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Why Diets Don’t Work - The Psychology of Deprivation

Updated: May 14

Written by Megan Lee, Registered Dietitian, April 2024



Are you struggling to stick to diets, feeling defeated after attempting one after the other, whilst also wrestling with self-criticism for lacking the necessary willpower? If this sounds all too familiar, you're not alone. But what if I told you there's a radical alternative? As advocates of a non-diet approach to nutrition, my colleague Gabi Meltzer and I challenge the effectiveness of restrictive diets that explicitly forbid or limit certain foods. I am joined in this post by Esmarilda Dankaert, a registered counselling psychologist, qualified psychometrist, and researcher, to explain how merely labelling foods as “off-limits” paradoxically heightens their allure, triggering a cycle of rebound or loss-of-control eating.


The dieting industry has persuasively formed ideals around body size and appearance, and has profited greatly from peoples’ emerging insecurities. However, for companies to continually profit off their diet programmes, they need their diets to not be completely sustainable, so that they have returning customers who are willing to try and try again. After frequent attempts to stick to a diet and then failing, one often then develops the belief that they themselves are the problem - by lacking willpower or strength to see it through. What people fail to see is that the problem lies with the diet itself, because it is not sustainable - and here’s why.


Rebound Eating

Diets essentially instil a sense of deprivation by categorising foods as “unhealthy” or “healthy” for you, thereby restricting certain foods in the name of health and wellness. However, the mere psychological deprivation of food can drive one to consume that very food in an unreasonable way. According to Esmarilda, "loss of control eating", at its core, stems from the psychological effects of restriction. When we deny ourselves certain foods or severely limit our calorie intake, we trigger primal instincts linked to survival. Our brains perceive this deprivation as a threat, setting off a cascade of physiological responses aimed at ensuring we consume enough energy to survive. This often leads to intense cravings and a heightened focus on food, ultimately culminating in episodes of overeating or bingeing when the restriction becomes too much to bear. Moreover, restrictive eating plans tend to foster an "all-or-nothing" mentality, where foods are labelled as either "good" or "bad," creating a dichotomy that sets the stage for feelings of guilt and failure. When we inevitably deviate from these rigid guidelines, we're plagued by a sense of shame, further fuelling the cycle of restriction and overindulgence.


Restrictive diets often fail to address the underlying emotional factors driving our relationship with food - comfort, stress relief or a means of coping with difficult emotions. By depriving ourselves of these coping mechanisms without offering alternative strategies, restrictive eating plans leave us ill-equipped to deal with the root causes of our eating habits, paving the way for recurrent cycles of restriction and overeating.


Rebellion

Ever wondered why forbidden foods seem to hold an irresistible allure? A fascinating study from 2007 delved into this very phenomenon, exploring how prohibitions on food can trigger a rebellious streak and fuel our desire for autonomy. In this study, children were provided with red M&Ms and red crisps, and yellow M&Ms and yellow crisps. Half of the children were told that they were not allowed to eat the red foods. Although the foods were exactly the same, just dyed different colours, the “restricted” children chose to eat the foods that were forbidden to them (i.e., the red coloured foods). Then, all of the children were given free reign to eat as much as they wanted of any of the four foods provided to them. The findings? Those children who were initially instructed to not eat the red foods ended up eating more of the red foods than the yellow foods compared to those who had no restrictions imposed on them. Ultimately, resulting in the restrictive group eating more food overall. This one example highlights how explicit restriction on foods brings out rebellious behaviour when it comes to choosing what and how much to eat.


As explained by Esmarilda, the allure of forbidden foods and the subsequent rebellion against dietary restrictions can be understood through the lens of psychological autonomy. Human beings inherently crave a sense of control and autonomy over their lives, including their food choices. When individuals perceive their freedom of choice to be threatened by external rules, such as strict diets or prohibitions, they experience the phenomenon of reactance - a motivational state that drives them to reassert their autonomy by engaging in the very behaviour that is being restricted. In the context of food, this translates into an increased desire for and consumption of forbidden foods as a means of asserting one's freedom of choice.


In essence, the rebellion against food restrictions is not just about satisfying physical hunger but also about reclaiming psychological autonomy. By understanding and acknowledging this innate drive for autonomy, we can, and should, adopt more flexible and empowering approaches to dietary management that prioritise autonomy while still promoting health and well-being.


Inherent mechanisms for survival

To further illustrate the psychological effects of physical food restriction, the results of the Minnesota Starvation Experiment conducted in 1945 provide some intriguing findings. This study subjected 36 physically healthy adult men to a semi-starvation diet for six months. The study found that the restricted intake led the participants to develop obsessive thoughts about food, with one of the study participants stating that “It made food the most important thing in [his] life”. Once the men were allowed to eat in a normal fashion, they found themselves eating more than they typically would before the study commenced, and were unable to satisfy their food cravings despite eating enough to feel physically full. This study shows how food restriction activates psychological mechanisms that drive a person to consume more food in order to prevent starvation.


For us humans, food is not just psychological, but also deeply biological. Something that is now often overlooked when it comes to what and how we eat. Throughout evolutionary history, our ancestors faced periods of food scarcity. In response, our bodies developed sophisticated mechanisms to detect and respond to cues of food availability, often prioritising energy-dense foods as a means of ensuring survival during times of famine. In the modern context, where food is abundant and easily accessible, these biological mechanisms are unchanged. The allure of energy-dense, palatable foods activates reward pathways in the brain, leading to cravings and overeating, particularly in the face of explicit food restrictions. Moreover, the stress associated with dietary restraint can further exacerbate these cravings, as stress hormones like cortisol promote the consumption of comfort foods rich in sugar and fat.


Hopefully you now recognise that the struggle to adhere to a diet is NOT simply a matter of willpower or lack thereof. Instead, it's a complex interplay of biological, psychological, and environmental factors that influence our eating behaviours. By understanding the innate biological drives underlying our relationship with food, we can adopt more compassionate and effective approaches to dietary management that prioritise sustainable habits and overall well-being, instead of promoting diets that sabotage our well-being in the long run.


If you are struggling to make peace with food and your body, we’re here to help you rediscover freedom and joy around eating. Using a self-caring approach instead of one that requires self-control, we can help you achieve balance while promoting overall health.

 

Useful Links

Opt into Esmarilda’s weekly newsletter: https://esmarildadankaert.com/newsletter/

Esmarilda’s Instagram: @drdankaert

Esmarilda’s Website: http://www.esmarildadankaert.com/



References

  1. Jansen E, Mulkens S, Jansen A. Do not eat the red food!: prohibition of snacks leads to their relatively higher consumption in children. Appetite. 2007 Nov;49(3):572-7. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2007.03.229. Epub 2007 Apr 7. PMID: 17490786.

  2. Keys,A.and Brožek,J.and Henschel,A.and Mickelsen,O.and Taylor,H. L., 19512901515, English, Book, USA; UK, Minneapolis; London, The Biology of Human Starvation, Vols. 1 & 2, (xxxii + 1-764 pp.; viii + 765-1385 pp.), University of Minnesota Press; Geoffrey Cumberlege, Oxford University Press, The Biology of Human Starvation, Vols. 1 & 2


For personalised guidance on making nutritious and satisfying food choices that suit your individual needs, book a consultation here: https://www.gabimeltzerdietician.com/book-online.


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