The weather is warming up and spring is fast approaching, which has some of us all too aware that bathing suit season is just around the corner. For those of us who have planned a spring break vacation, we may be already trying them on. Which all lends itself to talk and banter about diet and weight loss. Office cooler chats turn from winter sports or children's school activities to the latest fat zapping fads or juice cleansing practices. Before we get carried away with creating a shopping list that looks more suited for someone taking care of a family of rabbits than for someone looking to take care of weight loss goals lets talk about your brain's automatic and pre-programmed response to calorie deprivation.
When we are anxious about losing weight or are interested in obtaining quick results, we tend to begin diets or meal plans that are low calorie. Calories are what are brain considers as fuel so when we put ourselves on a low calorie meal plan, we are actually putting ourselves on a low fuel plan. Your brain is very intelligent and so when it begins to get the message that it is receiving less fuel it rebels against this process and transitions into survivor mode. This then presents as total and complete food obsession. Have you ever wondered why the moment you put yourself on a diet you cannot stop fixating on food and noticing all of the "food triggers" around you? Maybe things that you didn't even notice before, like a co-worker snacking on a bagel in the morning, are now making you salivate in desperation. The less you try to think about it, the more you do, your brain is a powerful mechanism, and it will not accept receiving less fuel to operate on. This is the same reason you may lack concentration, feel more irritable or less patient, and have trouble completing your routine tasks while on a diet; your brain is hyper focused on resolving what it considers to be a "problem of low fuel".
How could this put us at risk for binge eating disorder?
Well, it is only a matter of time until we give into the brain's powerful resistance to a low calorie diet; where at that moment, we most likely do so with a dramatic binge eating episode. This soul act is not of concern and is actually a normal rebound effect. How many times have we heard or said something like "I gave up on my diet today, had half a box of girl scout cookies." Even mainstream media references this phenomenon, often depicting a character motivated to lose weight with an extreme diet who relapses with a gallon of ice cream and a large cheese pizza; it is a comical narrative that almost all of us have experienced. Lets face it, we aren't spoiling our diets on a bag of apples.
When we give into our brain's resistance and consume a larger than normal amount of food full of fat, salt, sugar, and starch, is it sends feelings of relief, satisfaction, and the release of feel-good chemicals which signal that we are receiving a reward for that behavior. Even though we consciously believe that we did something "bad" by spoiling our diets and eating an excessive amount of "bad foods", our brain considers what we did as a "good" behavior because in the end, we achieved positive feelings and sensations.
What follows next is what could potentially become the beginning of a disordered eating pattern, putting us at risk for potentially developing binge eating disorder. After breaking a diet with a food splurge, many of us want to then return to that calorie deprivation diet. Maybe other dieters tell us, "just get back to it tomorrow" or maybe we tell ourselves, "that was the last pizza I'll have, tomorrow is a new day, I'll do better with it." So we restart our low fuel plan with renewed commitment until the obsession and brain rebellion return. Maybe we put up a longer fight out of conviction or maybe we are weakened from spoiling our diet recently, but either way, it is only a matter of time before we give into another excessive high fat/starch/salt/sugar binge eating episode. Instead of recognizing this as the beginning of a pattern that could spiral out of control, many of us mistakenly believe that increased willpower, conviction, and commitment is all that is needed to return to a low calorie plan and “stick with it this time” until we can achieve our desired results. Unfortunately, that is not true. Our brains will never allow it, and we will always fail at a low calorie diet, it has nothing to do with our willpower.
The danger in repeating this pattern continuously is that we begin to reinforce a condition that our brain looks to continue repeating, one of cycling between deprivation and binge eating. Since our brains are mechanisms that look to establish patterns of repetition in order to perform at maximum efficiency, they register binge eating behavior as favorable based on the reward feedback of the feel-good chemicals that are being released during each binge episode. Once this behavioral pattern is established, breaking it may require treatment in a therapeutic outpatient or inpatient setting and psychotropic medication may even be recommended.
So can we lose weight without risk?
We can still set healthy weight loss goals without putting ourselves at risk for developing a life altering behavioral disorder. We can do so by avoiding low calorie diets and instead make healthier food choices that are calorie sufficient. Healthy, sustainable weight loss takes time. Learning to accept yourself and first developing a healthy relationship with your current body is necessary in order to be able to withstand the patience required for your body to make a healthy weight loss transition. Losing weight involves listening to your body's hunger and satiety cues, eating normal portions, eating frequently throughout the day, and consuming whole foods with less than five ingredients, while also remaining mindful to allow yourself to consume foods you enjoy when you crave them, forgiving yourself for over indulgences, and participating in community/familial food experiences. It is also important to speak with your doctor about the right recommended activity level for you and arranging your weekly schedule to accommodate it.