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More PsychNotes: Weight Control and Body Image

March 6, 2017       
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Why Dieting May Be Painful and What You Can Do About It
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well. Virginia Woolf
It's commonly known that many people tend to eat when stressed. How often do you see a movie or TV show and someone reaches for a carton of ice cream when dealing with a distressing situation? For some people, stressed eating may create a disordered relationship with food which becomes difficult to reverse. Why is that?

Why does stress make it difficult to lose weight?

One answer may have to do with the experience of pain. Researchers found that when healthy people fast for 24 hours their sensitivity to pain increases (Pollatos et al., 2012). Although this study examined fasting, some people may be even more sensitive to the pains of hunger and experience increased pain with minor deprivation.

As a result, dieting can essentially become a painful experience for some people which makes it more difficult to adhere to a restrictive diet. In fact, two people dropped out of this study due to physical symptoms of dizziness and nausea. When people are already confronting painful stress situations, the addition of the pain of dieting can become even more intolerable.

What steps can you take to sidestep this painful reaction when dieting?

1) Small reductions. Although counter-intuitive to the desire to lose weight quickly, if you can't maintain a restrictive diet it is best to reduce your calories very gradually. One way of doing this is to get an honest baseline of your daily intake and then reduce your calories a little at a time. So if you normally eat 2500 calories a day and should be eating 1800, don't reduce your intake by 700 calories or it is likely to be painful. Instead, reduce your intake by 100 calories at a time. Once you get used to that reduction (maybe a couple weeks), then reduce by another 100 calories. Yes, this is very slow...but it is more likely to be effective.

2) Lower calorie foods. Eat the same amount but choose a version that has fewer calories. For instance, the same food at a restaurant can have many more calories than making the food at home. Or, some foods such as butter or milk may have lower calorie substitutes. In this way, it feels as if you are eating the same amount but you are getting fewer calories.

3) More filling foods. Eat foods you like that tend to be more filling. For instance, oranges, potatoes, whole grain pasta, and oatmeal are much more filling per calorie than croissants, butter, chips, or even yogurt.

Holt, S.H., Miller, J.C., Petocz, P., Farmakalidis, E. (1995). A satiety index of common foods. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 49, 675-690.

Pollatos, O., Herbert, B.M., Fustos, J., Weimer, K., Enck, P. and Zipfel, S. (2012). Food Deprivation Sensitizes Pain Perception. Journal of Psychophysiology, 26, 1–9. DOI:10.1027/0269-8803/a000062

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