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A Starved Brain

Many of us are familiar with how our bodies may change physically when we diet, but often we aren’t as aware of how it impacts us psychologically. Our brains don’t know the difference between a diet and starvation. When food intake and calories are drastically reduced over a prolonged period of time, there are serious side effects we can experience in our mood, thoughts, behaviors, and other psychological complications. Many symptoms once thought to be attributed to anorexia are actually symptoms specific to starvation.

One of the most powerful research studies conducted around starvation, restrictive dieting, and weight loss was in 1950 at the University of Minnesota by Ancel Keys. The Minnesota Starvation Experiment selected 36 men in good physical and mental health to participate. The first 3 months the men ate normally, the following 6 months their calories were reduced by half to induced semi-starvation, and the final 3 months consisted of refeeding and termination from the program. While you might be able to guess what happened to them physical, it was even more fascinating what they experienced psychologically.

Here are some of the dramatic physical, psychological and social changes they experienced. If you have ever tried to reduce your calorie intake, see if you recognize or relate to any of these symptoms.

Constantly thinking about food and the next time you are able to eat. Focusing on anything other than food becomes challenging. Eating faster when food is available, or drastically slowing down your food intake in an attempt to savor it. Spending more time reading about food, recipes, menus, etc.

Breaking the rules and binging on any food they could find. Feelings of disgust after binging. After the experiment was over, the men experienced challenges around having unlimited amounts of food to eat which often led to binge eating or eating constantly throughout the day.

Depressed, emotional deterioration, irritability, outbursts of anger, anxiety, and apathy. Withdrawn and isolated, no desire to be around other people. Little interest in intimacy or romantic relationships.

Decreased ability to concentrate, stay alert, & comprehend tasks. Stomach issues.

Why is all of this important? If you are dieting, there is a very good chance that your psychological functioning is going to be altered. This can be helpful when we feel like we just don’t have the “willpower” to finish a 30 day challenge or continue to cut gluten out of our meals. It’s not a lack or willpower, determination, or focus. It’s your body trying to keep you alive. This makes complete evolutionary sense. Our bodies don’t allow us to pay attention to other things (ie relationships or jobs) when we are starving ourselves. We won’t survive if we don’t eat, so our body and mind make this a priority. Another important part of this research is that all of the participants regained their normal weight back after the study. This shows that our bodies aren’t just simply reprogrammed to a new weight after weight loss has occurred. Our bodies will defend our individual weight set-point because this is where we will function our best, both physically and psychologically.

Understanding how calorie restriction over a long period of time impacts our mental health can help give us perspective. If you’ve been on the diet roller coaster for a while, you’ve likely experienced some of these psychological side effects. The majority of us are not biologically programmed to look like the person on the cover of the magazine, and we may suffer psychological consequences trying to achieve it.

When you free yourself from dieting, you not only free yourself from limited food options, counting calories, or tasteless diet food. You also free yourself from anxiety, depression, isolation, impaired concentration, and preoccupation with food. Starvation hijacks the brain and your ability to do much of anything else. Give your body and brain the food it needs so you can get back to enjoying the rest of your life.

Emily Betros is a licensed clinical social worker, certified health coach, and owner of Reclaiming Health, LLC. She specializes in body image support, eating disorders, anxiety, life transitions, mindfulness, and women’s issues. More info: www.reclaiminghealth.net.

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