The Restrict-Binge Cycle: A Comprehensive Look at the Science Behind Yo-Yo Dieting

the restrict-binge cycle: how to break free from yo-yo dieting and weight cycling

Many individuals who struggle with dieting and overeating have experienced the restrict-binge cycle. This pattern involves periods of strict dieting or food restriction followed by episodes of uncontrollable overeating or binge eating. Although it feels like the result of low willpower, that is far from the truth. The restrict-binge cycle is actually caused by a complex cascade of biological and psychological triggers.

To break free from the restrict-binge cycle and put an end to yo-yo dieting, it’s important to understand the biological and psycho-emotional impacts of restriction. After all, I’m a huge advocate for eating psychology, and the restrict-binge cycle is no different.

Ghrelin and the Restrict-Binge Cycle

The restrict-binge cycle starts when we manipulate our diet too much. Intuitively, our bodies know how to reach their natural set point weight – all we have to do is listen to our hunger and fullness. However, diet culture has convinced us that, by obsessively counting calories and depriving ourselves, we can speed up the clock and lose weight faster. Instead of learning to trust ourselves, we begin to rely on numbers, macros, and rules to inform our eating choices.

Yet, when we put our bodies through prolonged periods of dietary restriction, it sets off a series of biological reactions that can contribute to cyclical binge eating after periods of restriction. 

Many of us feel weak or that we lack willpower when we can’t stick to a diet, but our biology makes it exponentially difficult. Our bodies are wired to survive. When we deprive ourselves of calories, our bodies try to preserve energy and ensure our survival by triggering hormones that turn up the volume on nagging food cravings.

Ghrelin is one hormone in particular that plays a key role in how our bodies respond to food restriction. Ghrelin is the “hunger hormone” that makes us feel, well, hungry. It’s mainly created in our stomachs, but it turns out it’s not just responsible for making our tummies growl. 

Recent studies on rodents have shown something interesting: when they were given ghrelin, it made them eat more and gain weight.[1] This discovery suggests that there might be a connection between ghrelin and the restrict-binge cycle.

When we don’t eat enough, our bodies crank up the production of ghrelin, which sends signals to the brain – specifically to the hypothalamus – which plays a strong role in our appetite and metabolism.[2]

When we restrict our food intake, the hypothalamus tells our brain that it’s time to increase our metabolic efficiency to motivate us to eat.[3] This makes us feel even hungrier and triggers intense cravings. 

This is why dieting is an uphill and very hard-to-win battle! It’s no wonder that periods of calorie restriction result in binge eating: biology makes it so.

Why Does the Restrict-Binge Cycle Result in Even More Weight Gain?

The effects of ghrelin go beyond just making us want to raid the fridge. It also messes with our metabolism, which is a big factor in the restrict-binge cycle. 

When we restrict our food intake, our metabolism slows down to save energy. Sounds like an effective biological response in theory, but here’s the catch: our metabolism can stay sluggish even after the restrictive phase is over. 

After we inevitably dive into a binge after a period of restriction, our bodies are primed to hold onto those extra calories, leading to weight gain.[4] In other words, biology does not operate in a linear fashion like a math equation. Mathematically, a binge “should” cancel out a restriction, but our bodies are far more complex than that.

Instead, the biological response to restriction slows down metabolism, and then the resulting binge ends up having a bigger impact than the restriction, leading to weight gain in the long-run. This is why the dieting industry is rigged!

To put this into an example, one would assume that an 800 calorie restriction (calories we didn’t eat in order to create a deficit) would be “canceled out” by an 800 calorie binge. But if the body was in starvation mode, with the thalamus cranking up hormones that slow down metabolism and make us seek out high-reward foods, that 800 calorie binge has a far more drastic effect than normal. 

This is why the restrict-binge cycle ends up having worse consequences than if we were to binge while feeling completely relaxed and guilt-free. 

