There’s a ton of studies showing that dieting is highly correlated to binge eating, but today I wanted to share with you a quick overview of just one of those studies.
Minnesota Semi-Starvation Experiment (Keys, 1950)
The top 36 mentally and physically fit, strong men were hand-picked from 400 Civilian Public Service members (Yeah, I didn’t know either: the CPS was an alternative to military service in the USA during WWII).
These guys were followed for 3 months before the experiment started to make sure they were definitely awesome.
Each man was put on a strict, 1,540kcal diet for 24 weeks.
At first, the men noticed some physical changes, before constantly complaining that they felt cold, tired, and hungry. They began to have trouble concentrating. They felt dizzy, and had headaches.
Increased preoccupation with food
The men became obsessed with food. They talked about it, daydreamed about it. They spent a lot of time planning what they would eat and how they would distribute their calories throughout the day. Food was very quickly the most important thing in their lives. Some started collecting cookbooks. They began hoarding and sneaking, bringing food to their beds at night.
Severe emotional distress
As the study continued, these guys became tired and irritable. They lost their sense of humour, lost their ambition, lost interest in their work, their friends. They became anxious, apathetic, withdrawn; experienced depression, hysteria, hypochondria, a decrease in sex drive, an inability to concentrate. Two of the men had to spend time in a mental hospital, and one began to physically harm himself.
Bingeing and self-reproach
Several participants found themselves bingeing on vast quantities of food, followed by severe episodes of self-reproach. One man reported eating multiple ice cream sundaes and chocolate malts. Then he stole some candy. He finished off the binging episode by eating several raw swedes (the root vegetable, not the people from Sweden… though it’s fairly grim either way!) He immediately confessed to the experimenters that he had broken the rules, and began to verbally beat himself up in front of them.
Other men admitted stealing scraps of food from the trash. Some of the men quit the study because the bingeing became so frequent they were unable to continue their restricted diets and remain within the confines of the study. They all grew self-critical, and even began to experience distorted body images. These deprived men actually reported feeling overweight.
When the experiment ended 24 weeks later, the men were allowed to go back to eating normally. Except, most of them couldn’t. Many of them had lost total control of their hunger signals, and “ate more or less continuously”. One reported eating massive five-or-six-thousand calorie meals, and then snacking only an hour later. Another man ate so much the first day after the study, he had to be taken to hospital to get his stomach pumped. They reported not being able to satisfy their psychological hunger, no matter how much they ate.
One went on a year-long binge, putting on substantial weight. Just months earlier, this man had a healthy relationship with food. He was hand-chosen for being exemplary, and yet in 24 weeks, he had been completely changed.
This kind of study would not be allowed to take place today, for the “unethical, inhumane treatment of subjects”, and yet many of us do this to ourselves, year after year.
To Sum It Up:
Diets don’t work because they:
Make you preoccupied with food
Disconnect you with your natural hunger cues (making you eat when you’re not hungry, and eat more than you need)
Increase emotional and psychological distress, and the likelihood that you’ll eat in response to that stress.
What To Do Next:
Give yourself permission to eat any food you want. Give yourself permission to eat any time you want. Don’t bother counting calories.
I know this sounds like a scary step, especially for those of us who have spent many years dieting, but it is the best — and fastest — way to end binge eating for good.