The first week of anorexia recovery I learned why dieting is dangerous and why it doesn’t work. In a nutshell, dieting breaks your metabolism and distorts your ability to read your body cues properly.
Dieting is any eating habit that involves the restriction or elimination of nutrients and/or the control, counting, and restriction of calories. Point systems are diets because the program has pre-restricted the calories for you; these are counted calories disguised as point values.
When you restrict calories and nutrients you lose weight. This is why diets are so attractive on the outside. The problem is that internally your body goes into “deprivation mode,” craving the nutrients it’s missing and slowing the metabolism way down so as to store energy for crucial functions, such as fueling your heart and brain. When you “give in” to those cravings, the metabolism is slow to use the energy– one because it’s sluggish and two it naturally wants to use the energy sparingly since it doesn’t know when it’s going to get those nutrients again. Often you won’t feel good eating something of which you’ve deprived yourself (like sugar or bread) thus blaming the food, when really it’s your body not responding well because it’s broken.
When I went through the re-feeding process, I felt physically ill for about eight weeks while my metabolism re-learned how to accept and process nutrients again. It was another several months before my body found homeostasis.
Yo-yo dieting or chronic dieting puts the body in constant deprivation mode and gives the body no semblance of normal. It can’t settle into a homeostasis where the flow of nutrients to body function is rhythmic and natural. Instead, dieting trains the body to reserve the nutrients and keep the metabolism slow so as to store energy for internal functions. Simply speaking, you hold on to the weight. The body isn’t sure when it’s going to get those nutrients again and it has systems and processes to run, so it’s going to store calories and use them wisely.
Here’s a replicated visual my eating disorder therapist showed me:
Person A and Person B are both born at the same time. As they grow, they gain weight accordingly. One day Person A begins dieting and her weight drops. Each dip in the graph represents a diet with a corresponding weight drop. After each diet, the weight goes back up, increasing just a little more each time and never finding a consistent stability.
Person B doesn’t diet at all, and over time her body settles into a consistent weight with minor (and natural) fluctuations. At the end of life, Person A dies at a higher weight than Person B.
If you are a dieter, have you sometimes noticed when the weight comes back, it’s often just a little more than the last time you put the weight back on? It’s not because you are a bad person who has a problem with self control. It’s because your body is trying to protect you. It’s distorted, yes, but it doesn’t know any other way because it’s trained to operate in deprivation mode.
Personally speaking, my body went from deprivation mode to survival mode. I never “went on” a particular diet, choosing instead to simply starve consistently. I counted and restricted calories, avoided fats and carbs, and over-exercised. In time my metabolism shut down entirely, and what little nutrients I got went to keeping blood flowing to my heart and brain in an effort to keep me alive. Now, being 14 months into recovery, my body has found its homeostasis and I’ve leveled out where my body wants to be. My graph looks roughly like this:
Dieting forces you to go against your body’s natural cues. When you’re hungry a diet will keep you confined from feeding your body what it needs. Diets tell you:
a) You can’t eat because it isn’t time.
b) You can’t eat the thing you are craving because it’s “bad.”
c) You can’t eat the amount you need because it’s “too much.”
The body and brain become confused.
Body says: “I’m hungry. I need (crave) a plate of meaty pasta and a slice of cherry pie. Pasta will give me long-term fuel; the meat will give me stamina; the cherry pie will give me the quick spark and pleasure to start the refueling process for all systems.”
Brain says: “Nope. You’re on a no-carb, no-sugar diet. You’re getting a chicken salad with no cheese and a sugar-free flavored water. You need better discipline. Cherry pie? What are thinking, fatty?”
Body says: “Hmm. Okay, so you’re giving me fiber, water, and a tiny bit of protein. I’ll do my best but don’t be surprised when I’m sluggish and you’re cranky.”
Binge eating happens when we’re in deprivation mode because the body is so desperate for nutrients we’re not paying attention to when the body says “Enough!” Confused hunger and fullness cues become normal. I remember when I would eat, I would feel full after only a few bites because:
- my brain was trained that I was only allowed a tiny bit.
- my metabolism was so broken, my body couldn’t handle normal portions.
Some people experience the opposite problem where it seems like it takes more food to get full and that’s because the brain isn’t tuned in with what fullness actually feels like for their body. There are a plethora of reasons why some people eat more than they need (emotions, distractions, strict rules such as “must eat everything on my plate,” distorted view of portion sizes, etc.)
The bottom line is this: Your body knows what weight it wants to be. The trick is learning how to trust your body and accept the weight at which it lands. Maybe even learn to love your body where it lands. I’ve accepted my body and now I am learning how to love it. The cultural ideal body type is not realistic and you’re going to damage yourself, physically and mentally, trying to achieve it through dieting. I nearly died trying.
If you are in the midst of a vicious dieting cycle or considering dieting at all, I encourage you to learn more from this book. It was introduced to me my first week of recovery, though it took me months to learn how to apply it because I was so disordered in my habits and beliefs. Everyone at any size can find their homeostasis again, including you. No more diets, okay? You’re life is way too valuable and diets aren’t worth the sacrifice. <3