You snap at coworkers for no reason. You feel bitter every time your thin friends order dessert. You beat yourself up after losing an hour-long standoff with a chocolate chip cookie.
Dropping extra pounds is supposed to make you healthier and happier, but it doesn't always feel that way. Dieting may actually cause chronic stress and anxiety, according to a study at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Here are four signs of diet-induced anxiety, plus some simple fixes to help you lose weight without losing your mind.
1. You beat yourself up for giving in to a craving.
The cause: You may have set unrealistic goals. If you set your expectations too high -- trying to lose 20 pounds in one month or vowing never to eat chocolate again -- you're likely to slip up and feel defeated and hopeless.
The fix: Make it as easy as possible to achieve small successes on a regular basis, says Marlene Schwartz, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and deputy director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. For example, if you set a goal to lose 10 pounds before your class reunion, you only get one chance to succeed. On the other hand, if you set a goal to avoid the office vending machine, you will find opportunities every day to pat yourself on the back. Plus, focusing on accomplishments builds confidence. "Research shows that the more you believe you can lose weight, the more likely you are to actually do it," Schwartz says.
2. Your stress skyrockets, though nothing has changed.
The cause: You're dieting alone. In a study at Aston University in Birmingham, England, dieters who didn't receive social support showed significantly higher stress-hormone levels than those assigned to a group weight loss program. "A lack of guidance as well as a lack of empathy is likely responsible," says Mike Green, Ph.D., lead author of the study.
The fix: Commercial programs such as Weight Watchers and eDiets offer solid nutrition advice as well as a we're-all-in-this-together feeling. Existing social groups can also help -- rally your friends and family as your cheerleading squad. "Emphasize how important it is to you to make these lifestyle changes, then offer specific examples of what kind of encouragement will help and what won't," says Beth Casey Gold, R.D., director of corporate programming for Vtrim, an online weight loss program developed by the University of Vermont in Burlington. For example, compliments on your improving figure are helpful, but discouraging looks when you reach for seconds are not.
3. You make smart remarks to others about food.
The cause: You are skimping on key nutrients. Drastically cutting carbohydrates may lead to increased feelings of anger, tension, and depression -- side effects some researchers call the Atkins attitude. "The body needs carbs to produce serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain that regulates mood, emotions, sleep, and appetite," says weight loss expert Judith Wurtman, Ph.D. "When you significantly reduce your intake of carbohydrates, the body makes less serotonin, and it becomes difficult for you to be patient or control your anger." Other deficiencies that may contribute to depression include a lack of omega-3 fatty acids, which could result from cutting foods such as nuts, fish, and oil. Insufficient intake of vitamins B6, B12, and folate also may cause depression and mood swings.
The fix: Grab a whole grain snack such as whole wheat toast or popcorn. Aim for at least 130 grams of carbohydrate per day, the minimum required to maintain optimal brain function, according to the National Academy of Science's Food and Nutrition Board. Two servings of fatty fish per week plus a handful of walnuts a day provides ample omega-3 fatty acids. Consider taking a multivitamin as insurance against other deficiencies.
4. You see diet-breaking temptation at every corner.
The cause: You are making temporary diet changes instead of adopting permanent healthy habits. Dieting with an end in sight -- "only two more weeks of carrot sticks and I'm a free woman" -- focuses your attention on foods you can't eat and makes you feel deprived. With this attitude, each new diet jolts your system, and you suffer through several months of agony.
The fix: "Gradually incorporate small changes that you'll stick with for life," Schwartz says. Deciding to replace your afternoon potato chip fix with a piece of fruit isn't nearly as traumatizing as banning every form of bread. Instead of shunning foods to cut calories, focus on what you'll add to your diet to stay satisfied and improve your health. For example, if you have two kiwifruits after dinner when you'd normally have a cup of ice cream, you could lose 10 pounds in six months without breaking into tears every time you pass an ice cream shop.