It’s well accepted that our mindset determines our stress levels even more than external circumstances. However, it’s not just about a general positive or negative outlook on life… how we think about food and diet culture (and the subsequent actions we take) can take a toll on how we manage stress levels.
Diet culture is so normalised that sometimes it’s hard to see that you’re actually harming your health, precisely in the name of health! These “diet” behaviours may be affecting your stress levels more than you’d think.
Paola Petriortiz is an evidence-based nutritionist and personal trainer focused on eating disorder recovery and intuitive eating. Having suffered from anorexia nervosa for more than 10 years, she is now on a mission to help other people achieve food freedom and heal their relationship with their body. She dives into the ways in which day-to-day diet culture can be causing our bodies unnecessary stress.
Depriving your body of energy
Our bodies can’t tell the difference between a famine and the voluntary starvation of a diet. When you restrict your intake of food, it reacts just the same way it would if we were living in the midst of a war or other periods of scarcity. Of course, those are stressful times! Your body will feel tense and with heightened alertness.
It will also want to get as much energy as possible from the food you’re eating, since it doesn’t know when you’re going to be able to feed it normally again. It turns out that cortisol, the infamous stress hormone, is useful for that purpose: it increases the amount of blood glucose available for the brain by decreasing glycogen synthesis (the process by which sugar is stored). However, chronically high levels of this hormone place you in a constant fight-or-flight state that can make you feel unrested, anxious and stressed.
Not eating enough carbohydrates
Low-carb diets are especially cortisol-increasing, which makes sense given the relationship between cortisol and blood glucose. Moreover, carbohydrates are the preferred source of energy for the brain and it needs a continuous supply of it, but our stores are quite small and run out every 3 to 6 hours. If we don’t replenish them, our brain will rapidly feel deprived and we won’t be able to think as clearly.
When this is an ongoing situation, your ability to manage stress and difficult circumstances will be impaired.
In addition, carbs help produce serotonin, our “happiness” hormone, and dopamine, our “pleasure” hormone. Without enough serotonin, our mood will tend to be more negative, and we’ll find it more complicated to relax and to get adequate sleep. Meanwhile, low dopamine will negatively impact our motivation. All of this gets us deeper and deeper into the vicious cycle of stress.
Feeling bad about eating certain foods
Even if you’re not physically restricting calories or food groups, the mere acceptance of diet culture ideas can be detrimental to your mental health. If you perceive certain foods to be bad, unhealthy, junk or any other negative adjective, you’ll end up applying those adjectives to yourself when you eat those foods.
This generates feelings of guilt (“I shouldn’t eat the forbidden foods”) and shame (“I lack willpower”). Both of them have been strongly associated with anxiety and other stress-related mental health disorders such as PTSD.
Abusing food as a punishment
While some people react with episodes of bingeing (often caused by restriction), others feel as though the discomfort provoked by the extreme overeating is a suitable punishment for their “failure”. Therefore, they keep eating until they feel sick because, in their mind, that’s what they deserve.
Using, or rather, abusing food in this manner can be seen as a form of corporal punishment. Its effects have been primarily studied in children, where the research shows how those who have been punished in that way react to stressful events with more cortisol that those who haven’t.
Ditch diet culture for a less stressful life!
In contrast to the gloomy scene painted by diet culture-led thoughts and behaviours, listening to and respecting your bodies needs, wants and cues can help you live more peacefully. Indeed, intuitive eating has been proven hugely beneficial when it comes to improving mental health and reducing stress levels. The thought of taking such a leap of faith might itself seem stressful… but, in the long run, it will help you live a more peaceful life and face difficult situations with healthier coping mechanisms. Another good reason to say goodbye to dieting and hello to food freedom!
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Paola is an evidence-based nutritionist and personal trainer focused on eating disorder recovery and intuitive eating. Since her recovery, she has been on a mission to help other people achieve food freedom and heal their relationship with their body. She offers 1-1 consultations to teach and inspire my clients so they can become the happiest and healthiest version of themselves. She is quite nerdy and love to be always reading research, books and articles. But she has a passion for communication and loves sharing her experiences and what she has learnt online.