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  • Kathleen Hernder RD, CDE

Why does restricting our food lead to problems?

So with all the nutrition information out there, it can be really difficult to figure out what to believe. There are so many diets out there that even when your job is about helping people to improve their nutrition, it can be difficult to keep track of them all! Many of them that promise weight loss or a quick path to "wellness" are VERY restrictive. Other diets (or "lifestyle changes", "plans", or whatever you want to call them) claim to be about moderation but still restrict your food and cause you to stop listening to your body.

Why does restricting lead to problems?

Think about the last time you were on a restrictive eating plan. (By restrictive, I mean limiting your choices of foods or amounts of foods, even if it said it wasn't a diet.) What did you notice in terms of how you thought about food? Did you spend more time thinking about food? Did you become fixated on the idea of eating something that was "forbidden?"

You might start to notice that you're craving foods you've restricted, start daydreaming about food, feel hungry, and usually people eventually 'fall off the wagon' and say that they 'failed' at the diet. Often, if there was weight loss or improved blood sugars, there is often weight regain and increased blood sugars that goes along with this. That makes people feel bad about themselves and try yet another plan. That's how the yo-yo dieting continues on and on.

If that's the case, you're not alone. In fact, that's our bodies' natural response to food restriction, whether it's from a diet (or lifestyle change, wellness plan, or whatever you'd like to call it) or from food insecurity.

Why? It's our bodies' way of trying to protect us. I know it can feel like your body is working against you but for thousands of years, we needed to survive periods of starvation and this is part of our bodies' way of ensuring we got enough to eat when we could!


In terms of calorie restriction leading to weight loss, that does seem to happen in the short term but the thing is that the human body is amazing at putting you at your 'set point,' which is the weight your body wants to be at. That means that if you restrict your food and your weight goes below that point, your body starts protecting you from more weight loss by slowing your metabolism and increasing your hunger through many hormone level changes to ensure you have energy stores in case of a famine.

The weight regain after dieting doesn't mean you've failed as a fantastic dietitian, Julie Duffy Dillon says, it's you being a successful human!


To illustrate this, I want to tell you a little bit about one of the most famous starvation studies in history. It was done by Ancel Keys PhD in 1944 and is known as the Minnesota Starvation Experiment. Essentially, a group of young men who volunteered for the study as part of the relief effort cut their calorie intake almost in half from their normal intake of (but the calories were still more than is allowed on my diets or plans) for six months to look at the effects of starvation on the human body. They ended up losing 25% of their body weight and there were many side effects on their physical and psychological health.

The researchers noticed that the men became obsessed with food during their restriction. In the book Men and Hunger: a psychological manual for relief workers (CW if you view this study- it discusses calories) one participant stated that he "stayed up until 5:00AM reading cookbooks." This was a man in the mid 1940s, so you can imagine that this was likely not something done previous to the study. According to the published book, the Biology of Human Starvation, they also reported "dizziness, extreme tiredness, muscle soreness, hair loss, reduced coordination, and ringing in their ears."

I know what you're thinking, dieting isn't necessarily starving yourself so how is this applicable? Well let's think about this for a second. These men were walking less than what is usually prescribed in terms of steps per day so they weren't being excessively active and the calories they were consuming was more than is prescribed by most diets and plans. Their intake was adjusted so they would lose an amount per week that's on par with what is usually considered a 'reasonable' amount. (I'm avoiding use of numbers here to avoid triggering anyone but they are outlined in the paper.)

What happened after the study?

Following their restriction, they slowly had their caloric intake increased for three months, then they were allowed to eat however much they wanted. Once they were sent home, one man reported that he "couldn’t satisfy [his] craving for food by filling up [his] stomach." Another man ate so much that he had to have his stomach pumped. If this point doesn't illustrate how powerful the cycle of deprivation and binging can be, I don't know what is. It isn't that your willpower isn't strong enough, it's that you're not meeting your body's needs.

Here's another way to think about this: what happens if you try to breathe only through your mouth through a small straw? Well you don't get enough air so when you remove the straw, you take a big gasp to get the air you need. Our bodies are the same way when it comes to food!


So what does that mean for you? Well I invite you to think about previous diets and lifestyle changes you've tried. What has been your experience in terms of how you reacted to restriction? Did the fixation on food by the men in this study resonate with you? Does the focus on foods you've restricted shown in the other study feel true to you?

If so, maybe it's time to start exploring the idea of not restricting and going on another diet or lifestyle change. I know it can feel scary to try something different and if you have diabetes, there can be an additional layer of fear around what will happen to your blood sugars. Remember though, there are factors other than what we eat that affects our blood sugars and there is evidence that tuning into your body's cues can actually help people improve their diabetes. Maybe it's time to try something different and let go of the yo-yo dieting.

It's so interesting how we blame ourselves instead of the restriction. It's not that something is wrong with you that makes you fixated on food and has you eat more when you're restricting your intake, in fact, your body is doing exactly what it is supposed to do.

If you're interested in taking a different approach and working with me, I'm not taking clients just yet but you can get on the waitlist at !


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