Physical, Biological and Psychological Effects of Food Restriction and Chronic Dieting


By: Megan J. Driscoll LPC, RD, CD We all can agree that the dieting industry in the United States is a forever booming and profitable industry (to be exact, an alarming 60 billion dollars annually according to Washington Monthly) however we also know that dieting does not produce long term results and is also a significant risk factor in the development of an eating disorder. “Getting healthier and losing some weight” are often a main reason for going on a diet. However, what is often less talked about and even ignored are the harmful physical, biological and psychological effects of dieting or food restriction.


Physical (to name a few) –

  • Use of muscle tissue for energy (why would we want to decrease our muscle if we are dieting to be “healthier?”)
  • Reduced metabolic rate
  • Cold intolerance (I am from Wisconsin, why would anyone want to have this?)
  • Constipation and delayed gastric emptying (meaning food stays in your GI system longer, resulting in discomfort and bloating – constipation is literally the worst, we all know it.)
  • Cardiac arrhythmias
  • Edema & other skin changes - these changes may actually influence our negative body image even more
  • Osteoporosis


Biological –

  • Increases your appetite by reducing the amount of leptin you produce (leptin is our fullness or “satiety” hormone and is released to tell you to stop eating and increase your metabolic rate to start burning the calories you just ate – why would we want to mess with this?)
  • Lowers your core body temperature
  • Reduces your effectiveness at recognizing hunger and fullness cues


Psychological –

  • Induces powerful urges to binge on food (think about survival)
  • More specifically, powerful cravings for energy dense foods such as ice cream, chips, chocolate (sugar is the quickest way for our body to get energy in a deprived state). Remember the brain does not function without carbohydrates
  • Food obsession and preoccupation – why would we want to spend our lives only thinking about food when there are so many more important things to think about, like our goals, dreams and vacations we want to go on?
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Social isolation
  • Apathy
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Poor concentration (our brain’s neurotransmitter’s rely on fat to make the myelin sheath which essentially helps them talk to one another and perform)
  • Mood swings
  • Drop in levels of serotonin
  • Binging causes the release of “feel good” chemicals like serotonin and endorphins so it begins to act like a self-soothing/stress relief mechanism to cope with the stress of dieting. Therefore, the body begins to crave the binge behavior to simply feel better.
  • Last but NOT LEAST, when we “fail” at our diet because our body is trying to save us, it induces feelings of shame, guilt, failure and that we did something “wrong”


Overall, “getting healthier and losing some weight” is not as simple as “eat less calories” and see the number on the scale go down. We know many factors influence our health and weight such as our age, genetics, medical and other underlying conditions, and dieting/weight history. What if instead of promoting dieting and scale-dependent self-esteem, what if we begin practicing body acceptance and intuitive eating? Life is too short to only order salads.


Source: Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon & Keyes Starvation Study

About the Author: Megan J. Driscoll LPC, RD, CD is a registered dietitian and psychotherapist. Megan Driscoll specializes in research based weight management, chronic disease prevention and health promotion using a health at every size and non-diet approach. Megan Driscoll graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2008 with undergraduate degrees in Dietetics and Psychology. Megan completed her Dietetic Internship at Mount Mary College in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. Megan then went on to complete her Master’s degree in Educational Psychology, with an emphasis on community counseling, at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2011. She currently works as a registered dietitian and program psychotherapist at Aurora Psychiatric Hospital on the inpatient and partial hospital eating disorder unit. She is also the primary dietitian for their Eating Disorder Lorton Outpatient Clinic and provides outpatient nutrition counseling through Affiliated Wellness Group in Glendale and Delafield, WI. She lives with her husband, their 3-year-old son, Henry and their big dog, Riley. She enjoys shopping, reading and being outside in her free time!