T Nation

The Psychology of Dieting


An excerpt taken from http://www.eating-disorders.org.uk/docs/psychology.doc

"The psychological as well as physiological effects of drastically reducing food intake have been well documented by Ancel Keys in a series of much quoted experiments conducted on young healthy male conscientious objectors without a history of weight problems . They participated in these experiments as an alternative to military duties during the Korean war. The men ate normally during the first three months of the experiment while their eating patterns and personalities were studied. They were then put on strict diets where their normal food intake was halved for a period of three months. Afterward they went through a three month rehabilitation period where they were reintroduced to eating normal amounts of food.

What happened suggests that the effects of dieting are far reaching. Food became the main topic of conversation reading and daydreams for almost all of the men. Men who previously had no particular interest in food and cooking became fascinated by cookery and menus. About half way through the semi starvation period 13 of the men expressed an interest in taking up cooking as a career after the experiment was over. Many of the men found it impossible to stick to the diet - they ate secretly on impulse and felt guilty afterwards. Psychologically they became more anxious and prone to feeling depressed , they had difficulty concentrating and they began to withdraw from other people and became less sociable. Two of the men had emotional breakdowns and one cut off the end of his finger apparently hoping that he would be excused from the study. The remained developed a "buddy" system to help them stop cheating.

The terrible internal conflicts which are the result of food restraint are a source of continual stress, according to psychologist Jane Warble. All dieters score higher than non dieters on measures of emotional agitation and are more likely to show impaired mental performance.

Dieting also changes the way we feel about our body. In the Keys experiment it was noted that men who had no previous concerns with their appearance and weight began to experience changes in the way they perceived their bodies, paradoxically several of the men complained about feeling overweight even though they had lost weight and they began to experience critical evaluations of their body shape and size.

At the end of the dieting period the men's personalities reverted to normal . However many of them continued to have problems with eating. Even though they were allowed to eat as they wanted many of them found that they could not stop eating when they were full and generally ate more than they thought they wanted or was good for them. They continued to be preoccupied with food and some reported that their cravings were even worse than before. Many had cravings for specific foods such as sweets dairy products and nuts. Many of them snacked between meals even if they had not done so before. Another four weeks later ten of the 15 men who were still in touch with the researchers became so anxious about their weight that they put themselves on another diet and a few were continuing to eat prodigious quantities. Three moths after the experiment food was still a major concern for 15 out of the 24 men and this continued for a further 8 months after the diet was over.

Psychologists called Herman and Polivy at the University of Toronto have underlined the effect of food restriction on willpower in an experiment on dieting and non dieting students who were invited to eat as much ice cream as they liked after being given three different "pre loads" - one glass of milk shake, two milk shakes or nothing at all.

While the non-dieters behaved as expected, eating less ice cream after one milk shake than none, and even less ice cream after two, the dieters actually ate most ice cream after the biggest "pre load".

According to the psychologist the effect of the milk shake was to undermine the dieters resolve, temporarily releasing them from their vows of abstinence. After the milk shake , instead of doing penance for the calorific sin, the dieter persists in sinful indulgence, say the psychologists. After all, if staying on the diet is no longer possible then why not make the most of the situation. This seductive thought process - I may as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb - is a trap which awaits all dieters. After succumbing to one biscuit you feel such a failure you consume the whole packet. You decide to ditch the diet for the day and start again tomorrow.

But as Herman and Polivy point out, in anticipation of deprivation to come, dieters indulgences " the night before" can reach legendary proportions. The seeming inability of diets to stop once they have started stem from the Faustian bargain they made with themselves at the start. Included in the loss of normal internal controls are the normal processes involving satiety. Dieters do not eat interminably once their rules are broken but they eat far more than non dieters do.

By denying themselves food, dieters also make it much more important. Dieters are more likely than nondieters to turn to food when they are emotionally anxious or depressed. This phenomenon is created by dieting itself. At a recent study carried out in London, female volunteers were divided into three groups, the first went on a strict diet, the second a rigorous exercise programme and the third neither dieted nor exercised.

After 5 weeks the subjects took part in an experiment which assessed their food intake while watching a stressful film. Bowls of sweets and nuts were left beside them and they were told to eat as they liked. Women in the diet group ate far more than the others.