I personally felt resentful of the diet industry once I stopped dieting and ate exactly what I wanted – including those high-reward foods. In the early days, even if I overate those “bad foods,” it didn’t have nearly as much of an effect on my waistline as it did during my dieting days – and dieting was much harder! Especially on my mental health.

The Psycho-Emotional Impact of Restriction

Beyond the biological effects, restriction takes a toll on our psychological and emotional well-being too. Constantly depriving ourselves of certain foods or entire food groups can create a sense of deprivation and lead to feelings of guilt, shame, and failure when we inevitably “give in” to cravings or overeat. 

This feeds into one of the biggest psychological triggers for overeating: the desire to numb discomfort. If we have not practiced holding space for discomfort, then we may subconsciously react to negative emotion by reaching for food.

Because of this, the restrict-binge cycle needs to be viewed through a psychological lens as well. Everyone has occasional discomfort in their lives – it’s normal to feel emotions like anxiety, sadness, and stress sometimes. (Though, social media paints a picture that we are doing something very wrong when we don’t feel happy all the time, but this is another tangent for another day.)

The problem snowballs when feelings of restriction pile on top of normal feelings of discomfort – or what I like to call your “authentic discomfort,” because it arises even when you’re living your best life. (Example: going for a big career jump can naturally lead to positive feelings like self-empowerment but also negative feelings of anxiety, uncertainty, and doubt. This is normal.)

Struggling in your job or relationship sometimes is normal – authentic, even – but when we also add an unnecessary struggle with food restriction to the mix, that’s when things get out of hand. Psychologically, restriction perpetuates the restrict-binge cycle due to our need to numb discomfort and subconsciously seek relief through food.

The Minnesota Starvation Experiment: Proof of the Restrict-Binge Cycle

Let’s dig into a restrict-binge cycle example that encompasses both biological and psychological impacts of restriction: The Minnesota Starvation Experiment.[5] Carried out during World War II, this study aimed to understand what happens when we severely restrict our calories — something that happens during famines or wars when food becomes scarce.

Researchers gathered 36 healthy young men who went through a period of six months where they were put on a semi-starvation diet. They only received about half the calories they needed. This resulted in them losing a lot of weight, feeling weak, and having a slower metabolism — they sacrificed a lot for this experiment.

Furthermore, what surprised everyone was the effect that restriction had on their psychology: the guys became obsessed with food! They couldn’t stop thinking about food, talking about food, and even collecting recipes. They had constant hunger pangs and found it hard to concentrate on anything else. This is where the restrict-binge cycle showed its true colors.

After the semi-starvation phase, the participants went into a rehabilitation phase. They could finally eat as much as they wanted. And guess what? They went on eating sprees, devouring massive amounts of food in one go. 

The Minnesota Starvation Experiment taught us that when we chronically diet and restrict our food, quite frankly, it messes with our heads. We develop a primal urge to overeat when we finally have access to food, and it becomes an all-out binge. 

How to Stop Yo-Yo Dieting & Break the Restrict-Binge Cycle

Breaking free from the restrict-binge cycle requires a shift in mindset and adopting sustainable and nourishing habits. Here are some strategies to help you on your journey:

Practice Allowing All Foods

Restriction often leads to a dichotomous view of foods, labeling some as “good” and others as “bad.” This black-and-white thinking can fuel cravings and ultimately perpetuate the restrict-binge cycle. 

Instead, practice allowing all foods. Making certain foods off-limits or forbidden can create a heightened desire for them. Embracing a non-restrictive approach fosters a healthier relationship with food and reduces the likelihood of binging.

It can feel scary to allow all foods, especially if we feel gripped by the restrict-binge cycle. Trust me, I get it! Many of us get stuck in linear, mathematical thinking: “If I take away the ‘restrict’ from the restrict-binge cycle, then I will only be left with the ‘binge,’ and then I will gain weight!”

But like we proved with plenty of studies: the body does not operate in a linear fashion and it is far more complex than we give credit for. You might just be surprised by what happens when you allow all foods; you will likely get to a place where you can have one bite of dessert and stop if you’re full. 

