If Dieting Makes You Feel Anxious, Distracted, Stressed, or Depressed, Experts Explain Why
"I'll be happier if I can just lose weight." Does this thought sound familiar? Diet culture tells us that we have to look a certain way to be deemed as beautiful or worthy, and it drives many women (and men too!) to diet. We try all kinds of diets — many extreme and unhealthy — all in pursuit of this "perfect" image that the media has drilled into our heads.
We cut calories, carbs, sugar, grains, processed food, and cross our fingers when we hop on the scale, hoping to see the number drop. And when we don't, we blame ourselves, which only forces us to diet longer or harder. I know women who've been dieting for over 20 years! But dieting can lead to terrible emotional and physical stress, which can then put our well-being at risk. Here are the ways that dieting stress can rob you of your health.
Dieting Causes Obsessive Thoughts About Food
"Worrying about your weight, dieting, restricting food, restricting calories, fasting, overexercising, and other dieting behaviors can cause emotional stress in a number of different ways," explained Christy Harrison, MPH, CDN, an antidiet registered dietitian nutritionist, certified intuitive eating counselor, host of the Food Psych Podcast, and author of Anti-Diet. Being deprived of food overall and being deprived of specific kinds of foods, particularly carbs, creates obsessive thoughts about food. That's part of the body's response to starvation driving you to think about food so that you'll seek it out and reverse the perceived famine.
BACP-accredited eating disorder therapist Harriet Frew agreed with Harrison and said, "When you're dieting, you can't help but be preoccupied with food 24/7." It can make you feel out of control around food, and out of control in general.
"Obsessive thoughts around food and body image are likely to be overwhelming," said registered dietitian and intuitive eating counselor Kathleen Meehan, MS, LDN. If a large percentage of our day is consumed with these thoughts, it makes focusing on anything else especially challenging.
Dieting Affects Mood and Mental Health
When you're dieting and constantly thinking about food, it causes your mood to drop, Frew said. The chronic stress of dieting can cause your body to go into a fight or flight mode, with the body releasing adrenaline and cortisol, making you feel more irritable and anxious. She added, "You lose interest in the things that normally bring you joy, as food preoccupation is predominant."
Registered dietitian Rachel Berman, and general manager of Verywell said, "In my opinion, the emotional and physical elements are very much tied together. If you're not eating enough during the day, particularly carbohydrate-rich foods, you may have decreased levels of serotonin, a hormone that has a calming effect. Therefore, you may feel more anxiety the more you restrict or obsess over the calories you do consume."
Your self-worth quickly becomes linked to your ability to stick to dietary rules. "When you're following the plan, you feel fleetingly good, but when you're not, you can feel as if you're failing and are not good enough," she said.
Meehan added that worrying about weight, dieting, and restricting food and calories all contribute to emotional distress. She said, "A hyperfocus on micromanaging our eating and our bodies can zap energy levels and leave us feeling distracted or overwhelmed."
Being physically deprived of food can also cause depression, as seen most clearly in the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, where previously well-adjusted young men experienced depression, anxiety, anger, and even psychosis (in a couple of cases), simply due to food deprivation, Harrison explained. "And this wasn't anywhere near total starvation; in fact, it was a level of deprivation that most dieters have experienced," she added.
Dieting Causes Negative Physical Symptoms
When you start dieting, you may quickly notice physical changes in your body. Frew explained that you'll feel the cold more, get headaches, feel low energy, and will experience intense hunger and cravings for food. You'll find it hard to concentrate and can feel dizzy or spaced out. "You can also lose muscle mass, particularly if you're crash dieting," Frew added, and losing muscle mass can actually slow down your metabolism.
Previte added that dieting can also cause physical anxiety symptoms. If you're stressed about your food choices, or go somewhere that doesn't have your "diet-approved foods," anxiety can cause tightness in your chest, a racing heart rate, and the fear can bring you to tears.
"Continuing to follow the food rules may feel like the 'right' thing to do to curb the physical responses in the body, but there will always be an event or time that you won't be able to abide by the rules," Previte said.