So it seems the effects of reducing food intake for a period of time are powerful.. and what makes these experiments interesting is that the first described the experience of men who are not unduly concerned about food and weight. They experienced feelings and thoughts which are not unlike those experienced by people with anorexia - with their concerns about hoarding food and seeing themselves to be fatter than they were. What is more, the experience of dieting in itself - irrespective of personality and background engendered in the men in the Keys experiment, a concern about food and weight which they had not experienced previously. It is not unfair to assume that dieting will create these effects in all who try it out.

Aside from the psychological and physiological effects of dieting, when we consider advising people to diet we must bear in mind what we know about they way human beings respond to and comply with any kind of advice, medical and otherwise. Compliance will always be affected by the process itself whether it is simple or complex, the degree of behavioural change needed and whether it fits with the personality and lifestyle of the person. Compliance will be affected by the value of the outcome, and the goals of dieting - weight loss - may contain unrecognised difficulties if achieved. Compliance is also affected by many factors in the dieter herself, including beliefs about his or her personal efficacy, ability to handle lapses, singularity of purpose and ability to muster the right kind of social support. Kelly Brownell has also identified a crucial element influencing the prognosis of dieting behave which he defines as "emotional readiness." This concept proposes that in order for dieting to be successful one has to go into "training" for the it in much the same way as one would go into training for other projects like climbing a mountain or studying for an exam."

As a constantly-failing dieter myself, I have started looking into the psychology of failing at dieting.

I realise that most of the T-Nation will just think they can cowboy-up and "will" their way through, but is will-power really the only weapon we have against these issues?

I realise that protein, supplements, exercise and circumstance (eg. no bad food in the house etc) can help to reduce appetite, but this article does bring up the question as to even if dieting is successful in the short term, whether it will produce further psychological food issues in the long term.

Any thoughts?


I believe there are two main reasons people succeed or fail at a diet, or anything for that matter. The people here at T-Nation, for the most part are disciplined, adding willpower, which is one of the reasons people succeed or fail. The other is social support.

Example, If I know you are on a diet, I'm not gonna walk by you with McDonalds, I'm gonna say Great Job, Jim. You're looking good. You're doing well etc... If instead I nag you, "Hey Jim, i'm gonna go get a pizza, wanna come" even when I know full well that you are on a diet, you are going to get frustrated and are more likely to fail.

These examples were say if we were friends, co-workers, acquaintances etc.. In the case of a wife, girlfriend, family member this becomes exponentially more important. On the other board there were guys talking about how their wife's comments made them extremely angry and made it harder for them to workout and stay motivated. This I believe is the main reason that people fail at their diets, or anything in life for that matter. If you don't think so, ask yourself. We have all failed, or given up on something, due to the pressures of others, especially those closest to ourselves.


Just to clarify, I appreciate that there are a number of practical steps to follow to make a diet work in the short term but in the long term, ALL dieters develop a psychological food disorder which even if overcome in the short-term through willpower, results, etc still exists and may well come back to haunt the dieter further down the line when willpower, focus etc are less abundant.

Surely, if we can get rid of this disorder then dieting will always have 100% adherence in the future and willpower will be unneccessary.


There is a BIG problem with your theory. Most people who diet already have serious food issues, hence the actual need for dieting. So it's not as big a problem as you might think. I would much rather have issues with food where I obsess about the quality of it, then to have the issue where I compulsively over-eat.

The true trick to dieting is taking those obsessions and issues and making them productive lifestyle changes for the long term.

Adherance and willpower is not a diet killer. It's the lack of actual total lifestyle and psychological change that is. Short or long term.

I did like the article though, thanks.


Just a quick rebuttal to the flaw. I'll use myself as a case study. I started out eating like the best of the T-Nation disciples, lots of good clean calories and an almost disdain for bad foods. Late night pizza run? No thanks, I'd rather eat a succulent chicken breast or Grow! in cottage cheese instead of ice cream.

Fast forward to having to cut down to a weight class requirement. Cleaned up my diet (oatmeal in the morning was out and eggs were in since I wasn't working out before hand) and slowly reduced calories to try and bring my weight down. Weight just wasn't budging. More veggies, less cals. Still, nothing. Then I decided to fuck it, switched to starvation calories, upped fruit and reduced protein. Made it down to weight rather quickly.

Now that I'm trying to maintain, my previous will power is gone and I'm behaving almost EXACTLY like the studies. Even my increased taste for natural pb fits the articles. Psychological problems, binge eating, food obsession, you name it I've dealt with it or am currently fighting it.
I'll keep all of this in mind as I come out of season and go back up to normal weight...

My point? Despite being part of an exceptional population prior to the experiment, I was still susceptible to what normal people experienced.


