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“Dieting” is Stressful: Ditch the Diet Mentality

fridge at night
By Pamela Peeke, MD, FACP, MPHApril 15, 2010
From the WebMD Archives

Do you feel stressed out when you think you’re “dieting?”

New research confirms that you are indeed under stress. For that matter, your stress hormone, cortisol, is skyrocketing if you’re dragging around feelings of “diet”-related anxiety and deprivation. Do you break out into hives when you see a bathroom scale weight, feel hopeless about your clothing size, fret when passing up tempting delights at a party, go numb counting calories? Or experience blame and shame if you find yourself night stalking for food?

Face it – this “dieting” is stressing you big time. And the stress is hindering your ability to achieve your goals and maintain them for a lifetime.

Researchers studied 99 women who were randomly assigned to four groups: 1) restricted their calories to 1200 per day and tracking their food intake; 2) restricted their calories to 1200 per day in pre-packaged food and were not counting calories; 3) was not on any diet but who counted their daily calories; and 4) was not on any diet and didn’t count calories. Before and after the study, the women’s cortisol levels were measured along with the completion of stress surveys. The results indicated that during the study’s three weeks, the women who were not on any diet actually gained 2.5 pounds while all of the women who were dieting shed 2 pounds. The women who cut calories had higher levels of cortisol at the end of the study in comparison to their initial starting levels. Non-dieters did not show a rise in cortisol.

So what’s going on here and what does this mean to you?

Right off the bat, researchers note that when someone’s been used to eating 2400 calories or more per day and then they are reduced to 1200 calories, there may be an innate biochemical mechanism in which the “stress” of eating less may trigger higher levels of cortisol. Whether this decreases over time with acclimation is unknown. If the calories were lowered more gradually, perhaps there would be less of an impact on stress hormone. This questions and others are currently under study, so there’s more good science coming our way.

Changing up any habit naturally induces some stress. It’s the stress of learning and reprogramming your mind to behave differently. If your motivation and passion are strong, the stress is less because you’re feeling powerful and determined. You know that what you’re doing is good for you and you can envision the rewards. For example, you finish up a healthy dinner by 8 PM and avoid the kitchen for the rest of the night. You know that waking up you’ll feel good and hungry for a nutritious breakfast. That’s a far cry from eating yourself into oblivion every night and waking up feeling stuffed and sluggish.

Women handle stress differently than men. This difference can make it tougher to change up lifestyle habits. So women, here’s your heads up. Recently, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania performed a high tech scan (the functional MRI or fMRI) on 16 men and 16 women while they were undergoing a mental stress test (counting backwards by 13 starting at 1600). Heart rate, blood flow to the brain and cortisol were all measured and monitored. Men responded with increased blood flow to the brain’s pre-frontal cortex where the fight-or-flight response is initiated. Women, on the other hand, experienced increased blood flow to the limbic area which is responsible for emotional responses. Men’s stress response was shorter than women’s. They deal with it and move on. Women’s stress levels tended to remain higher and for longer periods of time. We get stressed and then carry it around with us like a 100-pound burden on our mental back.

Clearly, there are ranges of normals here, and we all know women who are fighters and men who are more emotional. The bottom line is that under stress, most men are hard wired to get physical – fighting or running away – while women typically get more emotional, spanning the spectrum from anxiety to nurturing. And when they’re emotional, many women tend to self-destruct with food.

So, let’s say you want to shed that excess body fat and get healthier. There will be some baseline stress as you get organized and begin to practice how to be mentally, nutritionally and physically fit. What you don’t want to do is to ramp up the stress levels so that you’re walking around feeling down and deprived as you alter your eating habits. Women are already vulnerable to stress-overeating anyway. The goal is to keep stress levels in check as you take yourself on to become healthier and reverse self-destructive habits. Here’s how:

1. Ditch the “diet” mentality. Nothing will stress you more than adopting a “diet” head. This means you’re “on” a plan, depriving yourself and obsessing about every pound, dreaming of coming “off” and “being normal.” Most of you have been through this enough times to know that it’s useless and self-destructive. Instead, stop saying, “I’m on a diet” and start saying, “I’m practicing new healthy lifestyle habits.” When you do that, your stress levels plummet and you see that you’re not hopping on or off anything. This is your life and any changes you make you want to be sustainable in the long run. This also makes it easier to be patient with this lifelong journey.

2. Be clear, positive and determined about why you want to change your lifestyle. This step is critical. Sit down and really give your motivation for change some thought. Write it down and keep it front and center every day, to remind yourself how important this learning process is to you. Never embark on lifestyle changes because someone told you to and you’re really not interested. That’ll raise your stress levels through the roof. The motivation has to come within. Your passion and drive are what keeps you on track and controls stress levels.

3. Your motivation needs a monthly reassessment to stay fresh and relevant. Every month, sit down again and re-evaluate your motivation to shed those pounds and get fit. Is it working for you? If not, regroup and create a new motivation. A new life situation may have occurred that is impacting on your current incentive to change – good, bad or otherwise. Take a moment and integrate this into your present plan.

4. Small steps are less stressful. Most people who want to change up their bodies and lifestyle want to do it fast and see big results in a short period of time. It doesn’t help that the media fosters these fantasies with bogus ads and promises. Suffice it to say, if you try to initiate radical changes, the body will feel very stressed and rebound with ferocious appetites. Plus, it’s just plain unhealthy to stress the body this way. Instead, plot out small changes you can do gradually over time. Pluck the low hanging fruit in your nutrition (get rid of your junk food and start eating a healthy breakfast) and physical activity (find your sneakers and plan a 30-minute walk each day). Small changes yield big results.

5. Practice safe stress! Integrate into your daily life ways of de-stressing. Getting physically active, meditating, taking a nap, talking to a friend, taking a warm bath, reading a book or watching a little mindless TV all work. Think about what’s best for you. Everyone needs a way to neutralize the stresses of life. This Stress Rx is a critical and essential component of living.

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