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HealthInfo Canterbury

Dieting makes you binge

Pick up any women's magazine and you'll find, next to each other, recipes for delicious meals and desserts, and adverts for the newest, most improved, most effective diet yet.

The diet industry is self-perpetuating because the product it sells (the diet) doesn't work, yet everyone believes that the next and better one will do the trick. In fact, 95% of people who go on a diet eventually gain the weight back. Not only that, but dieting can be dangerous.

We used to believe that people with bulimia had a binge-eating disorder and they dieted to counteract the binge. While it's true that people sometimes fast after bingeing, what's now understood is that dieting actually causes binge-eating. If you're looking for one thing that most people with anorexia or bulimia share, it's that they have dieted at some time, or are dieting now.

Dieting causes binge-eating by setting up a state of deprivation in your body. Your body can only tolerate being deprived of essential nutrients for so long and then it rebels and overeats to compensate for what it hasn't been getting.

Even people who diet but don't have an eating disorder find that they tend to binge (or eat too much of the foods that were forbidden on the diet) after having dieted for a long time.

Dieting changes your metabolism

Chronic dieting also makes it harder for someone to maintain a healthy weight, because it actually alters your metabolism. Some people find when they diet that their body simply won't lose those last few pounds. If your body knows it has to exist on small rations, it slows down its metabolic rate. This is similar to what happens to animals that hibernate over winter when they have to conserve their energy at times when they don't eat.

The only way to return your metabolic rate back to normal is to start eating regular, normal meals again, and adopt a healthy lifestyle, which also includes reasonable levels of physical activity.

Finally, dieting affects your mood. Just like animals that get mean and nasty when they're hungry, people also get irritable and short-tempered when their bodies are deprived of food. Dieting and self-starvation can lead to depression, anxiety and irritability, symptoms commonly seen in people with eating disorders and people in general who are chronic dieters.

Regardless of what magazines say and what the diet clinics promise, all the scientific evidence confirms that these schemes don't work. The miracle diet will never arrive. The only answer will continue to be eating balanced meals, eating in response to hunger cues and not other emotions, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle that includes physical activity but not excessive exercise.

Written by Cynthia M. Bulik, PhD, Department of Psychology, University of Canterbury. Adapted by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Endorsed by the South Island Eating Disorders Service, Canterbury DHB. Last reviewed December 2017.


Page reference: 74103

Review key: HIEDI-73561