Dieting is not all it's cracked up to be. Not only are dieters prone to post-diet weight gain, but intense calorie-restricted and yo-yo diets produce cognitive strain and neurotoxicity that may actually make you dumb.
Research suggests that the food cravings, hunger and psychological stress associated with restrictive diets may strain mental capacity. Harvard University scientists have shown that in situations of food scarcity versus sufficiency, intelligence is reduced by about nine to 10 points. This lowering of IQ approximates the impact of a full night without sleep.
The psychological effects of dieting are magnified by diet-related toxicity. Yo-yo diets and weight cycling lead to the release of environmental toxins from the body's fat stores. Exposing the dieter's brain to these toxins unleashes a further assault on cognition through neurotoxicity.
Environmental chemicals are not equally released during weight cycling. Toxins that are stored in fat tissue are most likely to be implicated. Chlorinated hydrocarbons are a group of pervasive environmental toxins that include DDT and PCBs. These organic pollutants are present at low levels throughout our environment, ascending the food chain and detectable in virtually all people tested.
These lipophilic (fat-loving) chemicals become soluble in fat tissue. The dramatic rise in obesity has closely followed the increase in the production of these industrial chemicals.
While the solution to pollution may be dilution, weight loss has been shown to release fat-stored toxins that are then preferentially taken up by the brain at a rate threefold greater than other body tissues. The weight loss-weight gain cycle of yo-yo dieting leads to toxic exposures that further strain the dieter's brain.
Psychological stress and neurotoxicity lead to the dieter's paradox – dieting makes it harder to continue dieting. If you want to lose weight, mitigate these adverse effects by following these steps.
1. Be mindful, not obsessive
While it is important to be mindful of food choices and volume, it is counterproductive to be obsessive about it. Focusing too much on food can strain the dieter's brain and lead to binge eating and weight cycling.
2. Eat clean
Minimize your exposure to fat-soluble environmental toxins in the food supply. Eating organic produce when available and following the dirty dozen list to avoid the most heavily sprayed crops can limit exposure to lipophilic pesticides.
3. Do detox
Include a detox regimen as part of any planned weight-loss program to support the organs of detoxification – the liver, gut, kidneys and lymphatics – and help rid the body of metabolic waste.
4. Improve body fitness
Build lean body mass with an exercise regimen of aerobic activity and weight-resistance training. Exercise triggers the release of adiponectin from fat tissue that signals working muscles to work harder. This supports healthy metabolism and preserves the fuel supply for healthy brain function.
5. Exercise your brain
Include brain fitness in your workout regimen. Brain exercises support mind-body balance during weight loss and keep stress at bay. Tackling new challenges and engaging in cognitive games can help keep the brain sharp and more resistant to the impact of dieting.
6. Don't yo-yo
Diets are doomed to fail. Yo-yo diets and calorie-restricted ones are particularly harmful. Aim for lifelong change through baby steps and consistency, not weight cycling. Successful weight management comes with qualitative changes in lifestyle and a mind-body approach to achieve a strong frame and a healthy brain.
Health Advisor contributors share their knowledge in fields ranging from fitness to psychology, pediatrics to aging.
Dr. Jennifer Pearlman is a physician focused on women's health and wellness, a staff physician at the Menopause Clinic at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto and medical director of PearlMD Rejuvenation, a women's health and wellness facility. You can follow her on Twitter @drjpearlman.