So the doctor put me on a highly restrictive diet for a few weeks and it almost drove me insane.
I know that sounds like hyperbole, but I’m not kidding. The diet, in preparation for some surgery, was called a liquid diet, but in truth, I was allowed anything up to pea soup consistency. Non-fat yogurt, Jell-O, pudding, Jell-O, sugar-free Popsicles and Fudgsicles, Jell-O, cream soups, Jell-O, broth of any kind, Jell-O, vegetable and fruit juices, Jell-O, Jell-O, coffee or tea, Jell-O, more Jell-O, still more Jell-O, non-fat milk, and Jell-O.
Did I mention I could have all the Jell-O I wanted? Oh, yeah, you bet.
The target was 1,000 calories a day for two weeks before and two weeks after the surgery. I guess for some people that would be tolerable; for some, a month long thousand-calorie-a-day diet is fairly routine. For me it was a bleak and treacherous stretch of woe. I haven’t been on a “diet” for over a decade now and returning to that state of self-induced starvation was like returning to the school where you got bullied and beat up every day, relentlessly, for years until you made good your escape.
When I first entered the Intensive Outpatient Therapy program for treatment of my eating disorder, they told us, “Quit trying to lose weight. Stop dieting. Completely. Right now, not in ‘just five more pounds.’”
You might think this was met with delight, but (like everyone else in the program) I reacted to the directive with doubt and dismay. I had been dieting, in one form or another, for most of my childhood and all of my adult life. The idea of abandoning diets, no matter how useless they had been, was deeply disturbing. It was like getting a shipwreck victim who’s standing safely on the beach to let go of their life jacket. However, when you commit to a program like the one I was in, you’ve already admitted that you’re not seeing things clearly and signaled your willingness to surrender to a different paradigm.
So I stopped dieting and prepared to become a whale. Or a blimp. Something fantastically corpulent.
That didn’t happen. I did gain some weight, but in a matter of a few months—after following my natural appetites rather than some food plan—my weight stabilized. It turns out that, given the opportunity to eat donuts and ice cream all day and night, I naturally chose not to eat donuts and ice cream all day and night. After a while, I was just as likely to crave a tuna and tomato sandwich as a chocolate chip bear claw. Subsequently, as my binge behaviors subsided, my body began to adjust: it got substantially lighter. Weird.
This just in: prolonged restriction of can create a distorted relationship with food, abnormal eating behaviors, and increased weight. Conversely, eliminating restriction will eventually result in a return to natural appetites and eating behaviors. Who knew?
Apparently the United States government.
In November 1944, a researcher, Dr. Ancel Keys of the University of Minnesota, conducted a year-long experiment into the effects of starvation. Known informally as the Minnesota Starvation Project, it involved having 36 men lose 25 percent of their body weight by restricting them to 1,570 calories a day for six months. In addition, they were required to walk 22 miles a week. The subjects were volunteers, conscientious objectors who were pleased to be supporting the war effort without having to enter combat.
The physical maladies caused by the food restriction were as expected. The psychological effects were much more involved and profound than anyone had anticipated. Cognitive abilities became sluggish, depression set in, extreme moodiness, introversion, impatience became the norm. Thoughts of food were pervasive and constant. One participant noticed that when he went to the movies, he didn’t pay much attention to the love scenes but remembered everything the characters ate. Eventually, the unrelenting hunger evolved into deep unhappiness and sometimes rage. Two of the participants broke from the program and were removed. One of them admitted to stealing food, stopping at local soda fountains for sundaes, and eating scraps out of the garbage. Both had to spend a brief time in the University psych ward.
After the six-month restriction period was over, there was a three-month recovery stage where calorie levels were increased. When that concluded, even though none of the men had regained their pre-study weight, they were released. They were cautioned not to eat too much but told they could eat whatever they wanted. Buh bye.
Their physical and psychological recovery was far from complete and they all knew it. On the first day, one participant ended up vomiting on a bus because his stomach couldn’t contain all food he had eaten. Another ate so much, he ended up having his stomach pumped. As one man put it, the fact that their stomachs were full in no way diminished the craving for food.
Think about that for a minute. Your stomach is full but you’re still gripped with unrelenting hunger.
That’s messed up.
All the men recovered fully over the course of a couple of years—however, most reported gaining a substantial amount of weight before returning to their normal pre-study weight.
While I was on that thousand-calorie-a-day diet, the unrelenting hunger I experienced wasn’t just a physical sensation, it was an emotional minefield. It made me think about all the years I had seen hunger as a friend, the gateway to contentment because I knew if I could keep myself hungry long enough I would lose weight and my life would be wonderful. I could finally be happy. Yet, looking back, it’s clear that keeping myself in a state of perpetual hunger for years not only contributed to my disordered eating, it made me feel depressed and awful and angry all the time.
Does dieting alone cause eating disorders? It seems unlikely, but it almost certainly stokes the fires. The Binge Monster likes hunger. It likes other things, too—despair, self-loathing, imagined inadequacies of all sorts—but hunger, that’s a key motivator. It turns out if you walk around hungry all the time, eventually your body takes matters into its own hands (because, let’s face, between the two of you, it’s the one with the hands) and not only forces you to relieve the hunger, it seeks to regain lost ground.
Since 1950, we have had empirical evidence that the combination of restricting food and increasing physical activity leads to mental distress and weight gain. Yet, the solution to obesity, we are told, is diet and exercise, diet and exercise, diet and exercise, and if you can’t control your eating—if you can’t make that plan work—it’s because you’re not trying hard enough or you’re weak. You lack the will or the character to be healthy.
That’s messed up.
If you couple food restriction with physical activity for a prolonged period of time you get abnormal eating behaviors resulting in weight gain. We know it. We’ve known it since 1950. It’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room that nobody wants to acknowledge.
I wonder if maybe everyone is ignoring the Gorilla because it’s trying to get from 800 pounds down to 650, so it’s on this diet, see, and it’s been in a really really bad mood lately. Believe me, I know what it’s like.
A comprehensive article about this study; so many of the fascinating details ended up on the cutting room floor while writing this post, it’s very much worth the time to look into. Highly recommended.
A video presentation at the University of Minnesota website that deals with the study, narrated by one of the participants who gives personal insight into prolonged hunger and the consequences. Make sure you catch the last two minutes.