing weight and gaining it all back.” Initially, she explained, many people lose five to ten percent of their body weight. But the majority of people regain any weight they lose. So the exhaustive review of every published, long-term dieting study found that diets are ineffective for weight loss.
The UCLA team concluded that “one of the best predictors of weight gain over the four years was having lost weight on a diet at some point during the years before the study started.” Not only do diets fail at producing (or maintaining) weight loss – they actually make you gain weight! (3)
While dieters can consciously override the basic drive to eat for short periods of time, most cannot continue to do so. Hormones such as leptin and ghrelin that stimulate appetite after weight loss do not adapt quickly to reduced body weight. They continue to send out “eat more” signals for as much as a year after weight loss. Eventually, biology wins out. (4)
Not only are diets ineffective for long-term weight loss (and they make you heavier!), studies also show that dieting leads to food obsession, emotional distress, and binge eating as already shown in the Minnesota Starvation Experiment. That’s right – dieting has been scientifically proven to lead to binge eating! In reality, restricting what you eat does nothing to restrain you from eating. Instead, it only exaggerates the urge by intensifying your cravings and your focus on food. When you are forbidden from having something, it dramatically fuels your desire for it. You begin to think about food more and more. When you watch TV, you become fixated on what people are eating. You mentally devour every mouthwatering recipe in magazines. You watch what other people eat and secretly judge them. If someone eats something other than what you allow yourself to eat, it somehow matters to you what they eat and why. The more you restrict particular foods, the more you crave them.
None of this is a sign of weakness on your part. It’s simply the natural result of scarcity making something more desirable. Scarcity itself causes us to want something more. If you are told NOT to look at every red color in the room, you start to seek it out more and focus on it. The more you try to avoid something and not focus on it, the more it starts to pop up everywhere. The same thing happens when you try to restrict food. Restriction makes food a forbidden thing, and therefore, you begin to think about it much more frequently and obsessively.
Restricting what you eat doesn’t affect only your mental processes – it also changes your actual physiological response to food. Dieting makes you physically crave it more! And it’s very important to note that dieting and eating disorders are not only about the restriction of calories but also about the restriction of types of foods – something we see in the rise of orthorexia, an eating disorder where certain foods are obsessively restricted.
It’s not your weakness or a food addiction that creates this intense response. It’s the mere fact that the food is forbidden.
Think about the food you last went overboard with. The food that sends you spinning out of control. It’s probably something you routinely forbid yourself from having, right? It’s not your weakness or a food addiction that creates this intense response. It’s the mere fact that the food is forbidden.
Scarcity creates desire. Think about human behavior in stores where the “Last and Only Final Summer Sale” is announced. Everything 50% off for one day only. Or, in your case, “Binge out on everything for one day only! Tomorrow you will start a new diet, so don’t miss out on your last favorite meal!”
Remember how Adam and Eve were told not to eat the red apple from The Garden of Paradise? Despite all of the available fruit in abundance in the garden, that apple was the only thing they ended up eating. Why? Because it was forbidden.
This is something at the core of our human nature. Forbidden fruit is always the sweetest. Do not give unnecessary power and desire to foods by restricting them.
Catherine Liberty from Bulimiahelp.org writes: “Researchers have proven time and time again that a restrictive diet has the ability to induce every single physical and psychological symptom we associate with bulimia. What may come as even more of a shock is the fact that this isn’t new information. The scientific community has been aware of the link between restrictive eating and the onset of bulimia for nearly 70 years!” (5)
I hope by now you have had many light-bulb moments…Yeah, I know, it’s a pretty crazy world we live in!
Here’s an example of how dieting leads to eating disorders:
First, you have a goal to lose weight or get “trim, toned, and sexy.” Or maybe you just want to eat “healthy” and give up a lot of the “unhealthy” foods you love.
You start to diet – you restrict foods and/or calories. You hashtag #finallygettinghealthy on your protein shake Instagram picture.
Initially, you lose weight, and you think…Amazzzing!! Finally! #thingsarehappening…But then you start to have cravings. At first, you resist the urge and use your willpower to avoid eating and stick to your diet.
But sooner or later, you give in. You binge. You overeat. You let go of the restriction and say the hell with it! You eat everything you have been restricting. After the binge, when you begin to think clearly again and come out of your food coma, you realize what you have done. You have “ruined” your diet. Your life is basically over. You get upset, feel panicky and out of control, and can FEEL how you are getting fatter by the minute. You feel fear and disgust. You feel like you’ve become this dangerous, insatiable, eat-everything-on-this-planet kind of Foodzilla who has to be stopped.
After this, you promise yourself to be a “good girl/boy” tomorrow and start over. But today? Well, you’ve already blown it, so you might as well eat for the rest of the day…
(Note: Keep in mind that this binge after dieting is a VERY normal response from your body – you just don’t realize it yet! Remember what happened to the Minnesota men who were starved on 1570 calories a day? Yes, they binged hardcore! Why would you think you are any different?)
The next day you start to restrict and diet again, but this time with even more fear and obsession. You want to be sure that yesterday’s binge never happens again…and the monster is stopped from doing any further damage to the world’s food storage…
But eventually, the same thing happens – you feel the urge to eat more than allowed and the kind of foods that are forbidden on your diet. And eventually, you binge again. You have now entered dieting merry-go-hell.
