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The Psychology of Deprivation

I always cringe when I hear about people attempting to lose weight through deprivation strategies. 

It’s in part the food lover in me that hates to see people deprive themselves unnecessarily, but it’s also the registered dietitian who has seen this method destroy the metabolic health of too many people.

Sure, everyone knows someone who’s done it – followed a 1200-calorie diet plan and lost weight. Heck, most of my clients have tried it, which is often why they’re coming to see me: that same old strategy isn’t working this time! 

So, what are the shortcomings of the denial approach to weight loss? Let’s unpack the physical and motivational failings of the typical deprivation diet.

You Become Hungrier

I’ve often heard my clients describe their past attempts at weight loss this way: “I hated that diet. I was hungry ALL the time!” 

Humans hate being hungry, and we should. It’s a biological response that literally can and will take over any other thought or emotion going on inside. As most of us know, it’s hard if not impossible to perform at work or school (or even think straight) when you’re hungry.  

And if you ignore hunger for too long, it can lead to a slew of negative responses such as low blood sugar, irritability, tiredness or even overconsumption at your next meal.

Because deprivation plans often restrict certain nutrients, you won’t only be hungry, but you’ll be depriving your body of essential nutrients that it needs

Incidentally, these deprivation programs also try to teach that hunger is all in your head and that you should learn to ignore it (especially if you’ve already reached your calorie count for the day or for that meal). 

This couldn’t be farther from the truth when it comes to feeding your metabolism to perform the way you want it to. Not to mention, how long are you really going to be able to last on a plan when you’re hungry all of the time?

On the contrary, I like to advise my clients to eat when they feel legitimate hunger. 

Do people often mistake thirst for hunger? Yes. And do they often choose foods that don’t provide a ton of satiation, leading them to hunger soon after a meal? Sure. 

This is why I like to recommend foods that support satiation and to teach what true hunger is, how to recognize it and how to support it – versus ignoring it.

Drinking plenty of water each day, consuming protein, healthy fats and fiber-rich plants at every meal and getting plenty of sleep are all forms of nourishment for your body and ways to support fullness, without depriving your body of anything that it needs.

Bye, Bye Muscle 

Not allowing your body to get proper nutrition, including both calories and protein, will result in unnecessary and excess loss of muscle tissue. 

I’ve seen this too many times: people with larger weight loss goals lose a ton of weight fast after making some extreme changes to what they eat.  

After the first weeks, however, their big losses start to slow down. Nonetheless, they are able to continue to lose each and every week and even start to notice loose skin. Although their weight or total pounds have changed, their body composition (or total body fat %) hasn’t shifted as dramatically.  

This sort of appearance is known as “skinny fat” - meaning a condition in which the body has lost weight, but along with it, a ton of water and muscle tissue. I’ve had clients complain of their past weight loss efforts creating extremely loose skin and not looking as fit and strong as they wanted, even if they reached their optimal body weight goals. 

The tagline “Strong is the New Skinny” couldn’t be more correct when it comes to how people really want to look and feel.

That’s not all. With the loss of muscle tissue often comes a drop in metabolic rate – not at all optimal for long term weight loss success, which requires a healthy, functioning metabolism. With these unhealthy changes can come a few other symptoms – including hair loss or lower body temperatures.

Instead, try to keep your weight loss efforts to supporting full body metabolism and sending the right signals to your body to burn fat. As enlightening as it can seem to drop a lot of weight fast, know the long term issues that can result if you instead lose a lot of metabolically active muscle tissue in relation to fat. 

I like to educate my clients with this knowledge: when people become fatter, they do, in fact, store more energy (or calories as fat). But it’s not because they’re eating too many calories and need to restrict them. 

The process needs to focus more on figuring out why their bodies are so readily storing calories as fat and why they are burning fat so poorly. These answers we can discern through metabolic or lab testing offerings. 

Personality Change?

People on deprivation diets are no fun. 

In all seriousness, I’ve seen personalities change when following such eating plans. I’ve had clients complain of being depressed (often due to excessively low fat intake) or, even worse, creating disordered relationships with food.  

Think about this… When you’re determining your food intake based on one number (in this example, let’s use calories), you start to deem foods as good or bad related to that number.  

In the past, when counting “points” was the trend for many people, I’d have clients tell me they completely avoided the avocados I was recommending for daily intake because they were “too many points,” even if those healthy fats would improve their skin, hair and mood.

Even worse, I’ve had clients say they’ve avoided family outings or even eating engagements with their immediate families because they didn’t know the numerical information of the items on the menu.

I’ve always taught my clients that I’ve never had anyone find long term success by cultivating a negative relationship with food. When you learn and practice eating foods that work for your metabolism and include nutrients your body was meant to thrive on, eating becomes a normal and enjoyable way to care for yourself. 

Deprivation diets don’t support that sense of self-care at all. If anything, they make eating even more emotionally fraught and less normal.

“Refeeding” Can Be Brutal

Have you ever known a good friend or family member who followed a plan, saw success, but as soon as he/she quit the plan regained every lost pound and more?  

This happens all the time with deprivation-focused dieting and can be absolutely devastating. 

In the past, we’ve called this type of eating yo-yo dieting. It described the experience of individuals whose weight goes up and down when on and off a diet. But even if a person has only attempted this approach one time, losing and regaining everything back (and often in an abbreviated amount of time) can wreak havoc on the metabolism (not to mention motivation).

Why does this happen? There are differing perspectives, and I truly believe it can be for a number of reasons as I’ve had to help many past clients “fix” faulty metabolic functioning after a refeeding rebound. 

One reason could be that deprivation dieting can be so restrictive - not something most people could do long term by any stretch. When they decided to stop, they may have done a 180 and ate as poorly as they possibly could (and worse than they ever had), leading to rapid regain of fat. 

However, I also have worked with clients whose metabolisms, because of longer or more frequent stretches of deprivation dieting, were chronically starved. Because they had spent so much time in starvation mode, these clients’ bodies didn’t adjust well. Once their bodies started to get the nourishment they were lacking, they stored any and all nutrition/energy as fat. 

Even if the client goes back to the exact way he/she was eating before the diet, that person will end up with more fat than he/she started with due to a less than optimal metabolism.  

In either case, rebounding to a heavier state than you were before can be extremely discouraging and can impose an even harder toll on the body. Initial (but unhealthy) weight losses can still create a faulty mindset that the plan “was” effective, often leading to further discouragement when it’s attempted again on a even more dysfunctional metabolism.

Rather than depriving our bodies, it's critical that we learn to nourish them better. Building health means boosting the right kinds of self-care, not denying ourselves the essential elements for our overall well-being.

Would you like more information or support around rejecting deprivation and choosing healthy nourishment in your journey? Talk with one of our club dietitians today. Thanks for reading, everyone!

In health, Anika Christ – Senior Program Manager of Life Time Weight Loss

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.


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