In Part 1 of this blog series, we discuss the insidious nature of diet culture that falsely glorifies losing weight at all costs. We explored several ways that diet culture seeps into our mindset and how very early on in our childhood, we are told that being fat is bad. We learn that messaging early on is that “we are capable of controlling“ and must control our weight. After understanding the power of the diet industry and the pressure to strive for thinnness, one may begin to realize the reality that dieting can very well impact one’s well-being.
More specifically, dieting can impact physical health, mental health and emotional health as discussed below.
Biologically, our body’s natural response to dieting and restriction is to go into “starvation” or “famine mode”. Consequently, it responds by slowing down many of its normal functions to conserve energy. This natural response can be associated with changes in body functioning such as hormonal changes, reduced bone density and menstrual disturbances. Athletes who engage in restriction could be particularly affected by these changes as they could lead to a risk for osteoporosis, stress fractures, RED-S (Relative Energy Deficit in Sport) and injury.
Another physical impact, commonly experienced, is the preoccupation with food. Dieting reverts our trust away from eating intuitively and reinforces the need for rules. One of the ways diet culture hooks us and keeps us engaged, is by selling the idea that we are not able to manage our own eating and trust ourselves. That without calorie-counting, tracking macros and a list of forbidden foods to keep us in check, we would eat uncontrollably. The sense that one may lose control if allowed to eat is actually the body signalling the brain to get food, and lots of it, ASAP! This is because the body has gone into a state of restriction and is not able to distinguish between an intentional restriction and a limited food supply.
Every diet takes us further away from trusting our body. The chronic state of restriction is leading the body to seek food, particularly rich and calorie dense foods, in large quantities, reinforcing the belief that one would be out of control if it weren’t for their “willpower“ and dieting rules.
Another health impact that may occur in response to restriction, and one that is often overlooked, is the change in mental health.
The Minnesota Starvation study has been long cited as probably one of the most important studies on the mental and psychological effects of food restriction. In this experiment, 36 men voluntarily starved themselves so that researchers and relief workers could learn about the changes in motivation, behaviour and ultimately the personality of those under starvation (1). It is important to note that a 1500 calorie diet was considered starvation in this experiment. This is a common caloric goal prescribed in various diets.
The study’s implications about dieting are hallmarks to anyone who understands or has experienced disordered eating and dieting. Hunger led the men to food obsession, dreaming and fantasizing about food (1). They played with food and found ways to savour the limited amount of food provided. They reported fatigue, irritability, depression, apathy and decreases in mental ability (1). Some developed concentration issues due to their preoccupation with food. Elements of enjoyment in life such as socializing and interacting with others, faded away (1). Many recorded new anxiety and depressive symptoms (1).
Whether mild or severe, all these examples are true adaptations one can experience due to restriction from dieting. With all the changes in physical health and mental health, can one imagine the extent of how all these changes can influence our emotional well-being?
Purpose and worth cannot be measured in weight. Health and wellness cannot be measured through a number or Body Mass Index (BMI). Dieting mentality tempts us into self-dialogue that may look like: “if I am thin, I will be happy” or “if I am not thin, I am a failure”, but only provides a short term solution with long term harmful physical, emotional and mental consequences. The American Academy of Family Physicians defines that people with emotional health are: in control of their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, able to cope with life’s challenges and bounce back from setbacks (2) . They feel good about themselves and have good relationships.
Considering the power the number on the scale can hold, it makes sense that our mood, our attitude, and ultimately our emotional health, is affected.
When the measure of success is placed on something as uncontrollable as the number on the scale or our shape, dieting can slowly erode a person’s belief in their own abilities.
It can cause them to question their value as a person, and diminishes what they believe they deserve in life. And this can ultimately affect all areas of life whether related to work, home, family or relationships.
Understanding the impacts that dieting may have on our well-being is important for several reasons. It can provide insight and help us have a greater understanding of some of the frustrating behaviours an individual with disordered eating may exhibit. It may also help us further understand our own relationship with food and its impact on our lives. By recognizing that these are adaptations to a starving body, we may appreciate and respect the amount of effort required for recovery. We can see that dieting greatly interferes with our connection to our body. By restricting, we lose touch with our hunger cues, satiety signals, perceived self efficacy and relationships.
Now that we recognize how much diet culture is present in our lives, and the effects dieting can have in all aspects of well-being, we can then actively choose to disengage and fight against it.
Stay tuned to read part 3 of this blog: how to disengage, defy and resist diet culture.
- Gil, C. (n.d.). The Starvation Experiment. Retrieved January 11, 2021, from https://eatingdisorders.dukehealth.org/education/resources/starvation-experiment
- Familydoctor.org (2020). Mental Health: Keeping Your Emotional Health – familydoctor.org. familydoctor.org. Retrieved 5 November 2020, from https://familydoctor.org/mental-health-keeping-your-emotional-health/.
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