"Worrying about your weight is a form of weight stigma, which studies show causes increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol and puts people at risk of health problems like heart disease, diabetes, and early mortality," explained Harrison. In fact, a 2017 study found that weight stigma is a greater risk to people's health than what they eat!
Harrison explained that restrictive eating can also cause increased cortisol levels, and chronically elevated cortisol levels can lead to reduced immunity and an increased risk of infection.
Dieting Causes Negative Body Image and Self-Esteem
Frew warned that dieting can cause negative body image to intensify. "Body image often plummets and you find yourself increasingly comparing yourself to others or becoming preoccupied with thoughts about your own body," she said.
Harrison added that a leading school of thought in psychology says that emotional well-being is defined by three key factors: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. And diet culture robs us of all of those things: it takes away our autonomy by making us feel like we can't trust ourselves around food and we need a diet or dietitian to tell us what to eat. It takes away our sense of competence by making us feel like we're failures when we can't "stick to" the diet, and of course our bodies aren't designed to be able to endure restriction long-term, so it's really the diet that's the failure.
Diet culture also interferes with our sense of relatedness by preventing us from enjoying food with loved ones, and keeping us from partaking in culturally important foods or food-related celebrations. Without these three key factors, our emotional well-being will suffer.
Meehan explained that when the diet fails — as diets inevitably do — it's common to feel ashamed and as if you have failed. And while we know that it's the diet that fails, not the individual, she said, "research shows that each 'failed' attempt amplifies a sense of hopelessness. This dieting cycle contributes to negative self-esteem and can impact mood, irritability, and interpersonal relationships."
Dieting Can Lead to an Eating Disorder
"Severe dieting can also make you vulnerable to developing an eating disorder," Frew said. When you restrict calories and don't lose weight, the "more is better" idea takes over, so you consume even fewer calories or eliminate specific types of food, which can lead to disordered eating behaviors or anorexia. But the intense physical hunger and cravings caused by restricting will only lead you to overeat or can lead to binging. This is often referred to as the restrict-binge cycle.
When we experience food deprivation, we're driven to prefer foods that are high in carbs, since those are the quickest sources of energy for the body, Harrison said, which is why people's binge foods are almost always high in carbs as opposed to, say, broccoli. She added, "there's also evidence that even if someone isn't deprived of food overall, being deprived of a particular type of food, like chocolate, for example, drives them to have greater cravings for that food."
In addition, Berman added that if you don't honor your hunger cues and restrict what you eat, when you inevitably overeat later on you'll feel shame and low self-esteem — and this in turn can fuel the disordered eating habits.
Dieting Can Lead to Isolation
Social eating can be problematic due to fears of breaking dietary rules, Frew explained, and you can find yourself becoming increasingly isolated and alone. That's because dieting can make you fear social situations. Antidiet registered dietitian Sammy Previte, LDN, CPT, with Dietitians of Palm Valley, said she has clients who come into her office on the first day explaining that they can't function at social events because they are too busy counting or restricting calories all day long on calorie counting apps. When they get to the social event (hungry AF), they end up breaking the "food rules" they have set in their head. And then they start "binging on all of the food and urgently eating as much as they can because starting tomorrow they won't be 'allowed' to have the food again," Previte said.
Then the negative self-talk starts and the client emotionally feels defeated. She starts telling herself how "bad" she is for not following her rules, or for being weak or not having willpower. She calls herself a failure, points out her physical "flaws," and doesn't feel any love or respect for herself. That can make her feel unworthy of attention, or not feel confident enough to face people, feeling like she's not good enough.
Previte said, "We emotionally abuse ourselves but think it's perfectly fine. It's not. The conversation in the head needs to change." The combination of self-isolation and self-deprecating language can lead to depression and worse, to suicidal thoughts.
Dieting Affects Sleep
Frew explained that if you go to bed hungry or with strong cravings, the stress hormone cortisol and the fight or flight hormone adrenaline are released due to dieting stress. This can cause interrupted sleep, resulting in poorer quality zzz's. Lack of sleep in turn can raise cortisol levels even more, as well as the hunger hormone ghrelin, and can increase cravings, so you eat more.