There is a flaw in your flaw... :slight_smile:

You were looking to cut weight quickly and your lack of patience got the best of you. This was the cause of your food issues not the actual fact of losing weight. Not to say you wouldn't have had any issues if you had all the time in the world to lose, but I'm betting not many. Not many people try to lose weight to get into a specific weight class. There is a lot of pressure there that a typical dieter doesn't face.


Interesting article.

I agree that a diet needs to fit in someones lifestyle. When I started training and became more interested in nutrition, I made very small adjustments and got more and more strict. If you're going from a "unhealthy" eating pattern to a very strict one with only tuna etc. most people will fail. As well as with training, it's a lifestyle and you can't make changes over night.

As for myself, I'm pretty good in dieting. I don't have much cravings at all. People ask me sometimes if I really
don't crave anything, but put a pizza in front of me and I can easily resist.

That's why I thought C.Thibs vision to refeeding and cheating was very interesting, because I experienced that myself. To quote him:
,,The only way I found to be effective over the long run is to avoid dirty food altogether... include some refeed days, but only with clean food. An occasional sweet item might be okay... let's say once a month or so, but should be avoided if possible.

It's a matter of your psychological traits. I'm excessive by nature. It's all or nothing for me. I am not capable of having "just a little". So I decided to have "nothing at all". "

That's exactly how it works for me... the stricter my diet is, the more disciplined I become. Once I add little sweets in my diet I know I'll think: owh, one extra is no problem....

The more I learned about nutrition, the easier it was for me. I know how I feel afterwards when I eat junkfood (don't mean the guilty feeling, but how my body responds), and just by knowing what the big commercial companies put in it I lose my appetite for it.

Also, I have younger brothers and sisters so I have junk food around me 24/7. So, it's not special for me to see it. And when I had a food in the past I missed, I tried it and got to the conclusion it's not so good after all. It was just because I didn't allow myself to eat it, that I thought it was so damn good. It's the same with smoking: tell a teenager that it's not allowed to smoke, and he'll do. People miss things when they're restricted.


That is why the article posted by the TC says the following:

After all, if staying on the diet is no longer possible then why not make the most of the situation. This seductive thought process - I may as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb - is a trap which awaits all dieters. After succumbing to one biscuit you feel such a failure you consume the whole packet. You decide to ditch the diet for the day and start again tomorrow.

I definitely agree with that article since Ive gone from being a perfectly normal child to a obsessive compulsive teenager with an eating disorder. And although I have fought it many years, I still feel I will never be as "normal" as I was back then.

Not that I aim to develop the same eating habits (sweets, junk food, etc.) I used to have as a child, but I really wish I could get around the unneeded anxiety, pressure, worrying and conciousness associated with "eating healthy".

Sometimes I feel fuck it: why can't I just behave like the rest of the twenty year olds in my class?


I'm much more lose know than I was in the beginning. I still have fun with friends and party, don't forget you're young too. You can still stay on track, I always drive for example (so no drinking). And dancing, great cardio too :smiley:

You know, everyone feels like that sometimes. But than I look at the rest of my class and see how far they are... a lot of them are overweight, and if they're not: drinking, smoking or don't exercise at all. Than I realise I'm doing well, and take care about my body. Because health is very important.


Yes. But sometimes one becomes unhealthy by trying too hard to be too healthy.

Ironic ain' it?


I'd rather be a tad mentally unhealthy than physically unhealthy though.


Having thought about this, I think that the problem (and possible solution) is Dopamine.

Whenever calories are cut for a significant period of time, our body's evolutionary response is to use dopamine as a carrot to get us eating more.

In a non-dieter, Dopamine levels are low and may increase to moderate levels with tasty foods.

In the dieter, the body responds to tasty, high calorie foods with much high dopamine levels to reward the action.

The dieter consciously and subconsciously now associates the food with a nice feeling.

This is why dieters now resort to dirty foods for comfort - because they know the feel-good feeling is coming.

This is also why some people become yo-yo dieters and the more consistant dieters have more success - because the yo-yo dieter's body is rewarding with more and more dopamine in order to stop losing fat, unlike the consistant dieter who can't even remember the dopamine response with dirty food.

One answer therefore (short of hypnosis or psychotherapy) is to never, ever eat cheat foods ever again.

A pharmaceutical answer could be to have a tablet which blocks dopamine. This could be taken with cheat foods and would break the psychological addiction to the reward response.