I was once a yo-yo dieter and couldn’t fathom having one bite of a cookie and stopping — or stopping with one bite left — and I can say with full honesty that it became possible once I stopped dieting and allowed all foods (along with the other aspects of Psycho-Spiritual Wellness, my method for stopping compulsive eating).

Practice the Stop, Drop & Feel Method to Stop Binge Eating

The Stop, Drop & Feel method is a powerful tool to ease the urge to binge the psycho-emotional way. When a craving or urge to binge arises, promise yourself that you can have exactly what appeals to you once you’ve accomplished 2 minutes with the Stop, Drop, & Feel (permission is key!). 

Then, go to a separate room and drop into your body. Tune into how you’re feeling. Allow yourself to sit with your emotions without judgment or resistance (without resistance is also key!). Often, the intensity of the craving subsides – even after just 2 minutes – and the desire to binge usually subsides with it.

Again, if someone told this to me ten years ago, I might shrug it off as just another piece of fluffy advice that won’t work – but it works. It actually became the bread and butter of my psycho-spiritual approach to stopping compulsive eating. Don’t knock it until you try it!

Make Sure You’re Eating Enough

Surprisingly, eating more food – particularly if you have been undereating and restricting calories too much – is a critical solution to the restrict-binge cycle. 

However, most of us that are restricting and obsessively counting calories are trying to lose weight, so it can feel scary to eat more food – even if we’re just “breaking even” (i.e. eating the same amount that we burn). This fear could be heightened by experiences from previous restrict-binge cycles that caused us to end up even heavier than when we started.

But I would like to kindly remind you that your body does not operate in a linear fashion. Increasing the amount of food that you eat does not necessarily equate to weight gain if you truly listen to your body and eat in a balanced manner. 

Any past phases of weight gain from the restrict-binge cycle were likely exacerbated by biological responses to restriction that made you predisposed to gain weight. As you begin to eat normally without restriction, your body will get the signal that food is consistent and abundant, and it will step out of starvation mode. 

This means that your metabolism will heal and you can eat an appropriate amount of food without gaining weight. Talk to a doctor or dietitian to learn how many calories you need and what a balanced diet might look like for you.

Understanding the Biological and Psychological Cause of the Restrict-Binge Cycle

The restrict-binge cycle can feel like an endless cycle of deprivation, guilt, shame, and frustration. Hopefully, by understanding the biological and psycho-emotional impacts of restriction, you can break free and cultivate a healthier relationship with food. 

The men that participated in the Minnesota Starvation Experiment sacrificed a lot so that we could learn: there is a clear biological and psychological consequence to restriction. By embracing a compassionate and non-restrictive approach to eating, such as Psycho-Spiritual Wellness, you can overcome the restrict-binge cycle and find freedom in nourishing both body and mind.

  1. Tschöp, M et al. “Ghrelin induces adiposity in rodents.” Nature 407,6806 (2000): 908-13. doi:10.1038/35038090
  2. Timper, Katharina, and Jens C Brüning. “Hypothalamic circuits regulating appetite and energy homeostasis: pathways to obesity.” Disease models & mechanisms 10,6 (2017): 679-689. doi:10.1242/dmm.026609
  3. Derous, Davina et al. “The effects of graded levels of calorie restriction: VI. Impact of short-term graded calorie restriction on transcriptomic responses of the hypothalamic hunger and circadian signaling pathways.” Aging 8,4 (2016): 642-63. doi:10.18632/aging.100895
  4. Sumithran, Priya, and Joseph Proietto. “The defence of body weight: a physiological basis for weight regain after weight loss.” Clinical science (London, England : 1979) 124,4 (2013): 231-41. doi:10.1042/CS20120223
  5. Dulloo, Abdul G. “Physiology of weight regain: Lessons from the classic Minnesota Starvation Experiment on human body composition regulation.” Obesity reviews : an official journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity 22 Suppl 2 (2021): e13189. doi:10.1111/obr.13189

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