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Warning! Extreme dieting can affect your mental health

Mental health and dieting feature image

By Isilda Da Costa

Have you ever been on a diet and not been able to stop thinking about food? Or have you finished a diet and dived deep into all the foods you have avoided for so long?

How did you feel while on the diet, and how did you feel coming out of it? Did you feel in control? Is it an easy transition or does it feel like pulling teeth?

The diet mindset

The intention of this article is to get readers to take a close look and better understand what you experience during and after a diet to determine if it’s actually doing more harm than good from a mental perspective.

Nutritionists and dieticians might say that diets are a necessity for weight loss, while coaches might say you’ll lose muscle on a diet and that extreme dieting is only for bodybuilders.

Intuitive eaters will tell you that diets are too damaging to the psyche and metabolism to even attempt. Whatever you believe, there are serious implications to consider before engaging in any diet.

Beyond nutrition

A study from 1944, which was conducted to provide information for the treatment of starving populations, offers an interesting point of departure.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota working under Ancel Keys assembled 36 male volunteers for what would become one of the most important studies ever conducted on the mental, physical and social effects of food restriction.

Keys wanted to provide insights into how starvation changes motivation and, ultimately, how that affects a person’s personality.

In what is now known as the Minnesota Starvation experiment, the researchers restricted study participants to 1,600 calories a day for six months. While this is hardly considered serious ‘starvation’, it was severe enough that participants reached a ‘threshold of insanity’.

The mental meltdown

The most startling finding noted by the researchers was the rapid deterioration in the subjects’ mental state and their seriously alarming behaviours, which extended beyond their response to food.

The most significant finding, though, was the long-term effect starvation had on their relationship with food as most men developed long-term disordered eating habits.

Within a few days, the men noted a decrease in energy and motivation. Keys also noted a serious overwhelming indifference and irritability amongst the men. From lining up for food to being seated at the dinner table, they would turn on one another and developed strange eating habits, including keeping food in their mouths for as long as possible.

They also began to handle their food like it was a precious commodity, licking their plates and even soaking their potatoes with water to make it last longer. Ultimately, food became their soul source of satisfaction.

The men started stealing food, hoarding recipes and daydreaming about food. Some took up smoking in search of the feeling of satiety or downed water like their lives depended on it. Some even chewed up to 30 packs of gum until the labs banned it.

The mens’ social behaviours soon regressed as making conversation became difficult and the men weren’t able to maintain interpersonal relationships. Worryingly, many no longer felt compelled to laugh at comedy shows.

Raising red flags

Have you ever found yourself trying to make a meal last longer? If you think back on your last diet, did you not also plan your cheat meal like it was the highlight of your life?

Some men also experienced serious emotional swings, falling from state a euphoria when they ‘cheated’ into a deep depression for having cheated at all! One man who stopped at soda shops on the way home and binged on 17 sodas became extremely remorseful over his failure to adhere to his diet and felt he had nothing left to live for.

While this is a little extreme, I am sure some of us can relate to negative feelings after having ‘cheated’ on our diet.

Any of these feelings or actions in your own life should raise red flags for disordered behaviour around food.

Long-term impact

Months after the experiment was over, the men still experienced many lingering effects. Some continued to binge to the point of sickness, possibly because they could no longer distinguish the difference between serious hunger and normal appetite. Some went so far that they had to have their stomachs pumped.

It’s mind-boggling to think someone can inflict so much self-harm due to a desperation to feel full and satisfied. But the reality is that this can be an all-too common consequence of prolonged severe calorie restriction.

A diet’s effects are most notable during the period of restriction. Thoughts about food can become all-consuming and mental health can decline as a consequence. Dieters tend to avoid social situations or dread them.

However, the most damaging effect can be the restrict and binge cycle, which we see not only on weekends but during periods when someone cycles in and out their diets.

This damages not only our relationship with food, but our relationships with others as well as our metabolisms. As a result. the ability to lose weight becomes more difficult and weight gain seems to accelerate!

Distinguishing the difference between psychological and physiological hunger is often a problem for chronic dieters and is unfortunately a lasting problem. These feelings seem to be part of our human psyche as an ingrained aspect of our innate survival mechanism.

A satisfied stomach allows the brain to function optimally. In turn, if the brain is fuelled adequately, we can keep those negative thoughts and emotions at bay. Relationships can flourish when we aren’t consumed about where or when our next meal is coming.

The choice is ultimately yours. Do you want to become like one of the Minnesota Starvation experiment men or do you want to flourish and achieve your goals by creating an environment that keeps you happy and your relationship with food intact?

Author: Pedro van Gaalen

When he’s not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He’s worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.

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