I never thought the white noise would stop!
- Constantly thinking about what I was going to eat for a snack or meal.
- Counting the calories in what I ate for lunch.
- Fretting over that dinner out at a restaurant with the girls this weekend (what would I order).
Thoughts about food controlled my mind.
- I often saved recipes or looked at recipes or made grocery lists, just because food was on my mind.
- Sometimes I’d even have dreams about food (Like the nightmare I had, eating a whole pizza and waking myself up, pinching myself: had that just happened?! Phew…thankfully NOT).
- And don’t get me started with reading magazines or online articles—any free moment I got, I was Google searching or flipping through the latest information on anything related to food and nutrition.
In my later years, I learned the science behind why the obsession with food often occurs, particularly for us women: Restrictive dieting and weight loss efforts.
When we deprive our bodies of the full nourishment and needs it has, our bodies (minds included) are starved.
And in order to let us know, “I need food”—our brains turn to thinking, longing, obsessing, craving and even dreaming about food.
On of the most powerful illustrations of the effects of restrictive dieting and weight loss on behavior is an experimental study conducted over 50 years ago at the University of Minnesota (Keys et al., 1950).
The observational study involved 36 young, healthy, psychologically “normal” men while restricting their caloric intake for 6 months.
More than 100 men volunteered for the study as an alternative to military service, and the 36 selected had the highest levels of physical and psychological health, as well as highest commitment to the objectives of the experiment.
What makes the “starvation study” or “semi-starvation study” (as it is now commonly known) important is that many of the experiences observed in the volunteers are the same as those experienced by individuals with eating disorders.
During the first 3 months of the study, the participants ate normally while their behavior, personality, and eating patterns were studied in detail.
During the next 6 months, the men were restricted to approximately half of their former food intake and lost, on average, approximately 25% of their original weight.
Although this was described as a “semi-starvation” study, it is important to note that cutting the men’s rations to half of their former intake was identical to the caloric deficit comprising “conservative” treatments for obesity (Stunkard, 1993).
The 6 months of weight loss and “semi-starvation” were then followed by 3 months of rehabilitation, during which the men were gradually re-fed.
And an additional subgroup was followed for almost 9 months after the re-feeding began.
At the end, most of the results were reported for only 32 men (since 4 men withdrew either during or at the end of the semi-starvation phase): Although the individual responses to weight loss varied considerably, all men experienced dramatic physical, psychological, and social changes. And, in most cases, these changes persisted during the rehabilitation or re-nourishment phase.
The most striking change that occurred in the participants was a dramatic increase in preoccupation with food.
The men found concentration on their usual activities increasingly difficult, because they became plagued by incessant thoughts of food and eating.
During the semi-starvation phase in fact, food became a main topic of conversation, reading, and daydreams. Evaluation rating scales revealed that the men experienced an increase in thinking about food, as well as corresponding declines in interest in sex and activity during semi-starvation.
In addition, other observations included:
- As the starvation progressed, the number of men who played with their food increased
- During the restrictive dieting phase of the experiment, all of the volunteers reported increased hunger. Some appeared able to tolerate the experience fairly well, but for others it created intense concern and led to a complete breakdown in control. Several men were unable to adhere to their diets and reported episodes of binge eating followed by self-reproach.
- They ate and prepared foods that, under normal conditions, would be weird and distasteful dishes.
- Those who ate in the common dining room often snuck food back to their rooms to consume them on their beds in a long-drawn-out ritual.
- Cookbooks, menus, and information bulletins on food production became intensely interesting as well to many of the men who previously had little or no interest in nutrition or food.
- The participants often reported that they experienced pleasure from simply watching other people eat or from just smelling food.
- Rituals and behaviors increased as the study continued. The men demanded that their food be served hot, made unusual concoctions by mixing foods together, and increased their use of salt and spices.
- They used stimulants and gum to curb hunger. The consumption of coffee and tea increased so dramatically that the men had to be limited to 9 cups per day; similarly, gum chewing became excessive and had to be limited after it was discovered that one man was chewing as many as 40 packages of gum a day and “developed a sore mouth from such continuous exercise”.
- Along with collecting cookbooks and recipes, some of the men even began collecting coffeepots, hot plates, and other kitchen utensils. According to the original report, hoarding even extended to non-food-related items such as “old books, unnecessary second-hand clothes, knick knacks, and other ‘junk.” Often after making such purchases, which could be afforded only with sacrifice, the men would be puzzled as to why they had bought such more or less useless articles”.
- One man even began rummaging through garbage cans (for food). This general tendency to hoard has been observed in starved anorexic patients (Crisp, Hsu, & Harding, 1980) and even in rats deprived of food (Fantino & Cabanac, 1980).
- The volunteers reported impaired concentration, alertness, comprehension, and judgment during semistarvation; however, formal intellectual testing revealed no signs of diminished intellectual abilities.
- As the 6 months of semi-starvation progressed, the volunteers exhibited many physical changes, including: gastrointestinal discomfort; decreased need for sleep; dizziness; headaches; hypersensitivity to noise and light; reduced strength; poor motor control; edema (an excess of fluid causing swelling); hair loss; decreased tolerance for cold temperatures (cold hands and feet); visual disturbances (i.e., inability to focus, eye aches, “spots” in the visual fields); auditory disturbances (i.e., ringing noise in the ears); and paresthesias (i.e., abnormal tingling or prickling sensations, especially in the hands or feet).
- Standardized personality testing with the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) revealed that semistarvation resulted in significant increases in Depression.
- Despite little interest in culinary matters prior to the experiment, almost 40% of the men mentioned cooking as part of their post-experiment plans. For some, the fascination was so great that they actually changed occupations after the experiment; three became chefs, and one went into agriculture.
- Even after 12 weeks of re-feeding, the men frequently complained of increased hunger immediately following a large meal.
What does this mean for you?!
Whether you’ve had an eating disorder or not, if you’ve ever been on a strict diet, or tried “really really” hard to lose weight, or gotten caught up in weighing yourself, calorie counting and ‘perfect eating’, there are physiological and psychological reasons why you can’t stop thinking or obsessing about food.
Your body is not getting what it needs.
Get in touch with your body today.
Reflect for a moment:
- How have you been depriving it?
- What does it (and you) need today?
Do ONE thing to nourish yourself—mind, body or soul today.
(And delete My Fitness Pal while you’re at it!).