Deprivation and mental strain

According to the article “The Mental Strain of Making Do With Less” by Sendhil Mullainathan, dieting is good for the waistline, but bad for mental capacity. It turns out that all the effort people put into trying to maintain their diet takes up precious brain power and makes them a bit distracted and a bit stupid.

And, it’s not because of a lack of brain food:

One particularly clever study went further. It tested how dieters and nondieters reacted to eating a chocolate bar. Even though the bar provided calories, eating it widened the bandwidth gap between dieters and nondieters. Nondieters ate and moved on, but dieters started wondering how to make up for the calories they had just ingested or, even more fundamentally, pondered, “Why did I eat the bar?”

So, mental capacity isn’t necessarily being affected physiologically. Instead, dieting has psychological effects. As the author put it: “There is a paradox here: diets create mental conditions that make it hard to diet.”

The really interesting thing about this article is that it didn’t stop there and just leave it as a diet article. The author extended that logic and the research to show us that this kind of effect can be seen in a lot of other deprived populations. The poor, for example:

Some people argue that the poor make terrible choices and do so because they are inherently less capable. But our analysis of scarcity suggests a different perspective: perhaps the poor are just as capable as everyone else. Perhaps the problem is not poor people but the mental strain that poverty imposes on anyone who must endure it.

So, poor people are in a vicious circle of making bad choices that prevent them from getting ahead and being deprived so that they can’t make better choices.

They also looked at some farmers (in a community where the farmers are paid at harvest and are struggling to make ends meet by the time harvest comes around the next year):

We measured farmers’ mental function — on what psychologists call fluid intelligence and executive control — one month before and one month after harvest. And the effects were large: preharvest I.Q., for example, was lower by about nine to 10 points, which in a common descriptive classification is the distance between “average” and “superior” intelligence.

According to the author, missing a full night of sleep has the same effect.

So, research about people trying to diet gives us a new perspective on poor people and gives us another reason to give them a little extra understanding.

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. The diversity of these behaviors — combined with the size of the measurable effects — suggests a very different way to interpret the choices and behaviors of the poor.

Of course, for poor people, the only way out is to get a little help or a little luck. Dieters, on the other hand, can use this research to their advantage. If you really want to diet, stick with one that’s easy and takes less mental capacity to follow:

…economizing on bandwidth — can be used in dieting. Take the Atkins diet, which effectively bans many foods, including bread and a lot of desserts. A ban is less complex than the trade-offs and calorie accounting required by many other diets. While all diets require self-control, Atkins requires less thinking. This might explain its popularity, and even its effectiveness: a recent study shows that people persist longer with diets that require less thought.

That said, I tend to avoid diets. The science isn’t behind them, especially not ones where you completely restrict certain food groups (your brain needs carbs for fuel!). They can have great short term effects, but unless you make a lifelong change (i.e., diet forever), they don’t have long term success. Also, you’re sending your body mixed messages if you start a new diet and increase your fitness at the same time. I know that’s what the magazines are telling you to do, but it’s a silly idea. Essentially, you’re telling your body, “Hey, I’m going to make you work harder, but I’m also going to give you less fuel.” Where’s the logic in that?

4 thoughts on “Deprivation and mental strain

  1. As someone who is increasingly in need of a ‘diet’ the idea of deprivation is the main thing that puts me off. As my bf says the best kind of diet is just eat less and move more. Trick is not to overthink it I guess. But you gotta fool yourself it to believing its a good idea! b.x


    • Yes. Deprivation is the hardest thing with diets and it often leads people to thinking that they’re “cheating” every time they eat something other than lettuce, which leads to a whole host of issues. But, that said, I think (from what I’ve been reading) that a lot of it is restrictions that we self impose and which are based on the messages we keep getting from the diet industry/etc., which are largely questionable. Look at diet food: a guy in Australia ate “healthy” foods for 3 months and gained weight because of all the sugar.

      Since freeing myself from the bonds of the diet and fitness industry (see my latest post), I’ve been following advice from Yoni Freedhoff (Canadian obesity expert). I am tracking what I eat (maybe not every morsel, but most) via an app. I err on the side of mostly healthy foods, but I don’t strive for perfection and I don’t eat things I don’t like just because they’re healthy (like kale – yuck!). I don’t use exercise as a weight loss tool, which means that I no longer stress about doing fitness things that I hate or that I’m not good at (like running). Yesterday, I ate candy twice and still (just barely) stayed within my calorie targets without depriving myself (I just had slightly less fish and fruit with my dinner compared to usual).

      For the record, exercise has very little to do with weight loss. Based on all I’ve read, eating is the thing to adjust. Unless you’re doing really intense exercise for a long time each day, it won’t actually make a big difference. In fact, some obesity experts are now trying to encourage people to re-brand exercise as a health tool (general health, like blood pressure, better sleep, etc.) and not a weight loss tool.


    • Absolutely, I agree. And as to the exercise thing, I think I need to do it for health reasons rather than any hope that it might effect weighloss- it’s just generally good for you and I don’t do enough. Sounds like you are really cutting through the crap of this weighloss thing. I’m glad you are publishing your findings , as it were. p.s that app sounds like a great idea. I think i need one!


    • I’m trying really hard to get to the truth and I’m glad people are finding it useful.

      There are so many great food tracking apps out there. I use My Fitness Pal because it’s free, relatively simple to use, and has a matching website (which, in retrospect, I actually use far more often). It also syncs with my Fitbit, which means that it adjusts how much I can eat based on how much I’ve been active, which is super useful.

      Liked by 1 person

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