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Dieting is stressful all round

Hardening of the arteries, heart attacks, high blood pressure, diabetes and cancer: If you are overweight, you'll reduce your chance of developing these if you lose weight, doctors say. But you are also more likely to develop these same chronic problems if you suffer from stress. And guess what? According to research done at the University of California in San Francisco dieting increases stress.

Cortisol causes you to put on weight, and your cortisol production increases if you are experiencing stress. Nothing new here. Psychological studies have shown that dieting is a source of stress. Nothing new here either. But what exactly is the effect of a calorie-reduced diet on your cortisol levels? This was an unknown, and something the researchers wanted to find out, which they did in an experiment with 99 women.

The researchers got the women to follow a 3-week long diet four times. Each time the energy in the diet came for 50 percent from carbohydrates, 30 percent from fat and 20 percent from protein.

On one occasion the women were permitted to eat as much as they wanted, and didn't have to count calories [no restricting, no monitoring]. The second time round the women ate as much as they wanted, but had to count calories [no restricting, monitoring]. The third time they were put on a 1200 kcal/day diet, but didn't have to count the calories [restricting, no monitoring] And on the fourth round they also followed a 1200 kcal/day diet, and had to count calories too [restricting, monitoring]. This enabled the researchers to distinguish between the physical stress of a low-calorie diet and the psychological stress of keeping track of what you consume.

So, starting with the last factor: counting calories increased the subjects' feeling of stress.

Dieting is stressful all round

Dieting is stressful all round

But the other factor, eating only 1200 kcal per day, increased the cortisol level. And that's what the researchers were interested in.

People who diet but don't count calories probably feel better than dieters who do count the calories, the researchers suggest. Perhaps they even feel fine, but that doesn’t mean that dieting is healthy for them. If you diet for extended periods, the continuously raised cortisol level is definitely dangerous.

"Regardless of diet success or failure, if dieting is shown in future studies to reliably increase stress and cortisol, clinicians may need to rethink recommending dieting to their patients to improve health", the researchers conclude.

An alternative might be to increase your protein intake when dieting. Slimmers tend to feel better on a protein-rich diet. A second alternative is to exercise more instead of eating less. [J Appl Physiol. 2007 Feb;102(2):634-40.] This is definitely better for body composition. And finally, consider doing relaxation exercises or meditation. Meditating after training reduces the body's cortisol production. So, who knows, perhaps this works in combination with a diet too.

Psychosom Med. 2010 May; 72(4): 357-64.

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