This Is Your Brain On A Diet

I often talk with my clients about the impact that restrictive diets have on our metabolic rate but today I want to dive a little bit deeper. What we don’t often think of is the impact that restrictive dieting has on us psychologically. I’ve heard from clients time and time again that when they “diet” all they think about is food – that it becomes more difficult to eat healthy when they actually FOCUS on it. But why is this the case? Shouldn't it be EASIER because we are actually putting effort and thought into our food choices? Not necessarily. 

Let’s use the low ethical standards of past scientific studies to our benefit today and look closely at the starvation study of 1944. Two researchers, Ancel Keys and Josef Brozek from the University of Minnesota, led this 6-month study.

Now before you feel like you’re back in school reading research studies… I promise I will summarize this and that my story does have a point.


How Did The Starvation Study Work?

In order to be included in this study, subjects had to be physically and mentally healthy males that got along well with others in difficult situations. After surveying over 200 volunteers, 36 men were selected for the study.

During the initial 3 months of the study, participants ate their normal diets and their personality and eating patterns were monitored. The following 6 months required that the men cut their food intake in half, resulting in a weight loss of about 25% of their total body weight. This may sound drastic… but this is something that we do to ourselves everyday when we decide to finally “commit” to a “diet”. We voluntarily restrict our food intake to get the weight loss results that we want. And this behavior has significant implications on our mental health.
In this study, the men went from consuming 3200 calories per day to consuming 1570… which, if any of you have ever followed a restrictive diet before, you know that this is quite standard, right? 1200 calories per day for women and 1500 calories per day for men? “Standard”.
Throughout the dieting phase, researchers measured both the psychological and physiological changes that occurred in the men.


Your Brain On A Diet (also called semi-starvation)

During this phase some of the normal things that you would expect to happen to dieters occurred: their strength, stamina, body temperature, sex drive and heart rate decreased. The men also became “obsessed” with food, meaning they would dream, read, smell but not eat and talk about food. These men were unable to concentrate on their daily tasks because that brainpower was spent dreaming about and thinking about food.

Following the diet phase, men were given the opportunity to consume food with no restriction for 3 months. The ability to eat with no restriction caused some of the men to binge, even though all of them had been warned against it. Keep in mind, these are men who before dieting were mentally and physically healthy and now, because of dieting, are engaging in binge-style eating behaviors.

Many other things also happened in this study – if you’re interested in reading about it in more detail, click here


What Does This Tell Us?

There are a number of things that we can learn from this study

  1. Obsessive food thoughts and eating behaviors can develop when we follow a restrictive diet.
  2. Regardless of our awareness, restrictive eating can lead to reactive binge eating that can last months, if not longer.
  3. Our mental focus and overall quality of life is significantly impacted by restrictive eating.

There are already so many strikes against restrictive dieting, from metabolic slow down to unwanted psychological changes but it continues to be a path that is attractive to many people because of the drive for quick results. As I will continue to say everyday, the best way of eating for you is the way of eating that is maintainable forever. This means a way of eating that leaves you feeling satisfied, nourished and energized. You may be reading this right now thinking “this doesn’t exist” but I promise you, it does – you just haven’t found it yet.

I hope that if you were on the fence between going back on a restrictive diet and looking more at making a lifestyle change that this helps sway you in the direction of the latter. As always, if you have questions or comments, please leave them in the comment section below!

Yours in Health,


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The contents of this website are for informational purposes only. It is not intended to offer personal medical advice, diagnose health problems or for treatment purposes. It is not a substitute for medical advice provided by a licensed and qualified health professional.
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