Diets are bullsh*t. (Pardon my French.)
I know that now, but I didn’t always have the inside scoop. There was a time I thought that weight loss should be “easy” or a matter of simple math: consume fewer calories than you burn, right? As a kid, it seemed like women were either on a diet or had the mindset that a diet was the answer to hitting a goal weight. It took a long time to uncover how flawed this manner of thinking was.
Countless studies point to the conclusion that we can’t control our weight through willpower and deprivation.
No wonder my experiences with dieting made me feel so coo-coo and defeated.
I’m currently re-reading Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon and it is re-igniting my anger about common misconceptions around dieting. But on a more productive note, this information fuels my desire to support others impacted by the diet myth. It is my great hope that by sharing my struggle with food and body image and breaking down how I was ultimately able to reconnect with my body and find peace in my skin, I might be able to connect with other women facing the same issues.
I want to share the things I’ve learned with you: how I got out of a diet and deprivation mindset for good and how my body settled at its ideal weight without dieting.
Step One: Get the Facts.
Seek real information about how your body responds to hunger, eating, and deprivation. Learn why diets don’t work.
I first started to gain essential knowledge about human biology as it relates to food and nutrition while partially hospitalized for an eating disorder. I wonder why it had to get to that point? Why was it so difficult to find real, straightforward information about these topics outside of a clinical setting? Instead we are inundated with diets and weight loss programs and products and methods promising the next “fix” but never delivering on the promise. Where do we find real information about health, weight, and nutrition?
In the next few posts, I will share some information that was particularly instrumental in healing my relationship with my body and food. I’ll also point you to resources for your continuing education.
The first big “aha!” moment in my journey came from learning about the “Minnesota Starvation Experiment” conducted by Ancel Keys in the 1940s.
A brief backstory on the experiment:
At the end of World War II, amidst reports of starving populations in war-torn countries, Keys’ study was aimed at examining the physical and psychological effects of a prolonged restricted diet. The participants were 36 physically and psychologically healthy adult men ranging from 22 to 33 years old. During the first three months of the study, the subjects ate normally and their behaviors were observed. The subjects then moved into the six-month “semi-starvation” phase of the study, during which the men were placed on a restricted diet of 1560 calories a day. (Note the number of calories these men were consuming daily was similar to what is prescribed by many diets, and it was classified as “semi-starvation”!)
Beyond the physical effects of the diet (including decreased basal metabolic rate, reduction in strength, loss of coordination, and the inability to tolerate cold), its psychological ramifications were profound.
Many of the men became absolutely obsessed with food: they dreamt about food, fantasized about food, talked about food incessantly, read about food in their spare time. It was difficult for them to sustain conversations that did not revolve around food or to concentrate on their usual activities. About half of the subjects began compulsively collecting recipes, cookbooks, or kitchen utensils. (“Stayed up until 5:00 A.M. studying cookbooks,” wrote one participant.)
A number of the participants experienced depression (“I just don’t have any desire to do the things I should do or the things I want to do.”), fatigue (“This week of starvation found me completely tired practically every day.”), as well as social withdrawal and isolation. “They were not interested in the ideas or activities of others, except as they were related to food-getting activities," observed a researcher. Few participants were able to continue romantic relationships throughout the experiment, and many found themselves disdainful toward those who were able to eat at will.
During meals, the subjects took on strange ritualized behaviors like licking their plates, playing with their food, making odd concoctions, diluting food with water so it would last longer, or holding bites in their mouths for a prolonged period of time. Many experienced increased irritability, especially annoyed at the strange behaviors of others around food. One annoyed subject wrote about others: "They would coddle [food] like a baby or handle it and look over it as they would some gold. They played with it like kids making mud pies."
Some subjects chewed up to 30 packs of gum a day or drank excessive amounts of water, coffee, or tea desperately seeking the sensation of fullness. A couple men secretly binged on sundaes, cookies, or candies, then felt disgusted with themselves after the fact. At least one subject engaged in an act of self-mutilation, amputating three of his fingers with an axe. He later stated: “I admit to being crazy mixed up at the time . . . I am not ready to say I did it on purpose. I am not ready to say I didn't.”
After the starvation period, the men went through a three-month period of rehabilitation, during which their caloric consumption was gradually increased. The psychological state of some men continued to decline during rehabilitation. Many were no longer able to behave “normally” around food, often engaging in extreme overeating to the point of sickness. They had lost their ability to perceive internal hunger and fullness cues. For some, this persisted up to eight months after the experiment had concluded.
These findings have important implications for dieting.
Here’s a thought exercise for emphasis:
- Consider that the “semi-starvation” diet imposed in Minnesota Starvation Study experiment is strikingly similar to many diets promoted and adopted today in terms of caloric intake. (WebMD defines a “low-calorie diet . . . usually used to achieve weight loss” as “reducing calorie intake to 1,200 to 1,500 calories per day for women and 1,500 to 1,800 calories per day for men.”)
- Now, if you’ve been on a diet, ask yourself if you experienced any effects that were similar to the symptoms exhibited by participants in the study:
Obsessing about food?
Thinking about nothing except when, where, and what you’ll able to eat next?
Constantly working food or your diet into conversations?
Lack of energy?
Losing interest in things other than food?
Smoking, chewing gum, or drinking lots of water, coffee, or diet soda to distract yourself from hunger or to try to feel full?
Playing with your food or other eating habits to make your food "last longer"?
Overeating, then feeling disgusted with yourself for overeating?
Never feeling satisfied or the inability to discern when you are full?
The sensation that you’re not really living, just waiting until when the diet is over?
It’s not you, it’s the diet.
Depriving ourselves of food can change us, and not for the better. If the Minnesota Starvation Study teaches us anything about dieting, it is that we probably cannot restrict calories without experiencing physical, mental, and social side effects.
Is the diet really worth the sacrifice?
Spoiler alert: Probably not.
Next week I’ll explore some of the reasons diets don’t work and what you should do instead...
If you’ve been burned by the diet myth and want to find a healthy way to love your body without dieting, I would love to support you. Click here to book a FREE, 30-minute discovery call and get started on your diet-free life!