In our previous post titled “Let’s talk diet culture” we discussed the physical side effects that dieting can cause. Now it’s time to dive into the psychological and emotional damage that dieting can cause. First of all, every time you go on a diet, you become more vulnerable to the effects of stress. Dieting alone causes you to be deprived of the nutrition you need for your nervous system to work properly. There is plenty of current, up to date research examining how the stress of dieting may actually affect the neurochemical circuits that control appetite. Secondly, most dieters experience horrible feelings of deprivation every time they diet, and it’s hard to imagine just how powerful and damaging these feelings of deprivation can be.
To understand deprivation, we can look to the psychologist Abraham Maslow, who talks about our hierarchy of needs. His basic and most simple statement is that we are driven by our unmet needs…that we are actually motivated by what we don’t have. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a motivational theory in psychology comprising a five-tier model of human needs, often depicted as hierarchical levels within a pyramid. From the bottom of the hierarchy upwards, the needs are: physiological, safety, love, esteem, and self-actualization. Basically, the lowest level of the pyramid is made up of the most basic human needs, while the more complex needs are located at the top. Maslow’s theory of motivation states that certain lower needs, especially physiological needs (food, water, air, sleep, etc.) need to be satisfied before higher needs can be addressed. Maslow believed that all other needs become secondary until these needs are met. For example, if our body is telling us we need to drink water and we are thirsty, then little else matters until we have something to quench our thirst.
Let me explain this further. If you put a bunch of toys in front of a child and tell that child that he or she can play with anyone of those toys except the one in the corner, let’s say this is a toy car…which toy do you think that child is going to go after? Of course, that child will most likely choose to play with the toy car because it is the one toy that is off-limits. When we can’t have what we want we end up feeling so vulnerable to the loss of control. Basically what we are told to restrict will become what we crave. And when we finally do go after that which we are being deprived of, along with that loss of control come feelings of failure, lower self-esteem, and even social anxiety. Let’s say you go to a wedding or a party with a lot of delicious food but you are afraid to eat because you might feel out of control and people might see you eat a specific way…Would you be able to enjoy that event? Most likely not, because all you would be thinking about the entire time would be “I can’t let myself eat out of control”, and if you do end up eating you will most likely experience an overwhelming sense of shame or guilt. You could be thinking, “There’s something wrong with me, I have no self-control”. Does this sound fun? No, not at all. Are you starting to see how these things would erode the confidence and trust you have in yourself? In fact, they might even make you feel like you have a fundamental character deficit. So many people have come to me, only to tell me that there’s something wrong with them because they can’t stay on their diet. On a very regular basis, I see the many negative psychological and emotional impacts that dieting has on my clients. Ultimately, I see more information from research that diets are linked to serious life-threatening Eating Disorders like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder. When we go on a diet, we let external food rules mandate what, when, and how much we are “allowed” to eat. This is what makes chronic dieters so vulnerable to developing disordered eating patterns.
Since we’ve been talking about psychology and emotional damage let’s now take a look at the psychological reasons why diets fail. This to me is the nuts and bolts to why diets don’t work at the psychological level. The first reason has to do with willpower. I work with so many successful people of all walks of life who are happy with their lives in so many ways, yet they come into my office and they tell me they are failing nutritionally… how everything is working for them except that they can’t stay on a diet. Why is this? Why can they be so successful in all of these other areas of life and still feel like they are failing because of a stupid diet? Well in other areas of life they have a purpose that has meaning and is consistent with their own deep values. So of course they’re disciplined to do the work it takes for those things, such as their job.. However, when they try to apply the same sense of discipline they call “willpower” to their diet, they fail. That’s because willpower is something very different; it’s an attempt to counter the natural desires that you have and replace them with prescriptive rules. However, our diet-culture filled society has been telling us for decades that “not having enough willpower” is one of the reasons why we keep failing all of those diets. I believe the term willpower is misused, not listening to your body isn’t ‘willpower’, it’s just suffering for no reason. Basically, if you want to stop suffering, you have to start listening to your body’s personal signals. This will reinforce your natural instincts rather than fight them.
Practicing intuitive eating is not a matter of “willpower”. In fact, it’s the complete opposite. I mentioned deprivation earlier and how it is a key psychological reason why diets don’t work. I promised you there could be something that would make you feel so much better and let you know that there’s nothing wrong with you. This is a strong and deep psychological factor that I believe it’s the main reason why diets don’t work. This has to do with autonomy. When you go on a diet the need to assert your autonomy overrides and is stronger than you need to lose weight. I know that sounds shocking but this factor has to do with the internal violations and the emotional boundary issues that ensue. What does this mean? What are the boundaries? Robert Frost once said, “good fences make good neighbors”. We know that fences set up the boundaries to keep people in and out of our yards. Perhaps as an adult, you have a sense of freedom and autonomy and you set up your own psychological boundaries about what to think, what to believe in, and what to eat. So when the external rules of dieting cross over the boundary, they cross into the private place that protects your mental bandwidth and efforts to rid all diet talk.
I’d like to share a little story of something that happened in one of my virtual consultations. One of my clients started to tell me about how happy she was feeling that she was beginning to leave some food on her plate and noticing when she was full. I thought I’d play with her a little bit and ask her how she thought she might have felt if I was the one who had told her to leave some food on her plate… If you could have seen her body language you would have seen the anger that was rising in her. Her response to me was a resounding no. She put her hand up and said “I wouldn’t have done that” and that’s what happens when you are told what to do.
Other psychological effects of dieting could include:
- Lack of self-worth
- Social Isolation
- Mood swings
- Poor concentration
- Body Image Issues (Body Dysmorphic Disorder)
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