It could be someone who gives up sugar for a few weeks. It could also apply to fake gluten intolerants. And, of course, to fasters. Even those who restrict water consumption – as the macrobiotic diet proposes in one of its phases, despite the fact that water has no calories. But, regardless of the food (or food group) that the person in question decides to dispense with, the expressions are often similar and range from “I feel more vital”, “in better spirits”, “more optimistic”, “more enterprising”, “I concentrate more on work”, “I sleep more deeply”, “my skin looks better”? All this is the “empowerment” that accompanies the feeling of controlling the diet.
Let’s see some testimonies taken from the Internet: “With the I quit sugar program, I gained energy, mental clarity, better quality of sleep and I had cleaner skin,” says Veronica. For his part, Sacha Harland, a 22-year-old Dutchman, verbalized his experience after participating in the documentary Guy gives up added sugar and alcohol for 1 month, produced by LifeHunters: “Now I get up easily and have more energy. It’s been a pleasant surprise because I didn’t think I’d feel so physically different. Finally, journalist Tracey Block summed up her experience with the ketogenic diet in Prevention magazine after 100 days: “My moods are balanced, my clothes feel better and I am honestly happier. I’m also more productive than ever.
Would anyone who stopped taking sugar or another regular food experience the same symptoms? Experts don’t think so. In any case, it would depend on how much of this hydrate the person was consuming. Even with this in mind, it would be quite rare to feel better in the office, with the partner, in family relationships… if resignation were not accompanied by a substantial change in lifestyle. That means to practice more physical activity, to sleep the necessary hours, to reduce the stress, to have hobbies and to cultivate them, that the affective relations turned out to be really affectionate. All this without forgetting to pass the indispensable medical controls to discard that things like lack of spirit, vitality, entrepreneurship and sexual desire were consequence of an illness of base.
Ecstasy is (only) in your imagination
Sugar is an example of an empowerment book that some people feel by severely restricting a food or food group. There are women and men, for example, who report feeling happier than ever after leaving carbohydrates, an effect that has sometimes been compared to the symptoms of a drug such as MDMA or ecstasy. The same goes for those on low-calorie diets. The first case of euphoria attributed to ketosis was reported by Dr. Walter Bloom, a pioneer of “therapeutic” fasting in the 1950s. After several days without taking a bite, his patients said they felt as supercalifragilistically as Mary Poppins, at least at first.
These feelings have sometimes been attributed to ketosis, that is, the production of ketone bodies that replace glucose as a source of energy for the brain. On the other hand, according to an informative campaign of the Community of Madrid entitled Eating disorders: how to act from the family, the sensation of controlling food effectively creates a certain euphoria. But… what do the experts think? Are we facing a paranormal phenomenon? Is it possible to experience improvements in different spheres (work, sentimental, family…) simply by giving up a meal or fasting?
Dietitian-nutritionist Julio Basulto says no. “The first thing I would say is that you have to see if this is true or not, because it could be that a very small part of the population feel really better, but that the vast majority do not notice any change in their vitality, in their level of happiness, in their work performance, in the tone of their skin. This reminds me of those who proclaim: ‘My grandfather smoked all his life and died when he was 92’, but, of course, nothing is ever said about grandparents who died when they were 60 years old because of smoking,” he says. On the other hand, to be able to attribute this supposed improvement to a dietary change, in this case, to doing without a food or group of foods, there should be “biological plausibility”. In other words, evidence. “For example, there is biological plausibility,” launches the co-author of the book More Vegetables, Less Animals (Debolsillo), “that drinking coffee contributes to being more awake. On the other hand, it is not the case that by drinking coffee it is possible to pass a degree without studying. Well, this is the same thing…”
But Basulto goes even further: if it were true, he says, that eliminating a food or one of the three existing macronutrients (proteins, fats and carbohydrates) would lead to psychological improvements, that is, not only in the nutritional field, but also in the sentimental, work, family, and so on, then psychiatrists would be undesirable, since they would be depriving the population of a very cheap treatment (getting rid of sugar or whatever), which would save many people from having to take the pile of pills that usually accompanies a standard treatment to alleviate anxiety, depression, stress… However,” continues the expert, “studies take these factors into account, so the only reasonable hypothesis is that the deprivation of that food or macronutrient to which one is so accustomed has a placebo effect on some people.
