For years I've studied metabolism and when I worked at Virgin Active Gym I went against the grain and tried with all my might to educate the members that low calorie was not the answer. People frequently displayed seriously low resting metabolic rates (kcal/kg/24 hrs), showing serious symptoms of dysfunction. From low calorie to low carb, glycemic index and the atkins, and even metabolic typing (which I sadly used during my time with the CHEK institute). No matter what the diet calorie restriction was always a factor, often unintentionally. Even when I took people from these weird and wonderful diets to try and educate them about listening to their hunger, they still continued to restrict. It amazed me quite how indoctrinated the nation is when it comes to energy intake.
At Virgin I took part in my notorious anti-diet diet, consuming 6000 kcals a day to prove that I wouldn't put on weight as long as I maintained consistency. (i.e regular meals at regular times plus reguular intake). I also put a client (my boss) on a high calorie (by normal standards) diet and watched as everything I wanted to happen unfolded right before my eyes. I performed many so-called over-feeding experiments on myself to avoid ethical issues and due to wanting to see the results first hand. I ended up seriously "underweight" at around 10 st (I'm now 11 1/2 st). After the year experiment (I always did a year for my experiments), my point was proved and I fully expected clients to listen to reason having watched me go through a year of "over-feeding" by normal standards. Like the 1944 experiment, my hard work went largely unnoticed in a gym obsessed with reducing food consumption and upping energy expenditure to maintain a negative balance. The few clients that understood the logic and trusted me are still lean and healthy to this day.
Thirty six men were selected who were all conscientious objectors to the war. They were intelligent, psychologically stable and physically healthy. Intrestingly they were my weight and height (5' 10" and 75 kg prior to my own experiments), and for the first three months of the study the men received 3200 kcals a day to standardize their intakes. After this initial period intakes dropped to 1800 kcals per day, a figure not uncommon in many diet and fitness circles. Frequently people consider this amount to be high. Just last week we saw recommendations to cut an calories by 15-20% (no mention was made of the safe starting point, and I have recently also had an email from a woman whose lighterlife "consultant" took her as low 250 kcals a day. So whilst Key's considered this low, most would not dare consume so much, let alone call it a diet.
At the same time they were expected to walk 22 miles each week (they could split this up over days and make use of treadmills or outdoors walking), and also ensure that they expended 3009 kcals, which again isn't something uncommon in todays gym obsessed world, I only have to look out of my window during the day to catch of jogging. Obviously, as you can see from the picture above, they became skeletal from the effect of this 'enforced' lifestyle. You do see some people that have the insane willpower to do this but they are never well, luckily for most of us, we can't get to the extremes that the Minnesota Starvation Experiment (MSE) did. For a start, they were kept under strict lab conditions, yet we are surrounded by an abundance of food, is it any wonder we crack and can't stick to the lifestyle that weightwatchers want us to? Due to the absence of a lab environment diet groups tend to impliment behavour modifications to attempt to get us to comply and avoid compensatory behaviours.
When being starved they began to see many of the symptoms that are typical today in our energy restricted world. Libedo was at an all time low, which is something Max Kampelman (one of the subjects) reported, 'I can tell you, the sex drive disappeared. There was none.' I've lost count of the time I've heard clients telling me that a partner has no interest in sex, followed by bragging that they finally have them on a low calorie diet. Nobody seems to join up the dots.
So, what can we expect to see from entering periods of low calorie diets such as 1800 kcals and very low calorie diets (VLCD). If we learn from Ancel Keys work in The Biology of Human Starvation, (which if your commited to reading 1385 pages is avaialable in my healthCHEK store, or if you do fancy a look but aren't quite up to 1385 pages then try the PDF file attached at the bottom of this post) we see a host of problems caused by starvation/being low calorie (yes once again 1800 is low).
• Decreased heart volume
• Slowed pulse rate (and almost certainly low body temperature and raised cortisol)
• Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) reduced by 40% over expected norms. Just what you need if you are concerned about weight!!
• Voluntary movements became slower. Your thyroid is regulating (slowing) your energy expenditure.
• Subjects felt and acted older
• Increase in apathy and depression.
• Sensitivity to noise. The body is overloaded and doesn't have enough energy to cope.
• General feeling of ineffectiveness.
• Loss of ambition and narrowing of interests. We no doubt conserve ourselves for important actions.
• Increased neuroticism and hysteria.
• Almost 20% of the subjects suffered severe “character neuroses” and 2 bordered on both violent and hysteria psychoses. We've all been a little bit hangry at times haven't we?
• Increased interest and preoccupation with food (talking, preparing, making meals last longer using a variety of methods such as sucking food).
• Heightened craving for food. Is it any wonder when we starve ourselves.
• Became possessive about food.
• Increased gum chewing, smoking, drinking of coffee and tea, and nail biting which also links in well with increased cortisol secretion.
• Purchased useless items and/or hoarded money. Clothes, foods, shoes, handbags, I see it all.
• Some escaped and binged with feelings of guilt (some followed by vomiting)
• Responsiveness, tolerance, happiness, and good humor gradually disappeared, very irritable and with only sarcastic humor remaining, venture on any facebook diet/fasting group for examples.
