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A good friend of mine has been battling with her weight for years. She has been on every diet known to man kind, read all the diet books, cooked all the diet recipes for herself and her family and yet her weight bounces up and down like the veritable yo-yo.

I don’t think her partner has ever dieted in his life. He works hard, plays hard, exercises. He enjoys his food and stays slim and trim.


Perhaps. But now scientists may have discovered why repeated dieting fails.

Most dietary advice indicates that it would be prudent to cut down on known “fattening” foods and increase exercise. And yes this may produce the desired effect until the diet is stopped, old eating patterns return and so does the weight along with a bit extra for good measure.

We also know that comfort eating to deal with stress, accounts for much obesity.

Increased levels of obesity and increased levels of diabetes put us at greater risk of developing dementia as we get older.

In this research, Scientists from the Scripps Research Institute in Boston took two groups of rats. One group as the control just had their regular rodent food. The other group was fed “normal” food for 5 days and alternated with 2 days of “sweet” food, the equivalent of us enjoying a few servings of high fat, high sugar desserts.

The dieting group on their normal diet ate less and avoided stress related situations (What that is in rat terms I don’t actually know!)

When on the high sugar diet they coped better with anxiety provoking situations, but also ate more. Plus those in the diet group when on “normal” food were found a much higher level of a stress neuropeptide CRF x5 that of the control group. This stress hormone returned to normal when the rats went back onto the high sugar diet again.


How often have you heard the excuse of people tucking into a huge bowl of ice cream or consuming that family bar of chocolate because they feel stressed?

OK I confess, I’ve done it too.

But maybe we do it not because we actually are stressed. It’s that our brain is telling us we feel stressed (by having a higher level of the stress neuropeptide CRF in our system) because you are showing withdrawals to the high sugar/fat foods that we have intermittently.

In other words, frequent changes to our diet being “good” for a period of time followed by going back to our usual eating patterns works against us big time because of the changes that occur as a result of this, in our brain.

So sadly for my friend until she can lose the diet books and choose to implement a healthy eating plan she will continue with her vicious circle of dieting and overeating. Her continued efforts of deprivation and compensatory binge eating will not only deprive her of continued successful weight management but more importantly make her at risk of heart disease and poorer cognitive function, particularly as she gets older.

The key to deactivating the stress response by our brain is losing the idea of dieting, as that for most of us conjures up deprivation and not being allowed to eat certain foods that we like. And for most of us what we know we “mustn’t have” is instantly more desirable!

By eating a varied diet including all the fabulous brain foods such as fish, fruits, vegetables and nuts we can work towards maintaining a healthy weight, enjoying  mood stability and better thinking.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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