The yo-yo effect of restrictive diets and how to escape it.
I’ve been dieting for my entire life. But whenever I stopped, my weight went back again to where I began because I wasn’t aware of these 4 unhelpful thoughts that kept me from living a healthy life.
When I was a child, my parents told me to eat less because I was heavy. And later, when I recognized my overweight, I started to diet to improve it. But every diet I tried worked only for a little, and I never really remained in shape for more than a year.
Nowadays, everybody talks surprisingly well about restrictive diets because they make you lose significant weight in just a few days. But nobody talks about what happens later when we turn back to our old eating habits, and our body responds accordingly.
Unfortunately, restrictive diets bind you to a vicious cycle of the 4 unhelpful thoughts that keep you from living a healthy life. And to spot the problems in your diet, you should analyze those thoughts first.
The Vicious Cycle of Restrictive Diets
The vicious cycle of restrictive diets comprises four main thoughts:
- I need to get back in shape.
- I am losing weight, I can take a little prize.
- I can eat whatever I want because I know how to lose weight.
- I reached my old weight again, I need to do something.
This cycle, once started, is pretty hard to stop and usually scales over time. But for every step, there’s an escape.
1 — I need to get back in shape.
Everything starts from this innocent thought: I need to get back in shape.
When you are unhappy with your body, there are two things you can do. You either accept the situation and stop caring, or you try to change something in your eating or sports routines.
Most people start going to the gym when they gain a little weight, but everybody that sports aren’t enough. To lose or maintain weight, you also need a diet. So usually, by searching the first miraculous diet on the Internet, you find a restrictive diet that promises surprising losses in a short time, and you start it.
Don’t search for the easy patch to a bigger problem. Restrictive diets won’t help you, and losing weight over a prolonged period is lighter, healthier, and more maintainable.
2 — I am losing weight, I can take a little prize.
The second is the most dangerous thought of the cycle because you are losing weight, but you also think about rewarding your struggles.
Rewards are good ways to maintain your motivation high while dieting. As a matter of cat, many nutritionists suggest them to relieve the stress caused by the diet. However, without a good temper and resistance, those rewards can escalate very fast.
Depending on the strictness of the diet, you could have more or less hunger to satisfy. So if the diet has been painful, that single prize could very much transform into binge eating, and part of your struggles will be canceled.
Rewards during diets are a good way of maintaining high morale. However, because of the threat of binge eating, you should take little rewards and fill your stomach with healthy recipes first.
3 — I can eat whatever I want because I know how to lose weight.
If you ever reach this stage, everything has already collapsed, and the entire diet has failed.
At one point, during your dieting plan, you rightfully rewarded yourself. But then, the prizes kept escalating until they became more generous and unhealthier. In an instant, your eating habits turned back, boosted by the stress of the diet, so you gave up the diet assuming you can start it again whenever you want.
However, you won’t go back to the same diet comfortably. First of all, because your diet was so restrictive that you hate it already. And second, your motivation has diminished because you reached a body shape that suits you better. So instead of switching to a less restrictive diet, you refuge into your old eating habits.
This is what psychologists call the what-the-hell effect. You allow yourself to get one reward, like a square of chocolate, but then you eat the entire chocolate bar.
Being in good shape doesn’t mean you have to forget how you were before the diet. A simple exercise of remembering the old times can make you realize how difficult the diet was and why you should continue dieting instead of turning to your old eating habits.
4 — I reached my old weight again. I need to do something.
Thanks to the negativity bias, once you turn back to your old habits, you will also reach your old weight sooner or later, or even worse. So you start getting worried again.
However, trying the same diet again doesn’t work anymore. For some reason, you can’t follow it anymore with the same passion and commitment of the first time because the situation is different, and now you have even more weight to lose.
So you search for another diet, maybe even more restrictive, and the cycle starts over.
While gaining weight back, you can interrupt the process with a healthy and unrestrictive diet before it is too late. When you search for another diet, make sure to value health over time instead of weight over time, or even better, contact a nutritionist.
The Yo-Yo Effect of Cycling Diets
The cycle of thoughts described above has been studied by the public health scholar Kelly D. Brownell, who called it the Yo-Yo Effect. This human behavior derives our body’s adaptability properties, combined with a few other motivations:
- too restrictive diets
- the emotional effect of failing to lose weight
- the drop in motivation
- the bad mood
Furthermore, the starvation response that comes after a restrictive diet causes excessive storage of fat, which results in the alternation of the muscle-fat ratio. Over time, this behavior leads to even worst fat percentages in our bodies.
So what is the alternative to restrictive diets?
Nonrestrictive diets, of course.
A balanced diet needs to include everything, from classic fruits and vegetables to proteins and carbs. With a few principles, you can lose weight without giving up any tasteful dish.
For example, these are some of the principles I integrate daily (taken from this article):
- Eat less complicated foods, preferably raw.
- Avoid fried foods, or wipe them to take out the extra oil.
- Drink lots of water.
- Don’t skip any meals (even if sometimes I like to fast).
- Use skim milk instead of the normal one.
- Reduce meat, increase vegetables (only if I am not trying to build muscles).
In addition, I follow a healthy training routine that involves days of running and rope jumping to maintain and lose weight over time instead of losing it straight away with a restrictive diet. For this reason, my last weight loss has been slow, but I don’t feel any pressure or eating urge. I don’t desire any food with all my heart and soul. And the hunger is controllable.
These were the 4 unhelpful thoughts that keep you from living a healthy life.
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Article first published in In Fitness and In Health, a Medium publication.