Does Dieting Lead to Binge Eating?

It’s a familiar feeling to anyone who has ever been on a diet. After days or weeks of disciplined eating even the thought of so-called bad foods makes you ravenous. And, when you finally taste your forbidden fruit (be it ice cream or chocolate or pizza), one bite can quickly turn into frenzied overeating. But does this deprive-and-indulge cycle have long-term consequences when it comes to your weight? Emerging research suggests it may.

According to research conducted at the University of Minnesota, adolescent dieters are more likely to gain weight and to report binge eating than non-dieters. This raises important questions – and concerns – about the implications of dieting as overweight becomes increasingly common in adolescents and adults.

The Minnesota study, which collected data from over 2500 middle and high school students over a five-year period, revealed that subjects who self-reported dieting behavior in the past year gained more weight than those who initially said they had not dieted. The greatest predictor of weight gain was reporting binge eating at the five-year follow-up (binge eating involves eating a large amount of food in a short time accompanied by a feeling of loss of control). In the study, dieters were two to three times more likely than non-dieters to report binge eating.

Similar links were seen in a Harvard study that followed almost 15,000 young adolescents for three years. Compared to subjects who initially said they did not diet to control their weight, those who reported dieting up to once a week were three to five times more likely to report at least monthly binge eating. People who dieted two or more days a week were seven to twelve times more likely to report binge eating.

Researchers in the Harvard study note that diets that are too restrictive might lead to a cycle of dieting followed by bouts of overeating or binge eating. If so, it would be the repeated cycles of overeating between the restrictive diets that would be responsible for weight gain. Overly restrictive dieting could also lead to weight gain by slowing metabolism; with fewer calories needed, resuming normal eating during “non-dieting” periods would likely lead to weight gain.

The question remains whether binge behavior is the result of overly-restrictive diets or whether it is simply the “dieting mindset” in itself that encourages binging. In other words, do we see the same binge patterns among dieters who employ less radical weight control measures, for example, getting regular exercise, increasing fruit and vegetable intake or eating breakfast? Apparently not; well controlled studies testing family-based, professionally provided treatment programs have shown that decreasing calorie consumption by emphasizing nutritious foods low in energy density can stop weight gain without increasing binge eating.

In the end, experts suggest that properly run researched-based interventions are most successful in reducing weight among overweight individuals without inducing unhealthful behaviors like binge eating. People who are not severely overweight should be encouraged to adopt a moderate weight-control strategy that includes physical activity and does not require severe restriction.

Karen Collins, MS, RD, CDN
American Institute for Cancer Research
Reprinted with permission from the American Institute for Cancer Research


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