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Does Dieting Makes You Dumber?

weight_loss_dietI’ve been consistently (well, okay, mostly consistently) counting calories and losing weight since last October (nearly a year OMG). I’ve lost allllmost 50 pounds now (about 48, technically), and feel pretty damn good, but I’ll confess: after nearly a year of this, it’s harder to track my calories and make sure I’m staying within my calorie range.

Because food is GOOD, you guys.

I recently attended a conference where the speakers spent a fair amount of time addressing issues of scarcity, particularly about growing up in impoverished situations with food insecurity. One of the speakers connected that poverty with poor food choices and weight problems, a point that resonated with me strongly.

But scarcity, of course, doesn’t just apply to issues surrounding food: you can have not enough money, not enough time, or any number of things and it all puts a strain on your brain, according to an article in the New York Times recently written by Dr. Sendhil Mullainathan, an economic professor at Harvard. After declaring that dieting actually makes people dumber, he explains by saying the following:

Imagine that you are attending a late-afternoon meeting. Someone brings in a plate of cookies and places them on the other side of the conference table. Ten minutes later you realize you’ve processed only half of what has been said.

Why? Only half of your mind was in the meeting. The other half was with the cookies: “Should I have one? I worked out yesterday. I deserve it. No, I should be good.”

For several years I stopped dieting because of this problem. I found dieting to be incredibly obsessive; counting calories or “points” became all consuming. I couldn’t just pack a lunch or order dinner at a restaurant I had to spend time looking up the calories, calling the restaurant to be sure they had something available that I could eat (this was during the no sugar or flour years), and then feeling consumed with envy during the meal when my husband and friends ate delicious food without even thinking about it. And those diets that reward you with extra calories for exercise? Well, hello exercise bulimia! Dieting definitely caused an immense strain on my mental bandwidth.

Today, luckily, the advent of apps has made dieting much less time consuming, but I still spend far more time thinking about food and trying NOT to think about food when I’m dieting. Dr. Mullainathan goes on to make this observation:

Bandwidth scarcity has far-reaching consequences, whether we are talking about poor farmers or affluent dieters. We all use bandwidth to make decisions at work, to resist the urge to yell at our children when they annoy us, or even to focus on a conversation during dinner or in a meeting.

Isn’t that just so damned true? I know that the first weeks of the diet are always the worst because you are adjusting and, you know, TOTALLY DARN HUNGRY, and that can lead to being short-tempered for sure. But I’ve never considered the idea that the effects of dieting stick with you, particularly when it comes to mental bandwidth and Dr. Mullainathan even connects scarcity to a dip in IQ test results.

I’m not going to stop dieting (I really want to lose another 50 pounds, please), but this insight reminds me that I need to focus on the areas of my life where there is no scarcity such as the love of my family and friends, great books, fun work, and the glorious weather we’ve been having lately. I’m hoping that switching my focus in this way will help me not mind eating less calories for a while longer. And speaking of that, I need to go put my lunch into my favorite dieting app…

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