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By Keeley Seymour, LCSW, CEDS
4 min read
Anyone else being flooded with weight loss ads and products on social media as we approach the end of 2023? As the new year approaches, so does the ubiquitous phenomenon of New Year’s resolutions, with dieting often topping the list. Society’s fixation on achieving the so-called “ideal” body often leads to a surge in diet-related activities during this time. However, it’s crucial to recognize the potential health consequences associated with such practices and explore ways to navigate the new year without falling prey to harmful resolutions.
Diet culture has become deeply ingrained in our society, perpetuated by societal pressures and the media’s portrayal of beauty standards. The turn of the year, with its promise of a fresh start, intensifies the focus on weight loss and dieting. Many individuals succumb to the societal pressure to conform to unrealistic body ideals, engaging in restrictive diets that may promise quick results but often lead to more serious health consequences.
Dieting can result in health consequences, both physically and mentally. Extreme dieting can disrupt the body’s metabolism, leading to fluctuations in energy levels, nutrient deficiencies, and, paradoxically, weight gain in the long run. Dieting also often takes a toll on mental health, contributing to increased stress, anxiety, and feelings of failure. This can exacerbate existing mental health conditions or trigger the development of new ones. Strict dieting may pave the way for disordered eating behaviors, such as binge eating, emotional eating, or the development of more serious eating disorders like anorexia nervosa or bulimia. If developed further, eating disorders can cause more serious long-term medical complications.
Have you ever heard the saying that 95% of diets fail? And that you end up gaining the weight back and sometimes more? That isn’t due to a lack of willpower, as the diet industry likes to suggest. It is a biological response your body has to a starvation period.
The Minnesota Starvation Study, officially known as the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, was a landmark research project conducted during and after World War II. The study aimed to investigate the physiological and psychological effects of severe caloric restriction, simulating the conditions of starvation, to provide insights into the rehabilitation of war-torn populations and prisoners of war. The study was initiated in 1944 by Dr. Ancel Keys, an American physiologist, and his colleagues. It was conducted at the University of Minnesota and involved 36 healthy, conscientious objectors who volunteered for the research. These participants, known as the “Minnesota Starvation Experiment” or “Keys’ Starvation Study” subjects, were selected based on their physical and mental health.
The primary goal of the study was to understand the physiological and psychological effects of severe caloric restriction, as might be experienced during periods of famine or war-related food shortages. Another aim was to develop effective strategies for rehabilitating individuals who had experienced starvation, considering the nutritional and psychological aspects of recovery.
The participants entered a 24-week semi-starvation phase, during which their calorie intake was drastically reduced to approximately 1,600 calories per day (similarly suggested by many diet trends). This reduction was based on observations of food availability in war-torn Europe. Following the semi-starvation phase, participants entered a 12-week rehabilitation phase, during which they were gradually reintroduced to a normal diet to observe the effects of refeeding.
Participants experienced significant physical changes during the semi-starvation phase, including extreme weight loss, weakness, fatigue, and reduced metabolic rates. They developed symptoms resembling those seen in individuals affected by long-term malnutrition. The study also highlighted the psychological impact of starvation, including preoccupation with food, increased irritability, depression, and a heightened interest in cooking and eating. The rehabilitation phase revealed challenges associated with refeeding, such as metabolic abnormalities and difficulties in returning to normal eating habits.
The Minnesota Starvation Study exemplifies how the body responds to a caloric deficit and how it can have long lasting effects physically and mentally. This study can be translated to individuals who chronically cycle through diets, particularly starting new ones as the new year approaches.
As we approach the new year, it’s important to recognize the pitfalls of succumbing to societal pressures around dieting. The pursuit of health should not come at the cost of physical and mental well-being. By fostering a more positive and realistic approach to resolutions, individuals can break free from the harmful cycle of dieting and embark on a journey towards body neutrality and self-acceptance.
Tip: Instead of setting resolutions around weight and dieting, try setting one to incorporate a more mindful practice, or a goal towards healing. During the next couple of weeks, try limiting your social media to reduce the amount of media consumption when dieting trends are the highest. Notice how you are feeling today about the diet you are looking to start, and then how you feel in a few weeks. You may still have the desire to restrict or diet, but try to notice if that desire has reduced a little. Any small actions you can take to decrease the urge will help you and have long lasting effects.
Evolve Counseling Services is a specialized team of Licensed Therapists providing treatment in Paoli, Pennsylvania.