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Psychological consequences of food restriction

Food restriction (deliberate inhibition of food intake) is a common behavior in Western countries. Although it is usually attempted for the desirable purpose of weight control, it may have other, unforeseen consequences. This review summarizes current knowledge of the psychological consequences of food restriction.

A classic psychological study of food restriction was conducted during World War Ll among a group of conscientious objectors. The participants were asked to restrict their eating for six months in order to reduce their body weight by about one-quarter. During food restriction, the men became increasingly obsessed with food. They also became upset and irritable, and they appeared to be apathetic and lethargic, with no interest in sex. When the period of food restriction ended and the men were allowed to eat as much as they wanted, they began to gorge themselves, and they reported feeling out of control of their eating and obsessed with food. The experience of food restriction led to binge eating in these previously normal subjects.

Studies of former prisoners of war who were involuntarily deprived of food have also found evidence of binge eating after the deprivation was over. Some former prisoners continued to have episodes of binge eating even after they had returned to normal weight.

Episodes of binge eating have also been reported in people who are dieting in an effort to lose weight. Studies conducted in the reviewer's laboratory have shown that restrained eaters (i.e., dieters), unlike normal subjects, do not decrease their food intake in response to a high-calorie preload-in fact, they eat more after the preload than they do after no preload. Evidently, once they believe that their diets have been "broken," restrained eaters feel free to overeat. Restrained eaters may also overeat in response to alcohol intake or psychological stress, and they are more focused on food and more emotionally labile than individuals who do not restrict their food intake. They may also have alterations in taste perception, including a failure to reject sweet tastes after consuming an intensely sweet preload.

It is important to note that these effects can be observed even if the subjects' efforts to restrict their food intake are not successful. Many restrained eaters do not achieve a long-term weight loss (although they may show short-term weight fluctuations). "The deprivation in these subjects may not be long-term food deprivation so much as psychological deprivation caused by avoiding favorite foods or by sporadic (short-term) attempts to restrict total consumption." Despite their lack of weight loss, restrained eaters display many of the same behaviors and psychological reactions seen in experimentally starved subjects and those with eating disorders.

Because food restriction may have harmful consequences, the author advises counseling normal-weight and underweight individuals to avoid restricting their food intake. Obese subjects may need to diet, but even for them, the possible adverse effects should be taken into consideration. "Caution is thus advisable in counseling clients to restrict their eating and diet to lose weight, as the negative sequelae may outweigh the benefits of restraining one's eating. Instead, healthfUl, balanced eating without specific food restrictions should be recommended as a long-term strategy to avoid the perils of restrictive dieting."

Janet Polivy, Psychological Consequences of Food Restriction, J American Dietetic Association 9666):589-592 June 1996) [Correspondence: Janet Polivy, PhD, Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry, University of Toronto, Erindale Campus, Mississauga, ON LSL 1C6, Canada]

COPYRIGHT 1996 Frost & Sullivan
COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning
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