The placebo diet: When your diet isn’t a diet at all

Have you tried a diet that was considered a “fad diet,” but found it really worked for you? If you have, you’re not alone; many…

The placebo diet isn’t really a diet, but it explains why some fad diets really work when science says they shouldn’t. (Shutterstock)

Have you tried a diet that was considered a “fad diet,” but found it really worked for you? If you have, you’re not alone; many people go on fad diets and see success, which is why these diets remain popular for months–even years–after they hit the mainstream. After all, if they didn’t work for someone, why would they become so popular?

But when it comes to dieting, it may not be your diet at all that’s making the difference. According to some experts you may be experiencing the placebo effect, and it may be the ideals behind your diet that is really making it work for you. This explains why some diets can be successful even though they have little or no grounding in scientific fact.

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The placebo effect isn’t new; it has been noted in medicine for decades, even centuries, and it is most apparent during clinical trials between comparison groups for a new drug. During these trials, one group is administered a placebo pill, or a pill that is made of inert ingredients that will not change the body’s natural chemistry. By all laws of science, those individuals in the placebo group shouldn’t see any change in their symptoms; however, there is always a percentage of people who note a change.

“The placebo effect is most pronounced and relevant when a treatment’s success or failure depends largely on the subjective experiences of patients. That’s often the case for conditions that are defined mainly by symptoms, such as depression, and problems like migraine headaches and back pain that are defined primarily by the pain they produce,” explains materials from Harvard Medical School.  Individuals under the placebo effect experience an improvement in symptoms when there should be none.

Now, as research into the placebo effect grows, experts understand there are very real changes in the brain associated with this condition. Rigorous study has proven that a person’s perception can actually influence how they perceive pain or how successful they are when facing a challenge. This can be applied to dieting as well.

In dieting, the idea of restricting calories and bumping up exercise can be a negative thought for most people. And when you think negative, you experience negative results, according to the placebo effect. If you tie in a seemingly logical, feel-good story with your diet, though, you appeal to the brain and therefore weight loss becomes more attainable.

An example of this, according to Psychology Today’s Kirby Farrell, Ph.D., is with the notorious Paleo diet, a diet based on the premise that our caveman ancestors didn’t eat processed foods, but instead ate a diet high in fiber and meat protein. Though there is no large-scale evidence to support the theory of the Paleo diet, the story behind it seems to make sense and makes it that much more appealing. Never mind that cutting out sugar and processed food is considered a healthy lifestyle anyhow–it’s the story that draws people to the fad.

The more people believe in something, the more they see their successes as a result of that specific diet, medication, or spiritual belief.

That being said, there’s nothing wrong with believing in your diet; in fact, it may actually be what helps you lose weight. The placebo effect–though we aren’t exactly sure what’s behind it–does cause changes in the brain.

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“Research is showing that the placebo effect often seems to be associated with objective changes in brain chemistry,” states Harvard. “A number of studies have shown, for example, that the brain releases natural pain-relieving substances, called endorphins, when people enrolled in pain studies are given placebos. Research results indicate that measurable changes in brain chemistry may explain the large placebo effect seen in depression treatment. Parkinson’s disease is associated with a shortage of a brain chemical called dopamine, and in studies of the disease, placebos have increased the production of dopamine.”

So the next time you think you are having success on a fad diet, take a moment to consider how much the back story appeals to you. It could be you’re experiencing the placebo effect.