We live in a time and society with two very conflicting food and nutrition based ideologies. One the one hand: mass abundance of very available, highly processed, and caloric rich foods, and on the other: glorification of a slender figure. This paradigm is at least partially to blame for the eruption of our current restrictive diet culture. Unfortunately, the traditional dieting rules tend not to work in achieving long-term weight loss and health.
While there are variations in what is recommended from diet to diet, the usual approaches involve restriction, labeling foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ as well as advising how much to eat and when. However, research on these diet types indicates that restrictive eating does not lead to weight loss long term. Instead the majority of people who begin this type of weight loss journey will either fail or eventually gain all of their lost weight back. But why? The restrictive diet approach suggests that we should follow a specific, prescribed eating pattern that may or may not actually meet our needs. It encourages people to ignore their internal cues responsible for regulating appetite. One reason for failure in these diet types is that our biological cues are very strong and not easily outsmarted.
Hunger signals involve a complex interchange between food intake, hormones, and hunger. Extreme under-eating with the goal of achieving a calorie deficit will lead to increased levels of the hunger hormone: ghrelin. The longer an individual remains in this restricted caloric state, the higher the levels of ghrelin and therefore, the more intense the hunger. Eventually, due to panging hunger signals, an individual is very likely to eat and fail their diet. To make matters worse, in response to these very intense hunger cues it is more likely that a person will eat too quickly for their fullness counter cues to respond, resulting in over-eating and feelings of being uncomfortably full. Those physical feelings of discomfort often lead to emotional feelings of guilt and a newfound motivation to diet, thereby beginning the vicious cycle all over again.
Accompanying this already complex interplay is our labeling of foods as either ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Typically in diet culture foods richer in taste and containing more calories, fat, and sugar are labeled ‘bad’ and must be avoided. Categorizing and shunning foods in this way can actually make them even more appealing, and therefore more likely to be the go-to foods when the diet crumbles. Furthermore, eating a food with this negative label attached is more likely to lead to feelings of shame, guilt, and stress. These negative feelings are accompanied by stress hormones like cortisol, which can blind the decision-making process and contribute to further poor food related decisions. The entire multifaceted restricting and overeating process repeated over time can create a very unhealthful relationship with food and eating and challenges the ability to make internally supported eating choices.
A shift towards a more intuitive eating pattern and healthy relationship with food provides lasting results without the requirement to restrict. Learn more about mindful eating in next month’s post.