Weight loss strategies, stress, and cognitive function: supervised versus unsupervised dieting

Michael W. Green*, Nicola A. Elliman, Mary J. Kretsch

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The early stages of dieting to lose weight have been associated with neuro-psychological impairments. Previous work has not elucidated whether these impairments are a function solely of unsupported or supported dieting. Raised cortico-steroid levels have been implicated as a possible causal mechanism. Healthy, overweight, pre-menopausal women were randomised to one of three conditions in which they dieted either as part of a commercially available weight loss group, dieted without any group support or acted as non-dieting controls for 8 weeks. Testing occurred at baseline and at 1, 4 and 8 weeks post baseline. During each session, participants completed measures of simple reaction time, motor speed, vigilance, immediate verbal recall, visuo-spatial processing and (at Week 1 only) executive function. Cortisol levels were gathered at the beginning and 30 min into each test session, via saliva samples. Also, food intake was self-recorded prior to each session and fasting body weight and percentage body fat were measured at each session. Participants in the unsupported diet condition displayed poorer vigilance performance (p=0.001) and impaired executive planning function (p=0.013) (along with a marginally significant trend for poorer visual recall (p=0.089)) after 1 week of dieting. No such impairments were observed in the other two groups. In addition, the unsupported dieters experienced a significant rise in salivary cortisol levels after 1 week of dieting (p<0.001). Both dieting groups lost roughly the same amount of body mass (p=0.011) over the course of the 8 weeks of dieting, although only the unsupported dieters experienced a significant drop in percentage body fat over the course of dieting (p=0.016). The precise causal nature of the relationship between stress, cortisol, unsupported dieting and cognitive function is, however, uncertain and should be the focus of further research. © 2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)908-918
Number of pages11
Issue number9
Early online date20 Jun 2005
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2005


  • cognitive function
  • cortisol
  • dieting
  • stress
  • vigilance
  • weight loss
  • women
  • working memory


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