Can Dieting Make You Lose Your Mind?

If you have ever witnessed strange behaviour from a friend who was losing weight fast while following a diet with a questionable nutritional content, you may recall things like an obsession with food and strange or elaborate rituals.

This odd behaviour may have been evident in the unusual enthusiasm with which recipes, completely unsuitable for the kind of diet they were following, was collected or you may have noticed how much time and effort would go into preparing and eating the next restricted meal. He/she may even have brought you something decadent and insisted that you eat it while they watched with hungry eyes.

Restricted dieting can have physical and psychological consequences

During World War II Dr. Ancel Keys from the University in Minnesota selected 36 healthy young men who had been excused from armed service due to ethical objections, to partake voluntarily in an experiment to determine how people will react under semi-starving conditions and to learn how starving populations can be fed back to health.

The men followed a restricted diet (about 1600 calories) with the type of food that was available during the war and was required to walk about 10 kilometres a week. During the period of the experiment they had to stay in the dormitory at the university under close supervision. Their expected weight-loss goal during the six month starvation period  was about 1.1 kilos per week and if this goal was not met the individual’s energy intake was reduced.

The consequences

Apart from the physical symptoms that were reported due to the restricted energy intake which included dizziness, cold intolerance, muscle soreness, hair loss, reduced coordination, oedema and ringing in the ears, there were worrisome psychological effects as well. The men’s capability to concentrate diminished and their sex-drive disappeared. They became obsessed with food and used elaborate rituals to let the food go further. Some collected cookbooks and recipes. One even bought doughnuts and gave it to street children so that he could watch them eat. Two were admitted to a psychiatric hospital because the one man became suicidal and the other cut off three of his fingers in an act of self mutilation due to severe psychological stress.

Persistent hunger, weakness and loss of sex drive persisted for several months after the re-feeding period and some of the men had put on a substantial amount of weight afterwards.

Interestingly, the average amount of energy intake allocated to the men in the above experiment does not differ much from the total energy allowance  in many quick-fix diets and effects like the above can often be seen in people who aim to lose as much weight as possible, as fast as they can.

Starvation, however, is not the answer to our weight-loss woes. To stay sane and healthy while losing weight and to remain that way there are just four rules to remember:

  • Follow a forever diet. Healthy choices should be inspiring enough to continue when you reach your goal weight.
  • Food is your medicine. Avoid processed and refined products as well as sodas and fruit juice as much as you can and include as much natural, fresh ingredients in your meals as possible.
  • Portion control is important. Bulk up on veggies and do not omit protein, dairy products, complex carbohydrates, fruit and fat servings but control the portions you put on your plate.
  • Lifestyle matters. A lot. Bad sleeping habits, no exercise and ineffective stress management will make weight-loss much harder.

You should never feel hungry on a healthy weight-management program. A healthy program will increase your energy and wellbeing and will never cause strange behaviour.

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