How that June 21 crash diet will *really* impact your health – from moodiness to higher risk of infection
While the promise of freedom after a year of lockdown should taste so sweet, for many people, the date 21 June – when Prime Minister Boris Johnson hopes to end all social restrictions – is ringed in their diary with panic. Because after a year of social distancing and sofa dwelling, dressed in baggy clothes and slippers, the notion of seeing people – really seeing people, not just on Zoom – is underpinned with a fear of what lockdown has done to our bodies and how we now look. Cue the alarming rise in diet talk and dangerous get-thin-fast plans circulating the internet and your WhatsApp groups.
“Many people have gained some weight in lockdown and it is important to normalise this instead of shaming it,” says psychologist Dr Joanna Silver, lead therapist for eating disorders at Nightingale Hospital. “Crash dieting for life after lockdown reinforces preoccupations with weight and shape and can have major implications on our physical and mental health.”
And here’s the thing, fad diets don’t work. Not in the long term, anyway.
“Crash dieting messes up your appetite, hunger and satiety hormones and it decreases your metabolism so you burn less energy in daily life,” says registered dietician Priya Tew (https://www.dietitianuk.co.uk/). “When you restrict your calories and under-eat, the body recognises it as a famine state – this is a high-alert state and as a result, the body alters the hormones sent out to the body.”
These hormonal messengers are a crash diet’s Kryptonite: while leptin, peptide YY and CCK (cholecystokinin) usually function to support appetite regulation and digestion, when you suddenly under-eat, they decrease. Meanwhile, ghrelin – often called the “hunger hormone” – increases, super-charging your appetite and instructing your body to seek out more food. If you’ve ever dieted before – and the chances are you have, with a poll last year finding the average person will try 126 fad diets over the course of their lifetime – you’ll know full well the ravenous hunger that arrives on day one, determined to sabotage your ‘best’ intentions.
“The body has a set weight zone that it ideally wants to be at, and it will do all it can to get your weight there,” says Tew, who adds that this is why yo-yo dieting often leads to higher weight gain months later. “Your body has a naturally healthy place that it would like your weight to be, but extreme dieting confuses this system, making your body feel that it needs to store extra fat to prepare for the next cycle of restrictive eating.”
Implications that are wide-ranging, and potentially long-lasting. Nutritional deficiencies developed in the pursuit of thinness “could affect your bones, nails, hair, teeth and skin, and impact fertility and menstruation,” says Tew. “Additionally, muscle and strength can be lost, leaving you weak, tired, run down and more vulnerable to picking up infections and sickness.” Not exactly what you want to hear in the midst of a pandemic.
It’s important to note that the issue here isn’t about demonising weight gain, but about highlighting the diet culture gremlins which make us pick apart our own bodies – <even> after making it through something as serious and significant as a pandemic.
Research by the University of Helsinki found that disordered eating among young adults can lead to “lower psychological wellbeing” even ten years later. With the study defining aspects of disordered eating as someone arbitrarily deciding when they are hungry or full, regardless of how they are feeling; weighing themselves constantly; meticulously planning meals; counting calories; weighing foods and following a strict diet or cutting certain foods from their diet, it sounds alarmingly like a how-to for many quick-fix fad diets these days.
And the short-term psychological impacts are equally troubling. While eating a balanced diet can positively impact the emotional part of our brain, restriction causes our moods to drop and makes us more irritable. “People often find it difficult to concentrate and focus and it can lead to increased obsessions around food,” says Dr Silver, who notes that it can also impact your relationships. “When someone is suffering from a low mood, they are less likely to feel connected to others and more likely to become withdrawn and isolated.” After a year of distance, is dropping a dress size really worth risking even more disconnection?
Even if you tell yourself you only need to diet enough to get ‘in shape’ for 21st June, what happens next? “Even after that date, you may feel a pressure to maintain this ‘new body’, which can further fuel food restriction, preoccupation and obsession,” says Dr Silver. “And if you do begin to eat normally again, you may feel like you have ‘failed’, which can have a negative impact on your self-esteem.”
Anxieties about weight are not new – diet talk is dangerous pervasive and the majority of us have grown up in society that has long (but wrongly) equated a person’s worth with how they look. If you’re feeling pressure to diet, it’s not your fault. But you can try to be kind to yourself instead.
“Lockdown has led to immense stress and anxiety, which we have all dealt with in different ways. For some that has been getting fit and exercising, for others feeling unsafe and not eating enough, for other food has been a source of comfort,” says Tew. “If your relationship with food and your body has changed over lockdown, that is totally to be expected.”
In fact, Covid-19 has already had a devastating impact on how we feel about ourselves. Four in ten people have seen a change in their diet quality, and eating disorder charity Beat reported a 173% increase in demand for support between February 2020 and January 2021.
“Now is not the time to crash diet or try to change yourself,” says Tew. “Instead, focus on nourishing your body with tasty food, build in self-compassion exercises such as journaling and meditation and if you need some therapy or the support of a dietitian there is no shame in that.”
The best way to lose weight is to not have a deadline but to take a long-term approach, adds Tew. “If you can eat when you are hungry, stop when you are full up and trust your body, it will work with you. You may not achieve the weight loss that you wanted, but you will have a happy, healthy body.”
If you’re struggling to silence the weight-loss worries, think about this: when you hug your friends or family for the first time when this is all over, what will you be thinking about them? That they’ve put on weight? No. The chances are, you’ll think how much you love them and have missed them – and that seeing every inch of them is the greatest gift of all. Now see yourself through their eyes. This is how they will see <you> too. Remember that.