As if you needed another reason to avoid dieting, new research shows that the “cycling” on and off of diets can stress the brain’s system and cause anxiety, overeating, and withdrawal. If you’ve ever been on a diet where you restrict your food intake and avoid specific foods, but allow “cheat days” to release the restrictions, that process can be very dangerous.
Animal studies show that when diet restrictions are lifted, they ate less and their anxiety was lower than when they were required to eat diet food. In addition, the act of cycle dieting raises a stress-related hormone corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) to five times the amount of non-dieters. This hormone is related to stress, anxiety, and fear. The high levels of CRF give the feeling of being “stressed” when sweet foods were avoided. The researchers indicated these mechanisms correspond to the ‘dark side’ of addiction to drugs of abuse or ethanol, supporting the idea that the brain shows addiction-like adaptations to intermittent eating of palatable food.
“Our research suggests that this eating pattern leads to a vicious circle,” explained Pietro Cottone, Ph.D., who is co-first author of the paper with Valentina Sabino, Ph.D.; both are former postdoctoral fellows at Scripps Research who are now assistant professors and co-directors of the Laboratory of Addictive Disorders at Boston University School of Medicine. “The more you cycle this way, the more likely it is you cycle again. Having a ‘free day’ in your diet schedule is a risky habit.”
Essentially, this study helps explain how a pattern of yo-yo dieting can be established and why it is ineffective for weight loss. Bottom line: don’t diet ever. But if you’re food preferences consist of lots of junky stuff, you might want to explore why that is and add foods that are healthy. They’ll start to replace the less healthy stuff. You won’t feel deprived. You’ll find a healthier weight. Talk about a win-win.