By Bridget Creel
According to Webster’s dictionary, “diet” refers to “the kinds of food that a person, animal, or community habitually eats.” However, average people would define “diet” as a verb or an adjective, in which it would mean “to cause to eat and drink sparingly or according to prescribed rules” or “having a smaller number of calories than usual.”
For those on a mission to lose weight, practicing an elimination diet can be the first step to slashing calories and noticing a physical change. But taking a step back, what about the mental change in the body? Students at Elon University discuss the psychological effect that dieting has on a person’s mind, mood and behavior, which could be enough to deter anyone from dieting.
“There are a host of psychological factors that influence eating behavior that dieticians fail to take into account,” said Josie Spinardi, author of How to Have Your Cake and Your Skinny Jeans Too. “Having a list detailing which foods are good for you and which are bad, does absolutely nothing to equip you to follow that list. Rule-based eating relies exclusively on willpower—and willpower is the ultimate fair-weather friend. Willpower only works, or works its best, when you don’t need it. When you’re well rested and life is going smoothly, determination can keep you from the candy bowl. But the minute you’re tired, stressed, lonely, grumpy, bored, and off your game, you don’t have the strength you need to win a brute force battle of the will.”
Kelsey Price, a senior at Elon University, has experimented with elimination diets since freshman year, and not by choice—instead, due to allergies and intolerances. Initially, her doctor told her to eliminate dairy from her diet and from there, Price’s feelings of discomfort when eating disappeared. However, a couple years later, the sickness came back and after a series of tests, Price had to eliminate gluten from her diet as well.
Although eliminating foods from the diet can benefit health, it can completely backfire if a person does not replenish with foods that have similar nutritional benefits. Unfortunately so, it can also reverse the weight loss effects and overall health effects on the body.
“I think any sort of drastic changes to your diet really effect your body,” Price said. “So, for a time when I started to cut out dairy, I felt really tired and lethargic because I wasn’t getting enough protein in my diet from milk, so you sort of have to recognize that if you cut something out, you still need to get nutrients from somewhere else. Cutting anything out is pretty detrimental because you’re not getting what you would be getting from that source and that’s going to come back to bite you. Either you feel or your body is not going to sustain that type of diet and you will just crash and binge eat all the carbs, sugar or candy that you want.”
Although Kelsey has no choice but to eliminate dairy and gluten from her diet, at times it has taken a toll on her mental well-being. When she goes out to eat, she keeps certain words in mind when she reads a menu. At first, it made her uncomfortable to constantly ask the waiter to modify her dishes at restaurants.
“I think it gets very stressful, mentally speaking, to constantly have to be reading labels in the grocery store to make sure everything is OK to eat,” said Price. “If you’re doing it for the wrong reasons, I think that that mental stress doesn’t do anything good for you—you’re just adding more rules to your life and then if you happen to break them, then you get into this rut of self-loathing or you’re very judgmental on yourself.”
“Diets are an ineffective and disastrous tool for losing weight,” said Spinardi. “Dieting is scientifically proven to lead to binge eating.”
Lauren Snow, a senior at Elon, operates on a modified-Paleo lifestyle, mostly vegan and eliminates grains from her diet. In the past, she experimented with different diets to promote weight loss but now she has found this diet choice is sustainable and a lifestyle choice.
“Diet is such a bad word,” Snow said. “It’s a fad word. I really dislike the word diet. Paleo is on the basis of what our ancestor’s ate. I don’t look at it as a diet, but a way to be healthy. Since I already don’t like grains, I wouldn’t be eating them anyway.”
Snow has used guidelines from the paleo diet to keep in the back of her mind as she cooks and grocery shops. In the past, however, Snow was eliminating foods to lose weight, but not replenishing with proper nutrients.
“I think a diet plays games on the mind,” she said. “I think you trick yourself into not wanting something that you really do want and I think that depriving yourself from the things that you really do want is not a healthy way to live. The more you crave something without giving in, the more crazy-obsessed you become over it.”
In a diet study by UCLA published in the journal American Psychologist, three major findings were discovered, all of which displayed the negative effects of dieting on mental health. According to Traci Mann, UCLA associate professor of psychology and lead author of the study, people would be better off not even attempting a diet so that their bodies avoid the “wear and tear” from losing and gaining weight.
“At one point, I did not eat peanut butter,” Snow said. “Actually, I didn’t eat peanut butter for a year. The amount of will power it took for me to cut it out for a year was not OK. My mind was going crazy. I couldn’t do it.”
In another study, “The Ancel Keys ‘Semi-Starvation’ Study,” a group of healthy men were required to limit their calories to 1,600 per day. Obvious physical results such as changes in body temperature, hunger levels and physical discomforts were not even the most significant outcome of the study. Instead, the psychological impact of diet restriction cause an increase preoccupation with food, severe emotional distress and binging and self-reproach.
“I think it overtakes your life a little bit,” said Kayla Hammer, a junior at Elon. “It’s really hard at first to eliminate things you’ve been eating for so long. Even when you eat a salad, you put shredded cheese on there or something. You have to learn to eliminate even the little things.”
Although diets have always been temporary for Hammer, the long-lasting effects of dieting have mentally impacted her and caused her to try different diet methods.
“Even after I was done with paleo, even just being on a diet temporarily changed my mindset so much that I was thinking about every meal that I ate,” said Hammer. “Have I already eaten a lot of cheese today? Do I need cheese on a salad? Anything that that I had eliminated from my diet previously in paleo, I was constantly thinking about what I was eating, even when I was off paleo.”
Hammer has tried many different diets and found that the constant worry and thought-process behind preparing meals and thinking about the next time to eat was mentally draining.
“I was always constantly worrying at the end of every week, ‘When do I have time to meal prep this week?” she said. “And if I don’t have time to meal prep this week, then I will just skip a snack or skip breakfast because I don’t have meals ready for that and I need to go. I need to be on the go and I can’t eat a granola bar because that’s not on paleo.’”
The mental toll then took a physical toll on Hammer’s body when she stopped giving her body the proper nutrients, due to lack of time or convenience. Hammer believes that if diets are temporary and if the proper research is done beforehand, it can be very successful for the mind and body. However, if people do not replenish with what they are eliminating, he or she will run into a huge problem.
“As a college student, I think it is very mentally draining telling yourself what you can and can’t eat because you have so much else that’s going on in your life that you shouldn’t be worrying about what you eat,” she said. “Even if you start on a diet with the goal to lose weight, that’s fine, but the whole reason you’re losing weight is because you’re being conscious about what you’re eating. So know why you’re on the plan in the first place and do your research.”