While dieting has become a relatively common concept in our culture, the effects of restrictive dieting are startling. Even the word “diet”, which was originally intended to simply mean what one consumes nutritionally, has become equated with a restrictive diet, a way of limiting eating to reduce calories or lose weight. If more people knew about the dangers of restrictive dieting, perhaps fewer people would engage in the practice.
Restrictive dieting puts one’s body in a state of starvation, which can have dangerous physiological consequences. Even though the body can do an excellent job of healing from the physical damage restrictive eating can cause,the psychological effects of starvation can be pervasive and long-lasting. One of the seminal studies on the effects of starvation is the Minnesota Starvation Study conducted by Ancel Keys.
This research, conducted at the University of Minnesota in 1944 was originally designed to study the effects of a reduced-calorie diet on male soldiers, who during World War II, would likely be operating under such conditions. The study intended to involve healthy males and induce them into a state of semi-starvation to study the effects, as well as see them through the rehabilitation process of restoring their nutrition over a period of 12 months.
The study was broken down into four phases:
1) a 12-week control phase, during which time the goal was to have the subjects consume a daily caloric intake to maintain their body weight.
2) A semi-starvation phase of 24 weeks in which subjects were to cut their caloric intake by half.
3) A restricted rehabilitation period for 12 weeks in which subjects were broken into four groups, each of whom received a different nutritional rehabilitation strategy, AND
4) An unrestricted rehabilitation period of eight weeks in which the subjects carefully recorded and monitored their caloric intake, but caloric intake and food selection was not restricted.
The study yielded shocking results, which surpassed the researchers’ expectations. It was found that these otherwise healthy men experienced periods of severe emotional distress, depression, hysteria, preoccupation with food, and even hypochondriasis (Tucker, 2007). Sexual interest was drastically reduced, and the cognitive effects of the semi-starvation was jarring. Subjects demonstrated a decline in concentration, comprehension, and judgment. Furthermore, the subjects showed signs of social withdrawal and isolation (Tucker, 2007). What is worse, these effects lasted well into the Rehabilitation Period and for many subjects even beyond the conclusion of the study (Tucker, 2007). Some individuals reported that their relationship with food was never the same again (Tucker, 2007).
This study showed, among other things, that restrictive dieting can produce an eating disorder. This, in and of itself makes dieting a very risky proposition. The psychological effects of starvation were alarming enough to bring the Minnesota Starvation Study to a premature conclusion due to ethical concerns. So what does that say about the ethics of our society encouraging dieting? Not all diets ask people to reduce their caloric intake by half, but some do. Unfortunately, many people who turn to dieting are not interested in a moderate approach; they are enticed by the prospect of greater results by more extreme measures. What we need to ask ourselves, prior to engaging in such a risky behavior, is whether it is truly necessary or important.
Is losing weight worth risking long term cognitive effects, emotional distress, depression, social isolation, and the risk of the health consequences that come along with an eating disorder as well? If you or someone you know has or is engaged in dieting, let them know there are risks involved and they should consult an eating disorder professional such as the experts at Cielo House to learn more. The problem is that many people undertake dieting when there is some kind of problem or unmet need in their lives. They do so thinking that a restrictive diet, and the weight loss that would come with it, would make them feel better about themselves.
However, if someone is turning to restrictive dieting as a means of trying to fix something else in their lives, the diet will never get them what they truly are searching for, and may introduce a whole host of additional problems in the process.It is important to fulfill our nutritional needs as well as our personal and emotional needs. In doing so, we can make sure we always have adequate amounts of love, friendship, purpose, connection, and of course, food.
Dr. Matt Keck, MFT is CEO and Co-founder of Cielo House. He supports a non-diet approach to recovery, and works with clients to ensure that they are never depriving themselves of the things they need in life.