Stop Binge Eating
 
19th February 2021
 

Why Restrictive Diets Lead to Overeating and Food Obsession

 
Find out the dramatic effect of restriction on physical and psychological health. 

 
If you suffer from obsessive thoughts about food, there is NOT something ‘wrong’ with you. These thoughts are likely to be a symptom of past, or present, restrictive diets. The solution to easing thoughts about food is usually at least partly easing restriction.
 
Discover how 36 men went from physically and psychologically healthy to food-obsessed binge eaters by being put on a 1600kcal diet for 24 weeks in the wartime Minnesota starvation study. After being restricted, the men in this study became depressed and anxious. They developed body image issues and only thoughts of food could interest them. After they were unrestricted, they ate double the calories that they ate before the diet, and still felt constantly hungry despite binge eating.
 
Get tips to help heal your body and mind from the effects of restrictive diets.
Restrictive Diets Lead to Overeating and Food Obsession

The evidence
During the second world war the US saw the starvation occurring throughout Europe and realised that mass re-feeding was likely to be needed. A group of 36 men who were in the Civilian Public Service were given permission by the War Department to take part in a ‘starvation study. Healthy men volunteered to be starved and then re-fed to inform plans for post-war rehabilitation and to better prepare in country in the case of severe food shortages.
 
These 36 men were selected from many more who volunteered as they appeared resilient and physically and mentally strong. They were also sociable and were thought to work well with others. These men were also chosen as they had a strong willingness to help famine victims.
 
The men could take University classes during the year long experiment and were given regular physical, psychological, intelligence, personality and endurance tests throughout the study.
 
This study was called the Minnesota starvation experiment and was published in “The Biology of Human starvation” in 1950 by physician Ancel Keys, psychologist Josef Brozek and colleagues.
 
Control (normal) phase
Firstly, the men spent 12 weeks eating normally and walking 3 miles a day so that their energy requirement could be assessed, they used 3500 kcals a day on average.
 
Semi-starvation phase
Then the men were ‘starved’ for 24 weeks and given half of their ‘normal’ energy intake. Interestingly, this starvation diet was about 1600 kcals a day, which is more than many modern ‘weight loss diets’. As it was wartime, the diet mainly consisted of starches like potatoes and bread.
 
Reports say that many of these men found the hunger so traumatic that they would rather have been at war.
 
Refeeding phase
After the ‘starvation’ phase, the men were then re-fed in a controlled way for 12 weeks.
 
Unrestricted phase
Next, some of the men were left unrestricted for 8 weeks to see what happened; they ate 7000-10,000 calories a day.
 
What happened to their bodies?
They lost 21% of their strength in the starvation phase and were weak, dizzy, exhausted, had hair loss and poor concentration. They had headaches and gastrointestinal pain. They did not have these symptoms before the ‘starvation’.
 
What happened to their minds?
These men now constantly thought about food and eating. Many stopped their University classes as they couldn’t be bothered to go. They were obsessed about food, which they were not before they had been ‘starved’.
 
Due to their new food obsession, some men changed career after the study, two became chefs and one started working in agriculture.
 
Extroverts became introverts. Many experienced new depression and severe anxiety. Interestingly, the depression got worse during the first six weeks of the refeeding phase than it was the starvation phase. The only time that these men felt positive was when they were talking about weight, food or hunger. They became argumentative.
 
Many developed new habits of reading cookbooks and regularly dreamt about food, which they didn’t before.
 
The men lost all interest in anything except food.
 
What happened at mealtimes?
The men got very protective of their food, guarded it with their elbows and had anxiety that others would steal it. They would lick plates clean. They also got very upset with other students at the University if they saw them waste any food.
 
How about other habits?
Many started smoking as a distraction and those that were gum users had to have it rationed as they got jaw strain from chewing so much.
 
What about bingeing?
The men had such strong urges to binge that men were tasked to stop each other stealing food and bingeing; some did find food and binge and they were left with severe guilt, shame and remorse, not to mention self-loathing.
 
For 5-months after the starvation phase finished, the men still reported being hungrier than before the study started, despite binging regularly and eating double the calories that they did before.
 
What about body image?
Many gained body image issues that they didn’t have before, many saying that they now felt ‘fat’.
 
What was the healthiest way to put the weight back on?
The only thing the body cared about in the ‘recovery’ phase was calories, it didn’t matter what vitamins or protein were eaten, that didn’t make a difference.
 
What about metabolism?
By the end of the starvation phase, the men’s basal metabolic rate had dropped 40%. Their weight dropped 25% and their muscle mass by 40%. Modern research has confirmed that strict diets reduce your metabolic rate by up to a third, the quicker the weight loss, the bigger the drop.

More information about the Minnesota Starvation experiment is available here: The Starvation Experiment | Duke Center for Eating Disorders (dukehealth.org)
At the beginning of this study the men were physical and mentally healthy.

After being put on a 1600kcal/day diet, the men had symptoms in line with anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder.
Strict diets can harm us physically and psychologically.
 
We know from this study that restriction results in obsessive thoughts about food. We now know that these obsessive thoughts can block out other stressful thoughts. As we have more control over food than many other things in life, these obsessive thoughts about food can be (unconsciously) appealing when we are feeling stressed and overwhelmed.
 
It wouldn’t be appropriate to do a similar study now, but this study is still one of the most important for informing treatment of disordered eating and food obsession.
If you suffer from obsessive thoughts about food, there is NOT something ‘wrong’ with you

These thoughts are likely to be a symptom of past, or present, restrictive diets. The solution to easing thoughts about food is usually at least partly easing restriction.
How can we recover from restrictive diets?
There are some simple tips which can help heal our bodies and minds after restrictive dieting:
  • Eat regularly: Generally eating three meals a day and three snacks keeps blood sugar stable and can help to speed up metabolic rate.
  • Eat enough: Eventually, to maintain a healthy weight without restriction, you need to learn to tune into your body’s hunger cues. This comes with practice, it can help to ask yourself ‘am I hungry?’ when you are thinking about food.
  • Eat all types of foods: No food is off limits as this just makes you want it more. Some common sense is necessary of course. Allowing yourself previously ‘forbidden’ foods is not the same as bingeing.
  • Get more sleep: 7-9 hours per night is the recommendation. Adequate sleep helps everything feel better.
  • Reduce Stress: Remember self-care as there are psychological effects of restrictive dieting as well as the physical ones. Remember to nourish both your body and your mind.
  • Sensible exercise: if you have suffered from overexercise then sticking to stretching, light yoga and walking is sensible. Otherwise, try to do a ‘sensible’ amount inline with guidance of 30-60 mins/day of movement that raises your heart rate.
  • Water: Drink a sensible amount of water but not too much, 1.2-1.5L per day of liquid.

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Disclaimer

The information in this website is not intended as medical advice. It is intended as sharing of knowledge and information from the research and experience of Dr Kirsten Keighley on behalf of Dr Kirsten Keighley Ltd. We recommend you make your own health decisions based on your own research and consultation with a qualified health professional. We recommend that you consult your and your child’s doctor and/or dietician before beginning a new diet or exercise programme.