No matter how many experts advise against them, a staggering 45 million Americans go on diets each year. That number includes everything from simply tracking food and reducing calories to adhering to a strict eating plan, such as Whole30, low-carb or Paleo. If you've been consistently following a diet, you've probably noticed some perks—like being able to zip up the "goal jeans" you've been saving or seeing more muscle definition as fat melts away—but it most likely hasn't been all sunshine and rainbows. Some other, less desirable effects of dieting might include feeling short-tempered, irritable or just overall down in the dumps.|
So what's the skinny on this so-called "diet depression?" Why are food restrictions causing you to snap at well-meaning loved ones, or to skip out on your favorite activities in favor of hiding under the covers?
Trigger #1: Feeling "Hangry"
The most obvious reason deserves the top spot. It starts when we're infants and never ends no matter how old we get: When we deprive our bodies of necessary fuel, we get cranky.
"Some of the issues that affect our moods when we're dieting have to do with feeling hungry versus feeling satiated," says clinical psychologist Aviva Gaskill. "Obviously, people have a tendency to get grouchy when they're hungry."
Lauren Popeck, a registered dietitian at Orlando Health, points out that eating too few calories can cause changes in brain chemistry, such as drops in serotonin, which can then lead to crankiness. "Very low-calorie diets can also trigger elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, as reported in a 2010 study in Psychosomatic Medicine," she notes.
The good news: This is a short-term problem that can be easily remedied by adding nourishing, filling foods to your plan. So often, people associate a feeling of deprivation with success, but in order to bring about long-term weight loss, it's important to fuel your body with the right foods on a plan that you can maintain beyond just a month or two. Pay attention to your body's hunger cues, resist the urge to skip meals and keep plenty of healthy snacks on hand so you're not ravenous when the next mealtime rolls around. We all have different caloric needs and metabolic rates, so keep in mind that someone else's meal schedule might not be effective for you. Experiment with different eating plans until you find one that keeps you satisfied—and keeps sadness at bay.
Trigger #2: Social Isolation
Have you ever dodged an invitation to a backyard barbeque out of fear of wrecking your previously pristine diet, then spent the afternoon suffering from a severe case of FOMO? Gaskill says this type of self-imposed seclusion is typical of many dieters, and while it can keep the extra calories at a distance, it can also trigger feelings of melancholy.
"Some dieters find themselves avoiding certain people or certain types of social events out of fear that they'll make poor food choices," Gaskill explains. "This can cause someone to feel extremely isolated. It's necessary to find ways that will allow you to attend an event or spend time with specific friends, but not make food or alcohol the central activity at that event. Or, if [food is the focus], try to bring a healthful dish that you enjoy and can share or choose a restaurant where you know that you can make good food choices."
It's also important to share your goals with your friends and family. Not only will this enable them to be more empathetic and understanding when planning events, but it will also help you stay accountable. The more people who are aware and encouraging of your healthy lifestyle, the more likely you'll be to stay on track and avoid setbacks.<pagebreak>
Trigger #3: Brain Chemicals
Many of the foods that are the least healthful for us—like sugar—are also the ones that activate the rewards centers in the brain. Specifically, when we eat sugar, it triggers a surge in dopamine levels, which brings with it a rush of pleasure.
"Our brain essentially feels like something wonderful has happened, and we want more and more of it to continue to feel great," Gaskill explains.
The trouble is, one of the basic tenets of dieting is deprivation. When we remove sugar from our diets, the rewards centers stop getting activated as we're cut off from those natural chemicals to which we've become accustomed.
Popeck agrees that quitting sugar and cutting carbs too low can contribute to drops in blood sugar and mood swings. "Withdrawal symptoms can actually occur when carb or sugar intake decreases significantly," she says. This can result in such side effects as sadness, irritability and even anger.
Lucky for us, this sometimes painful adjustment is only temporary. Gaskill points out that after going a few weeks without the excess sugar, the body becomes accustomed to living without it and your mood will gradually stabilize.
When It's Not Related to Diet
It's important to note that not all cases of the blues are triggered by food (or a lack thereof). As Gaskill points out, if you feel very sad, irritable or have general discontent most of the time for at least two weeks or more, the cause could be depression. You may also experience symptoms like difficulty with sleep (either too much or not enough), feeling like you want to eat all the time or very little, lack of enjoyment from favorite activities, low motivation or apathy, trouble concentrating, low self-esteem, guilt, hopelessness, suicidal thoughts, social isolation, dramatic weight changes, ruminating or obsessing about thoughts.
If you are experiencing depressive symptoms, particularly suicidal thoughts, contact a mental health professional right away.<pagebreak>
6 Strategies for Ditching Diet Depression
Weight loss doesn't have to mean resigning yourself to living with the food blues. With these expert-recommended strategies, your healthy new lifestyle can also be a happy one.
- Look for non-food rewards. When you really want to pick up a chocolate bar to celebrate completing a big project at work, opt for a walk outside instead. Or, rather than killing time by chowing down on a bag of chips, buy a magazine you enjoy. "It is possible to release some of those good-feeling brain chemicals without food," says Gaskill.
- Find a personal mantra. Whenever you find yourself tempted to indulge in unhealthy foods, skip a workout, sneak a cigarette or partake in any otherwise harmful behaviors, repeating your chosen mantra can help remind you of your accomplishments thus far and your future goals, bolstering you against whatever bad habit beckons.
- Work on developing eating habits that help you feel satiated, but not stuffed. There is a middle ground between feeling hungry all day and feeling uncomfortably full. As you strive for that balance, Gaskill says it's also important to make healthier choices, like opting for eating fruits and veggies as part of your snack. "If you tend to get hungry more often between meals, ensure that you always have healthful choices with you at work, in your car, in your bag or whenever you go out," she suggests. "Try not to get to the point where you're so hungry that you can't even think about what to eat and just reach for poor food choices."
- Keep "trigger foods" as far away as possible. If you know you're powerless against Oreos, take them out of the equation, says Popeck. In some cases, she says it can make sense to change your environment to avoid tempting situations, such as preparing low-calorie meals at home instead of going out to eat.
- Consume some feel-good media. Don't underestimate the power of a favorite book, movie, painting or music album. Spend some time with media and art that makes you laugh, smile or just get the warm fuzzies.
- Try to increase mindfulness. "Allow yourself to be aware of your irritability or depression, but try not to judge yourself for it," says Gaskill. "Why are you feeling this way? Is it that you usually use sugar to cope with your feelings and to feel better? If so, what else can help right now? Are you just hungry, or is something else making you irritable, such as a bad day at work?" The first step is to notice your state of mind and recognize your emotions, then take smart steps toward reversing them.