There’s science behind why you feel frustrated -- and the problem isn’t you
You know the diet routine.
You decide you want to change your body. You research the most updated diet. You write exercise plans. You rid your house of your favorite foods. You steele yourself to be “good” and stick to the regimen.
You start your diet. You feel great for the first few days. You have more energy, you feel motivated. You think that this is the path to your self-improvement. Week two or three rolls around. You’re sluggish. You’re hungry. You have low energy and high fatigue. Your cravings are through the roof. You just want that one piece of bread, or donut, or steak. You scold yourself for low willpower, but you just can’t control your cravings or hunger anymore. You break the diet. You beat yourself up. Criticizing yourself for your lack of willpower, your weakness, your inability to stick to a plan. You think there’s something wrong with you. I'm here to assure you, there’s nothing wrong with you. Here’s the science behind why that diet you’re following actually sets you up to fail.
Everyone struggles when they’re starved
In World War II, a researcher named Ancel Keys conducted a study to determine the effects of starvation on the body. Researchers limited the caloric intake of 36 healthy, fit male soldiers. The men’s intake was cut to 1500 calories per day, distributed across two meals, to reduce body weight by 25%.
Researchers found that starvation increased dysfunctional eating behaviors like food hiding, cutting food into small pieces, and rationing food. Men were significantly more likely to rapidly eat or lose control when presented with food.
Some men even started to become concerned about their body weight and shape. Over time, some even started to intentionally limit food intake for the purpose of changing their body. These findings are astounding, given that none of the men had problems with eating when they started the study. Here’s what we learn from this.
Diets set up an internal threat of starvation
When we limit caloric intake or cut out certain foods (like in most elimination diets), our body experiences an internal threat.
It learns that it won't be fed regularly or sufficiently. It learns that it should take advantage of food when it’s there because it doesn’t know when it will be fed again.
When your body is threatened in this way, biology kicks in. Our bodies fight the threat by slowing down our metabolism and storing fat. We start to crave certain foods. And when presented with foods that were previously forbidden, our bodies take full advantage by eating as much as possible.
Starvation leads to binge eating
When you're starved, your body is literally driven to binge eat. The official definition of a “binge" is eating substantially more food in one sitting than is typical given the circumstances. Even if we don’t eat an objectively large amount of food, we can still have the subjective experience of losing control when eating.
When we think we will never eat a certain food again, we crave that food more. That’s why when you start a no-sweets diet, all you can think about is the next ice cream. And when you’re presented with the forbidden food, you lose control.
After being starved, our bodies' natural tendency is to seek food and eat as much as possible to stave off starvation.
These phenomena aren’t caused by a lack of willpower, but biological drives from inside your body. This happens to everyone, which means that there isn’t something wrong with you that makes it impossible to stick to the diet.
It’s the diet. It’s a natural side effect of under-nourishment.
Starvation leads to food obsession
When the men in the study were starved, they became obsessed with food.
Eating is necessary for survival. So when we are starved, our body goes into survival mode. Which means we are constantly thinking about when we are going to eat, how to get food, and where to find it. Otherwise, we wouldn’t survive.
When something is scarce, we covet it. Ever put yourself on a financial budget and all you can see are more ways to spend money? Same concept.
By limiting food, you are making it a scarce, coveted resource. Making it more special and valuable. Making you crave it more.
A sure way to think more about food? Go on a diet.
A way to become less obsessed with food? Eat regularly and sufficiently. Eat a wide variety of foods. Include foods with high nutritional value — proteins, carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables, healthy lipids — and balance those foods with fun foods in moderation.
Otherwise, the food obsession continues.
Otherwise, food becomes central importance in your life.
Otherwise, food edges out everything else that’s important to you.
It's not you: It's the diet
The culmination of this data tells us very important information - it's not you.
It’s not a lack of willpower. It’s not your personality. It’s not laziness.
It’s your body fighting to feed itself.
It’s the diet that sets you up for failure.
The diet that promises you feeling confident, happy, and healthy, but leaves you starving, irritable, erratic, and lonely.
Diets don’t fill your life.
Find what does instead.
How to prioritize what's important to you over food and dieting
Feed yourself regularly and consistently. Three meals and 2–3 snacks per day is a great place to start. Feed yourself a variety of things. Both things that taste good and things that are good for your body.
When you feed yourself, the food obsession ceases. The self-criticism quiets. With time, your metabolism returns back to normal.
With time, you can heal.