Change the Way You Think About Food

By Joyce Hendley, January/February 2008

Here’s how to overcome temptation and guilt and forge a healthier relationship with food.

"Every time I flip the page, a photo of a big Oreo cookie pops in my face. People read this article to change to healthier eating habits, not to condition themselves to think of Oreos when they read! Interesting article, but I quit...

The Case Against Diets

“You name a diet, I’ve been on it,” says Sarah, the social worker from Vermont who has struggled with binging most of her life. She’s not alone. In fact, says Ramirez, most of the people she treats for eating disorders started out as dieters. “It’s not uncommon for someone who’s been very restrictive to have some form of binge eating eventually…for physical as well as psychological reasons, their bodies won’t let them be that restrictive for very long.”

For her part, Bulik believes chronic dieting is a “catalyst” for eating disorders. “It encourages rigid, hypercontrolled behavior, encouraging you to ignore your body’s own signals of hunger and satiety.” This negative relationship with food, she believes, “can trigger binging.”

Chronic dieting can also induce changes in levels of key neurotransmitters, according to research from Boggiano’s laboratory. When she put rats on a “weight cycling” diet that simulated the on-again, off-again pattern many human dieters follow, she found the rats’ levels of serotonin (a “feel-good” neurotransmitter) dropped significantly, similar to what’s seen in the brain of an anorexic at the height of illness. Dopamine levels also plummeted, and the food-deprived animals had symptoms that suggested depression.

At the same time, in follow-up experiments, Boggiano found that the dieting rats seemed to be extremely sensitive to the effects of opioid drugs like morphine, which tend to stimulate appetite if given in high enough doses. The dieting rats went on a rat-chow binge when given an opioid drug dose that had no effect on nondieting rats. Later, when the rats were subjected to the equivalent of a stressful lifestyle (occasional harmless but annoying shocks) and allowed just a bite of sugary, fatty cookies, the dieting rats reacted the same way that they had to the opioid drugs. “It triggered them to overeat everything—even boring rat chow if that was all that was available—even when they were completely full,” says Boggiano. In contrast, rats who’d never been put on a restricted diet ate normally.

This sounds a lot like what happens with chronic human dieters like Sarah, for whom, when they’re stressed, just a taste of a forbidden, calorie-packed food (like a Butterfinger bar) can trigger an uncontrolled eating binge. It also helps explain why so many dieters meet their downfall in calorie-laden fare like peanut butter and pizza. “Nobody breaks a diet with broccoli and cottage cheese,” quips Boggiano. “A very powerful food like chocolate that’s loaded with fat and sugar is going to create a big release of endorphins in the brain, which can trigger overeating. And for someone who has been dieting, that reaction might be exaggerated.”

The finding suggests that a tendency toward overeating isn’t all in our heads, she adds. “Psychologists have always explained this problem as a cognitive process—the ‘I’ve blown it’ syndrome,” she explains. “But dieting rats aren’t capable of those higher thought processes—they don’t worry about their weight or feel guilty about food—and they can’t stop eating after they’ve had just a bite of yummy food either.”

What does all this mean for humans? “When someone severely restricts their calories or has an eating disorder, having these yummy foods around can be like a drink to an alcoholic,” Boggiano says. “Until they’ve quit dieting and have learned to eat a normal amount of food, it’s probably not safe to reintroduce those triggering foods or the floodgates will open.”

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