Dieting can have negative effects on both your physiological and emotional wellbeing, leading to diet trauma.
There are 2 standard definitions of the term diet:
- The kinds of food that a person, animal, or community habitually eats; and
- A special course of food to which a person restricts themselves, either to lose weight or for medical reasons.
The second definition is the one most commonly referred to – people talk about their diet as something they are trying out, not something that they plan on implementing for the rest of their lives.
When I talk about “diet trauma”, I am referring to the effects of the kind of diet in the second definition.
Almost everyone would have been on a diet at some point in their lives – whether it was to lose weight or to be healthier, we have all restricted some part of the food we eat.
Nowadays we have so many diets: from vegetarian, vegan, pescatarian and lacto-ovo vegetarians, to low carb, low calorie, low fat, high carb and high protein, to breatharians and detoxes.
Each of these involves restricting some nutrient and what generally happens, is that restriction leads to a binge afterwards, of the foods you have been cutting out.
We live in a culture where dieting is “cool”: a perfect example is the gluten-free trend.
Previously, removing gluten from your diet was only done by those who needed to medically – people with coeliac disease or those with gluten intolerance.
Nowadays there is a significant increase in the gluten-free food industry which is associated not with an increase in coeliac disease, but rather an increase in the popularity of it as a “healthier” diet. The most common reasons people report going on a gluten free diet is for “no reason”, “it’s healthier” and for “digestive health” – and the least common reason is having a gluten sensitivity!
Understanding the Biology of Human Starvation
Restricting food can affect both your body and mind in many ways.
This became evident during World War 2, when a study was conducted with 36 conscientious objectors. The purpose of the study was to find out what effect starvation had on people – both the physiological and emotional effects – so as to provide an insight into how they could help troops recover from starvation after the war. This study is known as one of the most important studies on the mental and physical effects of caloric restriction.
So what was it like for the participants? They reported a weight loss of on average 25% of their weight, they consumed a restricted calorie diet as well as minimal nutrients. They experienced periods of severe emotional distress and depression, a preoccupation with food, reduced sexual interest, exhibited signs of social withdrawal and isolation and a decline in concentration, comprehension and judgement capabilities.
This was a condition of severe starvation, however any restriction can cause similar (albeit less severe) effects.
Physiological Trauma of Restriction
- Metabolism. Your metabolic rate becomes depressed following calorie restriction. This means that your body begins to store more calories, and you need less calories to function. The end result is that after a period of restriction, it becomes harder for you to lose weight, and easier for you to regain the weight. In severe cases, this can be evident in reduced body temperature, respiration and heart rate.
- Gallstones. Gallstones are a common side effect of rapid weight loss. Studies have found that the risk of gallstones was 3 times greater as a result of a very low calorie diet (<800 cal) compared to a standard low calorie diet (1200-1500 cal). In addition, people who lose more than 1.5 kg per week may have a greater risk of developing gallstones. This occurs as the body breaks down fat and the liver secretes extra cholesterol into bile which can lead to gallstones.
- Nutrient deficiency. We talk about a balanced diet to ensure that we are getting enough of all the nutrients we need. If you reduce the total amount of food you are eating, you are at risk of not getting enough vitamins and minerals. As a generalisation, you need at least 1200 calories per day to get everything you need from food. But if you are cutting out entire food groups as well, you are also at risk of nutrient deficiencies and this can result in fatigue and lack of energy.
- Wasting. If you aren’t consuming enough calories, your body will break down what it needs to survive. Your body doesn’t necessarily break down fat first, it will also break down muscle which can result in wasting. This means you start to lose lean body mass rather than fat which can affect your physical ability to function.
Psychological Trauma of Restriction
- Isolation. Eating food forms a significant part of our social interaction with people. For people on strict diets, going to dinner with friends can be a stressful event. You don’t have control over the food being served, you may be more enticed to eat something that will break your habits, or you could simply be embarrassed by the fact that you are dieting. Regardless of the reason, many people choose to avoid these situations and begin to lose their social circle as a result.
- Eating Disorders. Dieting is a significant risk factor for developing an eating disorder – it can become an obsession for some people, continuing to alter their food intake for more weight loss. Dieting, particularly unhealthful weight-control behaviours such as restricting foods, in young people can lead to the onset of disordered eating behaviours and eating disorders later in life.
- Depression. Firstly, we know that a diet complete with whole grains, fruits and vegetables, lean protein and good fats help to prevent depression, so a diet that restricts any of these components can increase your risk of developing depression. The concept of dieting can also cause people to feel depressed. Studies have found that people who lose weight may not have any psychological improvements, but may actually be at greater risk of developing depression.
- Concentration and Cognition. Having a balanced diet is important for brain health. Not only can restricting foods limit the nutrients you are consuming, it can also cause preoccupation with food which can make it harder to concentrate on other aspects of your life.
Severe dieting practices are common and can cause both psychological and physical trauma. Weight loss can be hard, and for most people, there is no quick and easy solution. Instead of making big changes and cutting out entire food groups, it is healthier to focus on making small lifestyle changes that will benefit your health in the long term.
Author: Ashleigh Hamilton, BHlthSc (Nutr & Diet), MSc (Diet), APD.
Accredited Practicing Dietitian and Nutritionist, Ashleigh Hamilton, is passionate about a whole of body approach to health which encompasses both physical and mental aspects. She works with people to make lifestyle changes that will benefit their health for the future, using a range of counselling techniques including aspects of cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness and person-centred therapy.
To make an appointment with Brisbane Dietitian and Nutritionist, Ashleigh Hamilton, try Online Booking – Mt Gravatt or call Vision Psychology (Mt Gravatt) on (07) 3088 5422.
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- Keys, A., Brožek, J., Henschel, A., Mickelsen, O., & Taylor, H. L., The Biology of Human Starvation (2 volumes), University of Minnesota Press, 1950.
- Jackson, Sarah E., et al. “Psychological changes following weight loss in overweight and obese adults: a prospective cohort study.” PloS one 9.8 (2014): e104552.