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Mary E. Pritchard Ph.D.

Restrictive Dieting and the Good Ole What-the-Hell Effect

Tried countless diets and none of them work? I think I know why.

When clients come to me complaining that they have been on every diet out there in a desperate attempt to lose weight and nothing works, I consistently tell them one thing: Stop Dieting. I firmly believe that restrictive weight loss diets do as much harm to our minds as they do to our bodies.

Why? According to biologists, each of us has a genetically predetermined body weight called our set point. Your body goes to great lengths to keep your weight within a certain set range. When you first start dieting to lose weight, the pounds come off fairly rapidly. Then after a week or so, your body wises up. You see, your body doesn’t care that you are trying to shed 10 pounds to have the perfect Spring Break beach body. All your body knows is that it’s not getting its caloric needs met and it enters “starvation mode.”

Just like your body knows the weight at which it feels most comfortable, it also knows the amount of energy (i.e., calories) it needs each day to perform all of its regular functions (e.g., keep your heart beating and your lungs pumping air in and out). This is called your basal metabolic rate (BMR). When your body senses that it is not getting enough calories to meet its needs, it will slow down your BMR – by as much as 45% to compensate for your caloric deficit. Bottom line: when the amount of calories you’ve slashed per day on your diet equals the amount of calories you’re body has figured out that it doesn’t need to maintain itself anymore, you’ve reached the infamous weight loss plateau.

But the physiological effects of dieting are only part of the equation. Enter your brain. It’s 3:00 pm and that so-called salad you had for lunch is a distant memory. And it’s your coworker Jerry’s birthday. Everyone is in the break room noshing on cake and boy, do you want a piece. It’s called the Deprivation Effect and every time we label foods as bad or tell ourselves we can’t have a certain food because it’s not on our diet, guess what? We want it even more. It’s like that old “the grass is always greener on the other side” saying. We want what we can’t have.

And so we rationalize. “I’ve lost 5 pounds already, so what’s one little piece of cake going to hurt?” And then the What the Hell effect kicks in. “Well, I’ve already blown my diet, so what the hell, I might was well have another piece … or two … or three.”

And then the morning comes. And we feel guilty and worthless and like we’re a bad person. So we start the diet all over again promising that this time we’ll be better. This time we won’t be “bad.” But we will. You see, both psychologically and physiologically, extreme weight loss diets just set us up for failure. Between our minds and the hormones that control our appetite, we can’t win.

So can you lose weight and keep it off? Of course, but you’ve got to go about it the right way. Trust me on this: extreme calorie deprivation diets are not the answer. In next week’s blog, we’ll explore what is.

Can’t wait? Check out my website and see what I’ve got to say about “giving in to temptation.”