Why "Diet Brain" Sucks

Only 15 percent of women report feeling "happy" on diets. There's a shocker.
Publish date:
May 30, 2012
addiction, diets, friendship, dieting, diet brain, spinach munchies

I've never been able to look at these the same way since my mom called them "bat wings."

According to a recent study by the New Atkins Group, women who “extreme diet” suffer from “diet brain.”

Fifty-five percent of the 2,000 British women surveyed reported feelings of depression during their diets, and four in 10 said they’d experienced relationship problems as a result of them. The articles covering the study don’t mention what “extreme” dieting means, but I’m guessing it’s probably the typical fad fare: water and lean meats, preferably washed down with dehydrated kale. Not a burrito in sight.

And, because the average Brit spends 14 years of her life on a diet, that’s a pretty grim look at the trials women are willing to go through to stay thin.

It’s easy to knock this study off, particularly if you feel like emulating cartoons regularly found on those tear-away 365-day calendars. “Women on diets are depressed?!” screams an affably chunky woman pointing longingly at a fireman made out of cake. “I could’ve told ‘em that!”

But I think it’s desperately important to acknowledge that the scariest thing about diets isn’t just that they don’t work. It’s that the pull of diet culture is so powerful that it eclipses everything else in our lives: jobs, love life, and our own mental health. It doesn’t have to be as drastic as being fired for embezzling company funds into buying cases of Slim-Fast. It can be subtler than that.

The summer after I graduated college, I had my first encounter with the contagious nature of disordered eating. Despite having gone through four years at an all-girls’ school, I’d somehow managed to tend a relatively healthy body image. Sure, I’ve always been conscious of being a little too large for my own surroundings, but I’d finally come to accept my wide shoulders and wobbly thighs as the permanent fixtures they were. Merely living with someone with disordered eating, though, was enough to send me into a strange, obsessive tailspin that lasted an entire season.

The decision to room with my best friend from high school was a questionable one at best. Jenn is an amazing person: she’s quick-witted, weird as hell, and capable of accomplishing pretty much anything she puts her mind to. But there’s a big difference between “married on Facebook”-codependence and “sharing a bed for economic necessity.” It’s literally impossible to get emotional or physical distance from someone’s self-destructive headspace when you fall asleep every night to the sound of her breathing.

And self-destructive it was. Like I said, Jenn excels at almost everything she tries, but she doesn’t do it on talent alone. She’s also got the widest streak of obstinacy I’ve ever encountered, often foregoing things like “sleep” and “hydration” in favor of accomplishing the goals she’s set for herself. That summer, she’d decided to participate in a competition that would require her to get down to about 7% body fat.

Gone were any late-night “Mean Girls” and tortilla chip sessions; instead, Jenn stacked our refrigerator with Tupperware containers full of tuna, and chewed gum with a frantic, manic intensity whenever she got the urge to binge.

Jenn has since told me that the methods she was employing were questionable. Her trainer had effectively reduced her to a diet of low-fat fish and asparagus, eaten in tiny portions every two hours. No caffeine, no fruit and certainly no carbs, no matter how complex they might have been.

I’m not a nutritionist, so I can’t attest to how unhealthy her habits were. But I do know that her emotions skyrocketed between mania and hysterical crying, that she frequently accused me of shaming her when I expressed concerns about her sex partners, and that she was getting about three hours of sleep a night.

It wasn’t just Jenn, either. As I observed her following her dietary restrictions, my intern-diet of red beans, rice, and whatever dried fruit I could pilfer from my company’s snack-cabinets seemed like a concession to gluttony. I couldn’t afford a lot of produce, so I overcompensated by turning into a crazy person about my body.

Instead of drastically changing my eating, I would stand in front of the mirror every morning and pinch the places that needed trimming. The pudge at my hips. Outer thighs. Calves. Underarms -- ugh, my underarms. My chin, even.

I bruise like a peach, so these weren’t temporary rituals. I’d go to work with actual thumbprints pressed into my forearms. I’d look at them as I typed and think, “Fat. Fat. Fat,” like a mantra. At home, I couldn’t spend my time on my creative projects: Most of the time, I was either eating, thinking about eating, or sleeping.

Between the two of us, Jenn and I spent most of our time together either in bed or in the kitchen. We’d smoke pot, because it was a way to fuzz out a little without the calories from alcohol, and sit on the linoleum for hours to stare accusingly at the cans of garbanzo beans my mom bought me whenever she came to visit from Sacramento. I have vivid memories of us sucking down entire bags of spinach leaves while talking about our fears about the future.

Our relationship devolved from being built on a foundation of warmth and mutual trust to being centered, physically and emotionally, on food. When I talked about my problems at work, how I missed my Best Dude Friend, or even just my plans for the weekend, Jenn got this strange, distant look in her eye. Then, later, she’d claim that I’d never told her any of it. I eventually came to interpret this as “food face:” While I talked, she was mentally trying to plan out her meals for the day.

For my part, I could barely even manufacture empathy anymore. One night, after one such spinach-and-existentialism mini-crisis, I listened to Jenn trying to muffle her sobs into her pillow. Finally, I sighed, flopping toward her.

“God, just cry already,” I snapped.

“Wh-what?” she warbled.

“I mean, I can hear you,” I said. “You might as well just let it out.”

“No one—will ever—lo-o-o-ove me!” she bleated, out-and-out sobbing now.

“Jesus Christ,” I said.

This conversation is kind of hilarious in retrospect, but it’s also horrifying. I was so deadened by our mutual obsession that literally anything beyond it became too much effort to deal with. Plus, I knew she couldn’t really listen to any advice I tried to offer. I just lay in the dark, listening to her sobbing and feeling only annoyance.

Things have gotten better. I moved out. Jenn placed lower than she’d intended in her competition because her body fat was too low, which acted as more of a wake-up call for her to change her ways than any of my nagging ever had. Our friendship survived the whole ordeal, which is itself a miracle.

So when I read studies like the one done by the New Atkins Group, they sound way too familiar. “Diet brain” might be a physiological symptom of food deprivation. But it’s more likely that the women surveyed were putting so much mental energy into their eating habits that they virtually could not imagine an equal commitment to any other part of their lives.

Ironically, a quarter of the women went on their diets in the first place to feel more confident in the bedroom. But it’s hard to get anywhere between the sheets (or the workplace, or anywhere else) when you’re too busy thinking about carb-free breakfast to notice what’s happening outside of your skull. And, as we know, it’s a damn hard place to break out of.