Starvation Diets, Epic Failure

My nephew has asked me for help. I love being helpful, I love being the knowledgable one, but it can be frustrating. The problem with recommending dietary changes is that it involves change. My nephew is a very large man, and by large I mean that his frame would be suited very well for an NFL lineman. He gets it from his dad. Also like his dad, he is very heavy. I haven’t asked him to calculate his body mass index, but I am sure that it would be a high number, if not obese then close to it.

The advice I gave him is simple. Eat bacon and eggs for breakfast. Eat fatty meats and leafy greens. Don’t eat any carbs. His objections were typical:

“Why am I eating bacon to get healthy? And eggs are Ok?”

“That’s so backwards to the typical line of thinking to me. The whole butter, lard and bacon thing.”

“So what’s the big deal with fruit? Tropical primates who eat fruit year round live very long lives.”

The really good diet advice out there is fighting upstream against all of the really bad advice out there. Yesterday in the New York Times my dietary hero, Gary Taubes, has an op-ed piece about scientific studies and hasty conclusions drawn from them. Hastily conducted studies are used to extrapolate their results, which has led to the bad advice we are given on what foods are healthy.

The bad advice is to cut calories and cut fat. There are only three classes of food your body can use–fat, carbs and protein. The normal restricted diet advice is to cut the calories you eat. Barnes and Noble shelves are lined with ideas on how to do it…”Smoothies for Weight Loss”, “The Mayo Clinic Diet”, the “South Beach Diet.” Almost all diets begin by telling you that you gain weight by eating more calories than you need. Some tell you that eating fat is more potent than eating carbs because there is more energy in an ounce of fat than in an ounce of carbohydrate. All of the fad diets assume that all a person has to do to lose weight is reduce the energy input to below the daily energy output level, and the weight will just peel off.

It is bad advice because the human organism is not a mechanical device, it is a chemical process. Most of the levels of hormones and critical statistics are tightly regulated by your body. Your blood sugar must stay between 70 and 130 mg/dl. If it spikes after you eat carbohydrates your systems all kick in to get it back in range. Hormones are created that force sugar into your muscles, organs and fat cells. If your sugar stays too high for too long it causes damage–it’s what is wrong with having diabetes. If you starve yourself, likewise your body does not just run along as though nothing is happening, it makes changes to compensate…

TOWARD the end of the Second World War, researchers at the University of Minnesota began a legendary experiment on the psychology and physiology of human starvation — and, thus, on hunger. The subjects were 36 conscientious objectors, some lean, some not. For 24 weeks, these men were semi-starved, fed not quite 1,600 calories a day of foods chosen to represent the fare of European famine areas: “whole-wheat bread, potatoes, cereals and considerable amounts of turnips and cabbage” with “token amounts” of meat and dairy.

It’s not new science that if starved animals will lose weight. After 6 months of being given not enough food there will be lost weight, but the whole 6 months would be torture…

The men lost an average of a pound of body fat a week over the first 12 weeks, but averaged only a quarter-pound per week over the next 12, despite the continued deprivation. And this was not their only physiological reaction. Their extremities swelled; their hair fell out; wounds healed slowly. They felt continually cold; their metabolism slowed.

The body reacts poorly to starvation. Weight loss slows because the organism defends it’s target weight. The metabolism and lethargy are effected so that energy can be used to keep the weight up.

More troubling were the psychological effects. The men became depressed, lethargic and irritable. They threw tantrums. They lost their libido. They thought obsessively about food, day and night. The Minnesota researchers called this “semi-starvation neurosis.” Four developed “character neurosis.” Two had breakdowns, one with “weeping, talk of suicide and threats of violence.” He was committed to the psychiatric ward. The “personality deterioration” of the other “culminated in two attempts at self-mutilation.” He nearly detached the tip of one finger and later chopped off three with an ax.

I can’t imagine what it would be like to think about food day and night. Read the reviews of dieters for their favorite fad diet books “great for the determined dieter.” This kind of dieting, restricting calories and fats, is a masochistic endeavor. Either you enjoy the torture or you quit early. Failing to lose weight is all your fault, you are defective, not determined, insufficiently motivated.

Not really. The advice is awful. It is possible to cut all of the carbs out of your diet and replace them with fats, resulting in no hunger. People eating like carnivores are not hungry all the time–hardly ever, in fact. They don’t suffer from loss of energy, foggy brains, loss of hair. They aren’t miserable, because they aren’t hungry. Hunger is a symptom that you aren’t eating right, even if you aren’t on a diet.

I sit here now more than twelve hours since dinner, having had two cups of coffee and I am not yet hungry. In a few minutes I will make myself two slices of bacon and two fried eggs. That small breakfast will take me safely to lunch without snacking. Dinner will be six hours or more after that, and I will not be hungry for the whole six hours. I won’t be hitting the chips. I won’t have any idea how many calories I eat today, because that number doesn’t matter if you just eat meat.

I refuse to torture myself to lose weight, not because I am not motivated to lose weight, but because it wouldn’t work anyway. As soon as semi-starvation is over, people who try it go back to eating to combat hunger and the weight comes back quickly. It’s because that is the way your chemical body is designed. If a dieter were to instead only eat fat and protein when they can eat all they want they would find that the weight does not roar back.

Much of the obesity research for the past century has focused on elucidating behavioral techniques that could induce the obese to eat less, tolerate hunger better, and so, by this logic, lose weight. The obesity epidemic suggests that it has failed.

The obesity, diabetes, fatty liver disease, high blood pressure and heart disease epidemics prove that it has failed. We are a hungry nation, made worse by the ever-present horrible advice we are getting about what to do about it…”take your medicine just lose weight”.

About dcarmack

I am an instrument technician at the electric utility servicing the Kansas City Missouri metropolitan area. I am in the IBEW, Local 412. I was trained to be a nuclear power plant operator in the USN and served on submarines. I am a Democrat, even more so than those serving in Congress or the White House.
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