The first time I decided to go on a diet, my intention was to be healthier. I was 25 years old and had just moved from New York to California to work as a counselor at a summer weight-loss camp for teens. The combination of restricting my food intake (I was down to 800 calories per day) and increasing my fitness resulted in me losing 20 pounds in just three months. By the end of the summer I weighed 95 pounds and could pull my jeans up over my hips without unbuttoning them.
I thought I had discovered the secret to healthy living and weight loss. Until the binges started. Within a matter of months, I found myself binging and purging multiple times per day. I was experiencing intense cravings for high-fat and -sugar foods (which I had avoided on the diet) and felt like I couldn’t control my eating. I was miserable and couldn’t understand why this was happening to me.
The answer? The effects of dieting are what happened.
Dieting, which had started out as a journey towards optimizing my health, actually resulted in me developing an eating disorder that wreaked havoc on my body and mind.
Fast forward 10 years, and after going back to school to become a psychotherapist, I now understand the psychology of eating behaviors and why dieting lead to the unraveling of my health.
Here are three psychological principles that are imperative to understand if you are someone who is considering going on a diet, is currently on a diet, or is struggling with binging and/or purging behaviors that you can’t seem to control.
1. Cognitive Regulated Eating Patterns Cannot Override Biological Hunger Controls
Ever notice how animals seem to innately know what to eat and when to stop? They don’t need to read books on what foods are edible or whether or not they should eat vegan or paleo.
Animals are born with an intelligence that is programmed in them from birth that influences their eating habits to ensure their optimal survival. Human beings are no exception to this. The only difference is that we often try to cognitively regulate our eating via dieting instead of being naturally guided by our innate body wisdom.
Cognitive-regulated eating patterns describe the process by which humans try to bring eating behaviors under cognitive control, rather than eating according to one’s physiological hunger cues. This is why diets are so hard to stick to, because your cognition and willpower will never override your brain’s programming for survival. Eventually your brain’s signals to eat will overpower your efforts to control your intake. Always.
Rather than trying to follow another diet, I advocate for learning eating practices such as mindful and intuitive eating, that teach you how to reconnect to your body wisdom and trust that you innately know what and how much to eat for your body.
2. Restraint Release Will Always Result In Overeating.
If you use willpower to avoid eating certain foods, such as carbs and fats, eventually you will reach a point of depletion where you’ve exhausted your restraint muscle. After prolonged periods of using restraint to restrict food intake, eventually one releases all efforts to control and the pendulum swings the other way, leading to overconsumption. Having used up every last drop of willpower, you will overeat the very foods you tried so hard to avoid. Dieters have been found to be even more vulnerable to restraint release when experiencing depression, anxiety or stress.
The restraint-release phenomenon will undoubtedly set you up to remain stuck in a damaging pattern of yo-yo dieting and/or binge-restrict cycles, neither of which are ideal. This is exactly what I experienced at the beginning of my eating disorder. After periods of restriction, I’d become overwhelmed by cravings that I couldn’t resist no matter how hard I tried to restrain myself. I’d overeat, be flooded with guilt and shame, and try to “undo” it by starting a new diet the next day. This was a vicious cycle I became stuck in for years. I believed I was weak for not exercising more control, when in reality it was the principle of restraint release at play.
Rather than exhaust all your willpower to try and adhere to a diet perfectly, you can set yourself up for success by giving yourself permission to eat and enjoy all foods in moderation according to your body’s hunger requests. If you have no idea how to do that, then here is your invitation to set the intention to learn. You’ll save yourself from a lifetime of unhappy dieting, eating struggles and body shame.
3. Willpower Is A Finite Resource That Is Actually Fueled By Food
That’s right, you actually need to eat food in order to strengthen your willpower muscle. That’s because the brain’s effort to exert restraint takes sufficient energy, and your brain’s source of fuel is glucose. If you deprive yourself from carbs in the morning and throughout the day, then you’re depriving your brain of the glucose it needs to exert impulse control later on in the evening. It comes as no surprise then that nighttime is when most individuals find themselves most vulnerable to overeating or giving into food cravings.
Ironically, the solution to prevent willpower depletion is to replenish your glucose reserves so that your brain has plenty of fuel. This again is an argument for eating all types of whole and unprocessed foods in moderation, including carbohydrates such as fruit, oats, rice and sweet potatoes. These foods are not “bad;” quite the contrary—they are necessary and essential nutrients for optimal functioning and health. It’s just a matter of what type and quantity you consume.
The good news is that relaxation has been shown to help buffer willpower depletion, meaning the more you practice daily relaxation strategies such as deep breathing, meditation, walking, journaling and tapping, the better you’ll be able to exercise self-control.
Ultimately, these three psychological principles are all connected in influencing one’s eating habits. If you follow a diet in an attempt to cognitively regulate (aka control) your eating patterns, there is a high likelihood that you will end up overeating the exact foods you tried to avoid. Every diet is an attempt to both cognitively control and restrain one’s eating, and therefore is doomed to fail.
When I finally understood this, I was both angry and relieved. I was angry that we lived in a diet-obsessed culture that made it so convincing to go on a diet when the psychological harms are undeniable and backed by decades of research. Yet, I was relieved to know that by ditching the diets and relearning how to repair my hunger cues and listen to my body’s innate wisdom, I could achieve the optimal health I had desired from the get-go.