health

Fact: Dieting makes you dumber.

Before you start your diet, read this.

 

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.

Nutella Cake vs Diet – what would you choose? (And yes. I did make this cake. It’s a Phoodie recipe.)

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:

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Nondieters ate and moved on, but dieters started wondering how to make up for the calories they had just ingested or, even more fundamentally, pondered, “Why did I eat the bar?”

Another study is also mentioned in the NYT article; one in which people were given the choice between eating fruit salad and cake. Essentially, half of them were asked to remember a seven-digit number, while the other half were asked to remember a two-digit number. Those who had to remember the seven-digit number chose the cake – because their brain was filled up with numbers already. They couldn’t bring themselves to pick the fruit salad.

As Mullainathan notes – “There is a paradox here: diets create mental conditions that make it hard to diet.”

The solution? She recommends picking less-complex diets, which just ban foods rather than giving too many different options. Such as the Atkins diet, or the no-sugar diet, or the 5:2 diet (which bans eating more than 500 calories on two days of the week). All of the above require far less thought and therefore don’t waste so many brain cells.

MY solution? Just don’t diet.

After all, there’s a huge difference between certain lifestyle choices made to improve your health, and fad diets that will have absolutely no benefit to your wellbeing besides turning you into a crazy-obsessed person that can’t see a chocolate cake without yelling “EVIL!!!!!!”.

Diets make you dumber. So why do them?

I’ve never coped well with dieting. It turns me into a complete psycho that will grab chocolate bars out of people’s hands if it means getting a sugar fix. But making small changes to my life is what really changed my health. Eating less refined sugar. Eating more salads and less pasta. Making healthy treats at home and actually packing them in my bag to take with me, instead of just grabbing snacks out on the go. Swapping Nutella for natural peanut butter. Etc.

If you need to change the way you are eating, do it in a smart way – a way that works for you. Don’t just put yourself on some kind of detox that involves drinking nothing but water infused with chillies (yes, I know someone that actually tried this) or milkshakes that supposedly suppress your appetite (yep, this one too).

Think about the effects certain foods have on your body. Think about what makes you happy. Think about how to switch it up so that you can be content and eat the things you love but still feel good about yourself. Make caring about yourself a priority.

Don’t ever torture yourself for the sake of losing a few kilos. I can tell you right now that you probably don’t even need to.

Do you find diets torturous? How do you go about getting healthy?

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