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Why does restricting food lead to problems?

October 12, 2016

Okay, so with all the nutrition information out there, it can be really difficult to figure out what really works when it comes to healthy eating. There are so many diets out there that even when your job is about healthy eating, it can be difficult to keep track of them all! Many of them that promise to "shed pounds fast" and cut way back on your food. Other diets claim to be about moderation but still restrict your food and cause you to stop listening to your body. 



You might be thinking: "Well in order to be healthy I need to lose weight though so I need to cut back my food, right? If I'm eating a low number of calories then I'll lose weight for sure, and I'll be healthy." This is the sentiment we see everywhere in our culture.


The thing is that there is research showing that health behaviours matter more than the number on the scale when it comes to your health. In terms of calorie restriction leading to weight loss, that does seem to happen in the short term but the thing is that the human body is amazing at putting you at your 'set point,' which is the weight your body wants to be at. That means that if you restrict your food and your weight goes below that point, your body starts protecting you from losing too much weight to ensure you have energy stores in case of a famine. Fortunately, this isn't an issue for many of us but our bodies haven't caught up to an environment where starvation is not an issue so it still tries to protect our energy stores. 


When you cut back your food, you might start to notice that you're craving foods you've restricted, start daydreaming about food, and feel hungry. Usually people eventually 'fall off the wagon' and continue on with yo-yo dieting. This is not the fault of your willpower, it's physiology and your body wanting to replenish its energy stores because you've cut back too much!


To illustrate this, I want to tell you a little bit about one of the most famous starvation studies in history. It was done by Ancel Keys PhD in 1944 and is known as the Minnesota Starvation Experiment. Essentially, a group of young men who volunteered for the study as part of the relief effort cut their calorie intake almost in half from their normal intake for six months to look at the effects of starvation on the human body. They ended up losing 25% of their body weight but there were many side effects on their physical and psychological health.


 The researchers noticed that the men became obsessed with food during their restriction. In the book Men and Hunger: a psychological manual for relief workers one participant stated that he "stayed up until 5:00AM reading cookbooks." This was a man in the mid 1940s, so you can imagine that this was likely not something done previous to the study. According to the published book, the Biology of Human Starvation, they also reported "dizziness, extreme tiredness, muscle soreness, hair loss, reduced coordination, and ringing in their ears." 


I know what you're thinking, dieting isn't necessarily starving yourself so how is this applicable? Well lets think about this for a second. These men weren't being excessively active and were eating more than many diets call for (note: I did not include numbers to avoid triggering anyone but you can find out more in the links above.)  There is one component that doesn't translate over, however; which is that this study was done with the war in mind, not dieting so it was fairly low in protein. The diet consisted mostly of dark bread, root vegetables, and some milk, so some of the effects of the semi-starvation would be in part due to protein malnutrition such as hair loss. 


The psychological effect however, does not appear to be due to protein malnutrition. Brain scans of individuals who are on calorie reduced diets show their brains light up in reward and attention centres in response to food, especially high-calorie foods like a chocolate milkshake. To check out the study, click here. Often clients complain about cravings when they're on diets and wonder if they are lacking in different nutrients. Often, it is simply they have restricted and they are now fighting with their bodies to maintain their low intake. 


Your reward and attention centres in the brain light up more in response to high-calorie, high-fat foods like chocolate milkshakes when you are calorie deprived.


Following their restriction, they slowly had their caloric intake come up to pre-study levels for three months, then they were allowed to eat however much they wanted. Once they were sent home, one man reported that he "couldn’t satisfy [his] craving for food by filling up [his] stomach." Another man ate so much that he had to have his stomach pumped. If this point doesn't illustrate how powerful the cycle of deprivation and overeating can be, I don't know what is! It isn't that your willpower isn't strong enough, it's that you're trying to battle your body and eventually, your body wins.


So what could you do instead? Start paying attention to your hunger and if you don't feel hunger, start by eating regular meals. Stop trying to override your body. 

I know this is difficult because we're sold this message that weight loss is the solution to all of our problems. If you could only be in a smaller body, you would be happy and healthy. The truth is though that one third to two thirds of the weight is regained within 1 year, and almost all is regained within 5 years. To top that off, at least 1/3 of dieters gain back more weight than they lost. Dieting actually is associated with an increased risk of weight gain and eating disorders.


I know this is a really difficult concept to wrap your head around because it is the opposite of what the media promotes but think back to your own history or those around you: how often does dieting lead to sustained weight loss? How many people do you know who say looking back before they started dieting, they thought something was wrong with their bodies but looking back they realize there wasn't?


It's so interesting how we blame ourselves instead of the diet. It's not that something is wrong with you, in fact, your body is doing exactly what it is supposed to do. The thought that we can't really control weight is something that a lot of people find really difficult to hear. I encourage you to look at it in a different way: your body is pretty freaking amazing at regulating itself so you don't have to!


You don't have to focus on calories and restriction but learn to listen to your body when it tells you you're hungry or full. If you don't feel those cues, starting with eating 3 meals per day with snacks is a good first step. Shifting the focus from weight over to health and having a healthy relationship with food can be really freeing but it takes time. The dieting mentality is everywhere in our society but moving away from it to self-care and self-compassion is possible. It isn't quick or easy but I promise you, it's so worth it. 


If you're interested in working with me, you can find more information on nutrition counselling here or book an appointment here




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