Of course, thanks to dieting, your metabolism is much slower now, and you’ve also lost quite an amount of muscle and water weight thanks to restriction. You’ve lost some digestive enzymes and might find it very hard to digest some of the foods you formerly ate, causing you to get easily bloated and constipated.
So now when you start to eat more – or even normal amounts of foods – you gain weight very quickly. You can gain all the weight back, often times weighing even more than you did originally.
You may find it very hard to eat normal amounts and feel totally bloated after a meal.
Welcome, ladies and gents! You are now trapped in a vicious cycle of yo-yo dieting! You have been brainwashed to believe you just need more willpower to continue dieting and it’s all your fault it didn’t work.
Some stop here and give up dieting (or become chronic yo-yo dieters)…
But some continue with extreme measures to get rid of the weight “once and for all” – welcome, eating disorder!
Some people begin to overeat uncontrollably (binge eating), some binge and purge (bulimia), some starve themselves (anorexia), some obsessively avoid particular foods (orthorexia), some overexercise (bulimia or anorexia athletica), and some may have all of these together (EDNOS – eating disorder not otherwise specified).
“Getting rid of dieting could wipe out at least 70% of eating disorders. Get rid of dieting!”(6)
“Dieting is a primary trigger of the downward spiral into an eating disorder.” (7)
“Girls who severely dieted were eighteen times more likely to develop an eating disorder within 6 months than those who did not diet. And 2/3 of new cases of an eating disorder came from those who dieted moderately.” (8)
Now you may think, But my eating disorder is different! I didn’t “diet.” My problem was more emotional and psychological – eating disorders are mental disorders!
Yes, some people do develop eating disorders for other reasons and not because of going on a diet. But ultimately, it doesn’t matter! No matter the reason behind your eating disorder, as long as you continue to restrict, you cannot recover. When your brain is malnourished, it can’t think or function properly. When you start to diet and forbid enough food and calories, your brain is much more likely respond in an eating-disordered way.
An undernourished individual’s brain cannot recover
“We know that starvation and weight loss have powerful effects on the body and the brain. Malnutrition impacts on the brain’s capacity to think, manage emotions and process information from its environment. Starvation often exaggerates an individual’s personality traits and ways of thinking. Malnutrition may lead to changes in brain development even after they have restored normal eating and weight. We also know that the brain responds to, and has an effect on hormones and other body systems that are undernourished. Food certainly plays a major role; the most urgent task of early recovery and maintenance is restoring the patient’s normal weight with adequate daily nutrition. An undernourished individual’s brain cannot recover.” (9)
To recover, you need to eat enough calories for your brain to start functioning properly. This is why you cannot recover only “mentally” – you need to recover physically as well so that your body can emerge from the eating disorder. If we recover physically, the mental aspect is much easier to correct. It cannot happen the other way around.
If you want to read more awesome content like this you can read my book “BrainwashED: Diet-Induced Eating Disorders. How You Got Sucked In And How To Recover”
Want to learn how to go through recovery step by step? Check out my online course “6 Step Kickstart Course For Eating Disorder Recovery and Intuitive Eating”
(1) Bailor, Jonathan. A Calorie Myth: How to Eat More and Exercise Less with the Smarter Science of Slim (2014)
(2) G. L. Blackburn, G, T. Wilson, B. S. Kanders, L. J. Stein, P.T. Lavin, J. Adler, and K. D. Brownell, “Weight Cycling: The Experience of Human Dieters” (1989), American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, PubMed as cited in Bailor, Jonathan, A Calorie Myth.
(3) Spinardi, Josie, How to Have Your Cake and Your Skinny Jeans Too: Stop Binge Eating, Overeating and Dieting for Good, Get the Naturally Thin Body You Crave from the Inside Out (2013)
(4) Priya Sumithran, MB, BS, Luke A. Prendergast, PhD, et al, “Long-Term Persistence of Hormonal Adaptations to Weight Loss” (2011), The New England Journal of Medicine, http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa1105816?viewType=Print.
(5) Katherine Liberty, “The Alarming Link Between Diets and Bulimia” (2011), Bulimia Help, http://www.bulimiahelp.org/articles/alarming-link-between-diets-and-bulimia
(6) Reflections on Body Image,” All Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image and Central YMCA, online magazine, http://issuu.com/bodyimage/docs/reflections_on_body_image/69
(7) Kathy A. Benedetto, SPE, LPC, LMFT, Stephen Todd Callahan, MD, MPH, Rhonda Rose, RN, BSN, and Edwin S. Rogers, PhD, ABPP, “Eating Disorders in Children and Adolescents,” https://www.tn.gov/assets/entities/behavioral-health/attachments/Pages_from_CY_BPGs_195-207.pdf
(8) Irene Alton, “Eating Disorders,” online document, University of Minnesota, http://www.epi.umn.edu/let/pubs/img/adol_ch12.pdf
(9) H. Walter Kaye, Puzzling Symptoms: Eating Disorders and the Brain (2014), A F.E.A.S.T Family Guide to the Neurobiology of Eating Disorders, 7, online document, accessed February 5, 2016, https://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.feasted.org/resource/collection/DBF23DC3-CF99-488E-9FC6-A51632E8012E/Puzzling_Symptoms_LTR_11.20.2014.pdf.