Or what is the same: “If I have managed to stop taking sugar (or carbohydrates or whatever), the rest is a piece of cake”. For the dietitian-nutritionist Olga Ayllón, this is a fairly common reaction that she has observed in her practice. “Losing one or two trouser sizes provides a lot of motivation and leads one to think that it is possible to achieve similar self-control in other plots that have nothing to do with food”, she confirms.
If the new habit is unsustainable, we go badly
“If the person comes from an uncontrolled situation, of course feeling control can transmit a certain feeling of security”, intervenes from Logroño Teresa Ureta, member of the clinical specialization group of the Spanish Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Most people who make such drastic changes do not take into account that many times eliminating a particular food means reducing the amount of food in general, something that in some cases is accompanied by an improvement, regardless of the bioclinical changes caused by dispensing with something”, she explains: “The key lies in the sustainability of the change”. Nevertheless, there are those who end up subscribing to information without any scientific basis. “When someone has clear ideas, they are not so vulnerable,” Ureta recalls. “In my experience, dieters tend not to have basic healthy habits and are overly concerned about food.
The same goes for Gemma López-Guimerà, a doctor in Health Psychology and a specialist in feeding problems (restrictive diets, diet due to stress, anorexia, bulimia…). “These phenomena are complex, so there is never a single explanation for these verbalizations. My first comment is that the brain likes there to be coherence between what we think and what we do,” she says. “When we make a choice, what we do is overestimate its benefits and underestimate the possible harms. Therefore, if I have decided to give up sugar, my tendency will be to exalt the benefits and minimize the disadvantages,” says this professor of Personality, Evaluation and Psychological Treatment at the Autonomous University of Barcelona and master’s degree in Dietetics and Human Nutrition.
“A consequence of the above is that if, in practice, an alternative is not sufficiently rewarding, the person who made the decision to do without a food and, sometimes, to go against his own biology, will modify his beliefs so that the path he has taken seems to be more rewarding than it really is,” emphasizes the specialist, with a score of publications in reference scientific journals. “Also in anorexia there is a first phase of exaltation that some of my patients say is pretty, although in a short time gives way to a real hell, because many of these people think: ‘If I have been able to control what I eat, with how difficult it is, how am I not going to be able to achieve other things,’ she explains.
This is the price of your stubbornness.
“A possible hypothesis of why this euphoria is that by restricting an important nutrient, the organism is stressed and secretes adrenaline, a hormone that activates us to be alert and look for the food we lack, so it is very possible that this sensation of greater vitality corresponds with that extra dose,” adds López-Guimerà. “Another thing that the organism does when it is stressed by this lack is to release endorphins to block the sensation of pain. But this state of permanent alert due to lack of food exhausts the organism in a few days, a moment from which everything turns against and where vitality existed before, there begins to be tiredness”.
For example, some of his patients who take protein powders tell him that, after a few days, they begin to have ramps, they get more tired than before when playing with their children, and so on. “This is extrapolable to any diet that involves severe macronutrient restriction or is very low in calories. In the long run, those who follow this type of fasting are in a bad mood and their libido falls to the ground. It’s a struggle between something that has been mentally decided, to stop eating, and biology itself, which always goes ahead and ends up winning, unless the person ends up developing a mental disorder,” he warns. But there is something else: those who practice apartheid with a food group often have a long history of dieting behind them, as well as being totally opposed to what is “nutritionally correct”.
As far as we know, dispensing with one component in our diet does not have a cascading effect on other orders of life. If this were the case, says Julio Basulto, it would have been demonstrated with studies and the protocols would have been installed to eliminate this nutrient (or whatever it was) so that people would feel better psychologically. That is, there would be research that would demonstrate the benefit in question. But, in the absence of them, the only thing that can be said is that life is much more complex, even though humanity has resorted to a talisman since the world is the world.