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The Physical and Psychological Effects of Dieting

By Cynthia M. Bulik, Ph.D., and Nadine Taylor, M.S., R.D.

Updated January 11, 2005

Have you ever noticed that as soon as you go on a diet, all you want to do is eat? Even if you weren't particularly concerned about food prior to dieting, all of a sudden you become obsessed with it. You find yourself preoccupied with what you'll have for your next meal, whether you can have a snack, what others are eating, or even what you'll allow yourself to eat tomorrow. What's going on?

The mind and the body are inextricably linked, and never is this more apparent than when you go on a diet. Geared to survive during feast or famine, both body and mind switch into survival mode when the food supply is radically diminished. While the body turns down the metabolism and becomes a "slow burner" in an attempt to hang on to every single calorie, the mind gears itself to one overriding purpose: getting food. The result? Suddenly, you may find yourself clipping recipes, planning menus, cooking elaborate meals or dishes for others (neither of which you'll eat yourself), or even dreaming about food at night. The message is clear: Your body wants food, and your mind does, too.

After a few days of extremely restricting your food, you'll probably become more depressed and anxious. Although this may be due to changes in neurotransmitters like serotonin, it may also occur because you are depriving yourself of things that are very pleasurable that aren't replaced by anything else -- leaving a pleasure void. You may suddenly prefer to spend more time alone -- it takes too much energy to deal with others -- and your self-esteem may start to drop. Unfortunately, the more depressed, anxious, and isolated you become, the more you'll obsess about food.

Some people can hold out longer than others, but the result is eventually the same: a binge. You eat something you "shouldn't," which makes you feel as if you've blown it. So you let go and eat. During the binge you feel relief -- at last you can relax and do what you've wanted to do all along. But you may also feel as if you're in a trance and can't stop yourself. It's almost as if your body has developed a will of its own; it's going to feed itself whether you like it or not. As a result, you can end up eating more food in one sitting than you ever did when you weren't dieting.

Are you crazy? Absolutely not. This is a normal, even healthy reaction to a period of semi-starvation, a reaction that made good sense during primitive times. After a period of famine, it was natural and necessary for our ancient ancestors to overeat. They needed to be able to take advantage of a feast when they had the chance, because the food supply was uncertain. To make this possible, their appetites increased after a period of famine. So the same amount of food that would have satisfied them during times of plenty left them feeling hungry after a period of semi-starvation. The same thing happens to you when you restrict food. Suddenly, you develop the urge and the capacity to binge, and you no longer feel satisfied after eating what you used to consider a normal meal. In short, restrictive dieting can trigger binges and leave you hungry even after you've eaten normal amounts of food. This is true for most Runaway Eaters, and even for those dieters who do not develop Runaway Eating problems.

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