• Reluctance to participate in group activities. Not wanting to go to work etc and when they do resorting to the above.
• Self-centered and egocentric
• Food central topic of conversation, such as the need to cut back, avoid foods, craving cake or chocolate and discussing it with ones friends.
• Not able to control emotions, tears, tantrums, anger are all hard to control on a LCD.
Take a look at those symptoms, and if you're on, or have been on a LCD, either intentionally or not, tell me you've not suffered from them?
The men were split into 4 groups, and each of the groups received a different re-feeding kcal amount, ranging from one group that was unrestricted, to the lowest group at 2200 kcals. It was noted by Keys that to fully rehabilitate the body 4000 kcals daily was necessary, and that it would take this abundance of calories to restore normal function. Even supplementing with vitamins and minerals was of little use with out a great quantity of food.
Effects of Re-feeding the groups
• Still overly concerned with food which was understandable.
• Many became even more irritable, depressed and argumentative.
• Still suffering from a slump in morale and maintained the loss of interest in previous activities
• Thirst increased
• Hunger pains more intense
• Appetites insatiable, even in the highest kcal group
• Continued to eat even when full as the body seems determined to get what it can, while it can (fear)
• Gained fat tissue rapidly (fat returned rather than muscle) as the body wants to protect itself and ensure it has safe reserves.
• Lean tissue recovered more slowly (lack of muscle) as it is more important to store energy first in case you encounter starvation again, which most dieters do when they yo yo on and off diets.
Free access to food group
• Ate an average of 5,212 kcals, a massive amount when compared to the 3200 kcals they consumed prior to starvation.
• Ate nearly continuously, then slept or ate again.
• Slow increase of social behavior at meals
• As time passed they all felt nearly normal with food
• 10 of 14 were beginning to eating normal amounts
• Slowly humour and sociability returned, we have all been grumpy when hungry haven't we?
Losing weight isn't about starving yourself thin, and despite what people seem to think, 1800 kcals is semi-starvation. Fat storage is an emergency response by the hormonal systems of the body to protect you from the repeated deprivations and stresses it is exposed to. Wise up and eat some food, even better learn your unique energy needs and eat accordingly.
So, how does the body do this? Leptin is a hormone which is found in our adipose tissue (fat tissue in case you're wondering) that tells our brain (the hypothalamus to be exact), all about the environment around us and the current condition of our reserves for dealing with the environment. Think about it logically, the body has to have someway of deciding how much energy to expend or it runs the risk of grinding to a halt (death). You may have said it yourself, or you may of heard somebody else claiming to have a 'naturally' low resting metabolic rate, so it is not 'their fault'. It is not physically possible to be at the surrender of an ominous metabolic rate that leaves you overweight no matter what you do. It simply responds to the environment we put it in. Yes we do see babies born overweight, and kids that seemingly have a "genetically" low metabolic rate, but, during the final 3 months of pregnancy a baby is preparing to support itself and live outside the womb. To do this it needs to learn about its imminent environment. Is it being born into a famine such as Ethiopia, or an abundance of energy.
Take a few minutes to consider the typical western mums diet. Probably attempting to eat low calorie prior to conception, maybe even during, and often consuming processed foods that are high in vegetable oils. We also see skipped meals, lack of care in maintaining a regular supply of energy to the body despite a growing baby to feed and care for. Is it any wonder kids may be born with an adapted metabolic rate (it is working, you just told it a famine is going on) only to find out that food is in abundance. Some of these kids may find some balance, but others may be commited to the same cycle of endless dieting in an effort to lose weight. All while claiming they can't help having a 'low metabolic rate.'
Back to leptin, when we encounter a famine our body fat stores will more than likely decrease. Leptin steps in and signals to slow down the rate at which we use our energy in order to preserve energy (store body fat at every given opportunity). To do this our body temperature and pulse rate will reduce, our energy levels will drop and we feel begin to feel more tired/fatigued (although stress hormones may negate this aspect initially). It's almost as if the body wishes to hibernate, at the same time we become ravenous and the body will signal to eat anything and everything you can, which we frequently blame on weak willpower.
Interestingly when our fat stores increase, leptin tells us that the famine is over, and that body temperature, pulse rate and energy levels can return towards optimal (i.e we can attempt to expend energy at our optimal rate). Except for most this increase in fat stores means one thing...time to diet.
So does that calorie controlled diet still seem like a good idea? Probably not, but what should you do? Well I don't suggest starting a 6000 cal per day diet.
Firstly, if you intend on doing a refeed, you have to accept fat gain as an almost inevitable part of the deal. You did the damage and the quickest rehabilitation amongst Key's groups was those that ate with no restrictions. Factors to consider are that again this is real life, not lab conditions, you potentially have many diets under your belt, so recovery may take longer than those in the experiment.
A wiser approach would be to assess your current Resting Metabolic Rate and set a plan to gradually raise it over time. Potentially raising your RMR by consuming as little as 200 calories more per day than your actual needs. Not as dramatic a recovery but less risky in terms of psychological welfare for lieflong dieters.