By NATALIA HAWK
So! Today is the day. You’re starting a new diet. You’re determined, you’re motivated. You’ve hung up the pair of jeans that you hope to fit into soon. You’ve downloaded the calorie-counting apps and you’ve bought a gym membership. You. Are. Ready.
You go out of your way to get ridiculously-healthy snacks from the supermarket in the morning, and spend a long time in the rice cake aisle, trying to figure out whether the wholegrains in caramel rice cakes cancel out the sugar in them. At lunch, you go to a cafe with everyone else and calculate each kilojoule, working out that you can get away with the salmon and potatoes without going over your daily limit, but only if you don’t have a Coke.
But Diet Coke is okay, right? And you can’t have any of the birthday cake in the office staffroom so it’s your only sweet fix for the day. You savour that Diet Coke as the cake taunts you from three rooms away. You accidentally send four emails with the word “cake” in them instead of the word “invoice”.
Dinner is hard. You want a salad but you can’t remember which is the worse dressing – Caesar or balsamic? Is olive oil the good oil? Isn’t it just the same as vegetable oil – olive is a vegetable! What’s even the difference?! Look, you’re really tired. And the table next to you are eating Nutella crepes and all you want to do is bury your entire face in a giant jar of the stuff and possibly also get a custom-built swimming pool, filled with melted Nutella, in your backyard.
So you end up with a margarita pizza and chocolate mousse because dieting is hard and life is hard and it’s 8pm and you can’t even remember what’s healthy and what’s not anymore. Today can be your cheat day. Tomorrow will be perfect.
Does the above sound familiar to you? Yep. Dieting can be incredibly emotionally exhausting – you’re dealing with a lot of emotions you can no longer bury by stuffing a brownie into your face. But a new study has discovered that diets can also be mentally exhausting, as they reduce mental capacity.
That’s right. Diets can make you dumber.
Sendhil Mullainathan, a professor of economics at Harvard, wrote about the findings in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago. He explained how dieters are distracted by constant cravings and calculations, both of which occur in the brain at a much higher rate than non-dieters:
All this clogs up the brain. Psychologists measure the impact of this clogging on various tasks: logical and spatial reasoning, self-control, problem solving, and absorption and retention of new information. Together these tasks measure “bandwidth,” the resource that underlies all higher-order mental activity. Inevitably, dieters do worse than nondieters on all these tasks; they have less bandwidth.
He notes one study, which compared the reactions between dieters and nondieters, both of whom ate a chocolate bar: