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Why You Feel Like Shit When You First Start Dieting

One of the great mysteries of life is why doing things that are good for us often feels so very bad. Yet every year, we embark upon such self-improvement efforts to tame the beasts within us for allegedly better, more optimal living.

Case in point: Among the top resolution for most people in the New Year?Getting in shape in some form or fashion — which often means eating better to lose some pounds (aka dieting). And yet, take to the internet’s health forums, and time and time again people on diets ask: If I’m eating so great, why do I feel so terrible?

In short, because your body is going into full-scale revolt from withdrawal — not just from caffeine, fat, sugar and/or salt, but from the missing dopamine that came with eating it. It can suck so badly to start eating super well if you’re used to eating badly that nutrition experts liken it to quitting smoking. Though it’s impossible to remember a pizza ever tasting bad, they argue that just as you coughed when you first tried to smoke, your body protested when you ate pizza, too. Trouble is, now it’s been so long you can’t remember, and your body thinks eating badly is normal.

Of course, you know eating better feels good in the long-term or you wouldn’t be forcing down a plate of uncooked lima beans. But eating like shit always feels better in the moment. How shitty you feel when you start eating lima beans by the bucket, though, mostly depends on two things: how big the dietary changes are and how quickly you make them.

On the vegan forum on Reddit, a commenter asks if it’s “normal to feel like shit when first starting out as a vegan?” But a quick look at the person’s dietary shift illuminates exactly why: In 48 hours, the person immediately cut out all animal products including meat, ice cream, and holy cripes, energy drinks. The commenters correctly deduce the redditor is very likely suffering from a nasty caffeine withdrawal.

Moderation is key here. If you just want to cut out red meat in an otherwise healthy eating schedule, you might find yourself craving it a lot, but it’s not like you’re going to break down shouting at strangers those first few days if you’re getting good protein from other sources.

But if you replace the junk food with just broccoli and water?

Look the fuck out friends and family — this one’s coming in bloated and pissed.

“Although reducing your intake of salt, refined sugar, fat and caffeine will undoubtedly be good for you in the long run, a drastic change in diet can lead to short-term discomfort — think grinding headaches, leaden sluggishness, embarrassing bloating and a hangry temper,” nutritionist and dietician Andrea D’Ambrosio tells The Globe and Mail about new diet side effects.

The reason, D’Ambrosio explains, is that eating tasty shit food releases dopamine, which we know is basically the body’s favorite natural high. Take that away, and you’re basically dealing with a slightly more civilized junkie. This can leave you feeling pissy or just outright sad, which is why you’re supposed to try getting off the junk the same way you would real junk—slowly and incorporating better foods over time. That means maybe just eating a high-fiber breakfast with protein, she says, or snacking on things like bananas or peanut butter and apples to thwart cravings.

Then, it cannot be overstated, drink lots of water (but not like, a crazy amount) to keep everything flushing through.

Another drastic diet rookie mistake: mainlining too much fiber. Suddenly piling on the broccoli, kale and other fruits and vegetables can lead to major constipation, or what I like to call the “hot farts,” or the fun other end of the spectrum—straight-up, no-holds-barred, shut-it-all-down, end-of-the-day, going-home-early-from-work diarrhea. Again, moderation is your friend: Only increase fiber at a steady uptick.

“The number one thing I always hear about transitioning to a healthier diet is bloating, gas and having an upset stomach,” nutritionist Jaclyn London told Good Housekeeping recently about the initial side effects of eating well. Part of that, she explains, is that you’ve lost the “instantaneous uppers,” of sugar and caffeine and fat, and now you’re crashing hard. “When you eat healthier, your body will slowly give off more sustained energy over time,” London says.

London also recommends, unsurprisingly, to double your water intake and hurry up and wait. “After a few weeks,” she advises, “you’ll feel better overall.”

While eating tons more fiber or taking away large amounts of sugar are extreme in their own way, there are also the really extreme diets in general, the kind that make reducing sugar look like a cakewalk.

That diet du jour is probably the keto diet, which is a lot like the carb-restrictive Atkins Diet, but for people who think that the Atkins Diet is for fucking wimps. It’s almost all the fat you want in exchange for none of the carbs, which causes the body to go into a state of ketogenesis. You stop eating carbs, which deprives your brain of glucose, which makes your body kick over to other sources to make its own sugars. That creates something called ketones, and more of those burns more fat. At Men’s Health they liken it to a hybrid car that drains the gas and then flips over to run on electricity. To do so, 60 to 80 percent of your diet would come from fat, 10 to 15 percent protein and 10 percent from carbs, which they note is about half a bagel.

But dropping carbs that fast comes at very high price: There’s feeling like general shit, but there’s also something called “keto flu” or the “low carb blues,” which nutritionist Yoni Freedhoff tells Globe and Mail, feels like, well, the flu: nausea, fatigue, mental fog and even dehydration — for weeks. Probably the real culprit is you’re just literally starving, so Freedhoff, like all these experts, recommends slowing it down and instead just making “realistic” changes.

Other so-called elimination diets — e.g., deciding all of the sudden to go gluten-free (especially when you don’t actually have Celiac’s disease), or eliminating all processed foods or dairy—can also cause a host of fast side effects: bloating/farts, constipation or diarrhea are typical. A good rule to follow is that the quicker the fix, the shittier the side effects. If you’re going to only consume 800 calories, can you really get mad when you get dizzy and have bad breath, and then later on, pick up some osteoporosis?

Use common sense people.

Then there’s another annoying side effect: You actually get through eating all this healthy shit, and then, boom, you get a cold. Research shows calorie restriction can lower your immune system.

Even worse? You manage to conquer a major diet change, but then you actually RUIN junk food for yourself forever. Say you finish a Whole 30 diet, eating only whole foods for a month, then proudly treat yourself to something from your old life like ice cream, a slice of pizza or a Big Mac. Only instead of being in carb/fat/sugar/salt heaven, you feel like utter shit. This happens to some people every time they have a cheat meal. Nutritionists warn that returning to the old eating habits can not only derail all the progress, but also just feel bad, giving you a “Charlie Sheen” style hangover on par with the same one you got withdrawing from those foods in the first place.

Pretty cool huh?

Of course, let’s not fail to mention what happens when you stick with a good plan for optimal eating: More consistent energy, greater health, weight loss, looking better, feeling better and actually being healthier.

But to do that, you don’t need any diet. BuzzFeed just reported on an increasing number of nutritionists and dietitians who increasingly choose to fully reject dieting as the gospel for achieving health. They avoid elimination diets for their clients unless directly related to food allergies, and otherwise focus entirely on promoting positive relationships with food and health that have almost nothing to do with your weight.

Not that it’s bad to lose weight, of course, if that’s what you want. It’s just, before you go nuts on a crazy new diet, consider that, these days, making slow, positive, incremental changes to how you eat — without even cutting out anything you really love eating — will do exactly the same thing, without all the shitty side effects.