When Should You Consider a Crash Diet?

Research reveals the aftermath of abstinence.

Posted Dec 06, 2019

Some people decide they want to lose weight quickly. Maybe it is January 1. Perhaps summertime is approaching, which means beachwear and bare legs, or you want to look good for your high school reunion. Or maybe, plain and simple, you would just like to wear all of those clothes (still) hanging in your closet that no longer fit. 

The solution? You put yourself on a strict diet, denying yourself all of your favorite foods. Maybe you even begin with a total fast in order to shrink your stomach and boost morale by shedding a few quick pounds. Off to a good start, right?

Wrong. Although a diet involves avoiding certain foods, the key is being able to exercise responsible restraint. Willpower governs your ability to be successful because calories count. But in terms of dieting discipline, can you go too far?  

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay
Source: Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

Forced Abstinence May Prompt Indulgence

We all know someone (you?) who tried one of those trendy, extreme diets that gain traction every few years, which are centered on denial. Whether it is no carbs, no sugar, no fat, or perhaps even no solid foods, in the case of weight loss milkshake regimens, they include an element of complete and total deprivation of some sort. Assuming such diets are for short term use and are not dangerous health-wise, they are still mentally difficult to stomach, pardon the pun.  

People contemplating strict diet plans consider whether they can endure the anguish of not being able to have a single cookie, French fry, or even a grain of salt while dieting. Sustenance self-denial often leads to loss of self-control. Most people who have struggled with their weight are familiar with inconsistent or “yo-yo” dieting, where periods of weight loss are followed by weight gain—often more than was lost. How does this happen? Why is a period of being so good followed by a phase of being so bad? Research has some answers.  

The Attraction of the Forbidden

Many dieters are familiar with the phenomenon of craving what you deny yourself.  From sugar to steak, butter to beer, prohibited foods acquire an elevated allure. A plain slice of thin-crust pizza never looked as tantalizing as the second day of your no-carb diet. But only incredibly disciplined people can maintain austere meal routines... for a while. Then, even many of them fall off the wagon. When they do, some of them fall hard.  

Why? Because crash diets often crash and burn. Research indicates the failure to stay on your diet might be linked with the effort expended to do so.

Why Crash Diets Crash and Burn

When should you consider a crash diet? Research suggests the answer is: never. 

Edward Burkley et al. in a piece entitled "Lead Us Not into Temptation: The Seven Deadly Sins as a Taxonomy of Temptations." (2018)[i] found that people with low trait self-control were less able to resist temptation. No surprise there. But they discuss an interesting inverse relationship between self-control and prior exertion of self-control. 

They outline research showing that prior exertion leads to unhealthy food choices, causes people to blow their diets, drink more alcohol, and smoke more. Participant diaries over a three week period demonstrated that on days where people exerted a high level of self-control, they were more likely to drink alcohol to excess. A taste-testing task in a study on food consumption found a similar result: participants who exerted prior self-control ended up consuming more cookies than those without prior exertion.

With specific reference to dieting, Burkley et al. cite a study by Wagner et al. (2013) which used functional neuroimaging to examine how self-control and gluttony (remember, they were examining the Seven Deadly Sins) were potentially linked. They found prior exertion increased the allure of overeating by increasing neural responses to appetizing food cues in the brain´s reward center and reducing connectivity between this region and an area of the brain that helps regulate self-control. Describing this dual impact as a ”double whammy,” they note that prior self-control exertion reduces the ability to successfully diet in two ways simultaneously. 

Sensible Solutions: Moderation Not Deprivation

If deprivation can lead to overcompensation, people who want to improve their diet must master moderation. Diet plans that focus on reasonable restrictions in terms of quality and quantity of consumption predict a higher likelihood of success.  

So barring health issues, you might do better to enjoy one chocolate chip cookie a week than to swear off of chocolate, sugar, and carbs for six months. Exercise controlled indulgence, and restrain yourself responsibly.


[i]Burkley, Edward, Melissa Burkley, Jessica Curtis, and Thomas Hatvany, "Lead Us Not into Temptation: The Seven Deadly Sins as a Taxonomy of Temptations."  Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2018.