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December 30, 2015

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Extreme Dieting and How It Affects the Brain

Anyone alive in the 1980s may recall the American government's advertising campaign that was created as part of the war on drugs. In one iconic commercial it showed an egg in its shell and a voiceover narration said, "This is your brain". Then the scene shifts to a frying pan and the narration continues with, "this is your brain on drugs" as the egg hits the hot pan and begins sizzling.

It was graphic and dramatic and made a point - drugs harm your brain permanently and catastrophically. It is probably now the time to create a similar advertisement about extreme dieting and the brain.

The Era of Extremes

If you were to scan back over the past few decades it would become fairly clear that this is an era in which extreme dieting has somehow become an acceptable part of everyday culture. Diets that cut out entire groups of macronutrients (the no fat diets or the no carb diets), or diets that cut back calories to starvation levels well below the basal metabolic rate are just some examples.

There are also diets that emphasize one or two foods - the grapefruit diets, the lemon juice and cayenne pepper fasts, and all of the rest.

We know that such extreme patterns do produce radically extreme results. People drop enormous amounts of weight when they use an extreme diet. However, these diets are not sustainable over the long term, at least not for most people, and their impacts can be seen and felt long after the weight has been regained.

The Impact of Extreme Dieting

When you deplete your body of its essential needs, it causes it to take some automatic and entirely natural steps. As a simple example:

  • Extreme dieting often begins with dehydration - Some diets use the "water weight" you lose to reflect some sort of weight loss on the scale. This is an illusion, and does not represent any lost fat. To explain this, let's consider what one physician at the NY Presbyterian University Hospital says: "When you restrict calories, carbohydrates or both, the first source of energy your body burns …  is glycogen … a form of carbohydrate stored in the liver and muscles, and attached to every gram is water. So when you burn through all of your glycogen, the adjoining water exits the body." (USNews)
  • You create insulin resistance in your body - Without a regular supply of protein, fat, and carbs, your blood sugar and insulin levels cannot maintain balance. This spiking and plummeting pattern creates a condition known as insulin resistance where it takes greater and greater amounts of insulin to cue your cells to accept blood sugar. This leads to fat storage, weight gain, and more.
  • Your brain is harmed - Diets that go extreme do so by cutting macronutrients like fat and carbs. Your body and your brain need them to function. When you are on a low carb diet, your body starts to metabolize through the liver, creating "ketones" as fuel. Not only does this cause bad breath, "brain fog" and toxicity in the liver and kidneys, but also it actually damages the brain. One study showed that extreme dieting can "result in long-term impairments in visual-spatial memory and decreased brain growth … [and make] your brain more susceptible to stress, increasing your risk of depression and predisposing you to future binge-eating behaviors"

So, extreme dieting might get you into those jeans or a smaller size for the class reunion, but it can harm your body and brain in ways that you may never be able to overcome. Don't deprive yourself of what you need to think clearly and function properly, and use a slow and healthy diet to achieve results. And if you do diet, remember to supplement for any health conditions and to protect your brain, using nutraceuticals, functional foods and compounds such as nootropics to ensure the best results.


USNews. What Happens When… http://health.usnews.com/health-news/health-wellness/articles/2015/06/19/what-happens-to-your-body-when-you-go-on-an-extreme-diet