Starved for a solution

Diets that severely restrict calorie intake can cause psychological problems and binge eating.

by Rania Abuisnaineh

With over 50 million Americans dieting at any given time, many of us pant like hungry dogs at the prospect of fast weight loss, even if it comes at the expense of our mental well-being. We daringly test out plans like the cabbage soup diet (bland in flavor, but hey, the calories are low), the Special K diet (because apparently, the solution lies in a bowl of cereal) and others of the like, but often our endeavors come to no avail. The only noticeable changes after flirting with fad diets are less confidence and perhaps more pounds gained than lost.
We realize after much experimentation that chances of attaining that desirable figure appear bleaker than ever âĦ until we resort to food deprivation.

Diets that call for restricting food intake (well-intended though they are) have come into vogue these past decades. Yet despite the research linking food restriction with mental complications , the ills of long-term dieting continue to be overlooked.
Once upon a time at our very own University of Minnesota, the Minnesota Starvation Experiment of 1944 revealed that protracted dieting âÄî specifically those that call for restricted calorie intake âÄî result in nothing but emotional distress, food obsession and psychological and physiological harm.

The UniversityâÄôs landmark study placed 36 healthy men on strict diets and watched as one by one, they developed eating disordered symptoms: collecting recipes, dreaming about food, obsessing over weight and calories and, ultimately, binge eating until they weighed more than at the start of the experiment .

I spoke with one junior at the University who is a living manifestation of this study. Her unspoken sorrow for her parentsâÄô divorce led to weight gain during childhood. This in turn intensified her low self-esteem. She then countered her weight gain by limiting her food intake, and what began as dietary restriction grew and quickly lurched into a starvation-binging cycle, all atop pre-existing unhappiness.

âÄúWhen IâÄôd get into that starvation cycle, IâÄôd go days without eating âÄî something like an apple a day, just enough so I can walk,âÄù the student I spoke with said. âÄúAt the same time, when IâÄôm really, really hungry, I would eat so much that IâÄôd feel like IâÄôd literally puke âĦ I would end up binging.âÄù
The studentâÄôs story is representative of many women her age. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, women who take dieting as a regular hobby are 12 times as likely to binge as those who donâÄôt regularly diet.

âÄúThe best way to lose weight isnâÄôt physical first, you need to work on yourself spiritually and mentally,âÄù the student said. âÄúWhen youâÄôre internally satisfied, youâÄôll follow yourself through with the exercise and health. And youâÄôre most likely to keep it off because youâÄôre at a strong state of mind.âÄù
After her struggle with the binging and self-starvation cycle, the student concluded that these diets glamorized in the media are really just âÄúfalse hope.âÄù

âÄúWhatever made you gain weight to begin with, if you havenâÄôt fixed that then the exercise and diets are pointless because youâÄôre more likely to relapse,âÄù she said. âÄúItâÄôs easier to go open the fridge and eat a whole can of ice cream than call the person youâÄôre angry at and say, âÄòHey, we have to talk.âÄôâÄù

If youâÄôre all for flaunting your new pair of size 2 jeans to your social group, then continue with your third bowl of cabbage soup; but if self-contentment, willpower and a beautiful, healthy body are what you need, then begin with the core issues that initially caused the weight gain and watch as the changes become permanent.

Rania Abuisnaineh welcomes comments at [email protected].