Don't Beat Yourself Up for Bingeing: Beat Up Diets Instead

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You are determined to stick with it this time…but then you didn’t.  You did not fail your diet.  Your diet failed you…and your biology.

Binge eating and weight gain are a triumph of your biology, not a failure of your willpower. 

Dieting is not the solution to your perceived problem of being in a body larger than you “should” be.  Dieting is the problem.  Dieting involves restriction in some way:  calories, nutrients, food groups; it involves scarcity. 

When people subscribe to calories in/calories out and consequently reduce their caloric intake in an effort to lose weight, the body does not know that you’re trying to fit into a bikini that the world decided you must have this season.  The body translates this reduction as impending famine.  It is with acknowledgement of privilege that I state for people participating in diet culture, a famine is probably not something that is going to occur anytime soon.  Our biology, however, doesn’t know that.

Our bodies are carefully calibrated machines whose primary mission is to keep us alive.  If the body gets even a whiff of an impending famine, it is going to do everything it can to stay alive, including both conserving and acquiring nutrients and energy. 

The body will conserve by:

  • Slowing metabolism (the conversion of food into energy). 

The body will acquire by: 

  • Increasing ghrelin, an appetite-stimulating hormone; driving consumption of whatever the body can get, especially energy-dense foods that are quickly processed by the body.  You feel hungry and everything seems appetizing, which can result in a sense of loss of control.
  • Decreasing leptin, an appetite-suppressing hormone; driving you to consume as much as the body can as quickly as it can, which can result in binge eating and a sense of loss of control.

Even if a diet is not calorically restrictive per se, but instead restricts food groups such as dairy or grains (e.g., the Paleo Diet, the Atkins Diet), it can trigger feelings of deprivation, scarcity, and require vigilance against the “illegal” foods.  When there is perceived scarcity, it dominates our consciousness.  Scientists can see in the chemistry of the brain:  during periods of stress and tough self-control tasks, glucose levels plummet in the frontal cortex (the region associated with attention, planning, and motivation).  The perception that a food will not be available again, fuels overeating of it. 

The perceived scarcity and vigilance can create anxiety.  Anxiety can trigger a demand for dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for modulating reward that causes an initial sense of calm and wellbeing.  Ingestion of palatable foods (often outlawed by diets) has been shown to release dopamine.  The body is driven to seek out foods, often the foods deemed illegal by the diet, that will release dopamine to help soothe the anxiety.

There are various biological factors triggered by dieting that can drive overeating or bingeing behavior.  It is the fortitude of biology that contributes significantly to yo-yo dieting and the diet-binge cycle.  Instead of listening to that ranting inner critic echoing the diet industry:  you failed your diet because you simply lack self-discipline or willpower, turn up the volume of your biology whispering the diet failed you because your biology is on a mission to keep you alive.

Nicole Bonsol