Fat Fiction Fat, lies and measuring tape

29Feb/121

What happens when you stop eating? Rise of hunger pt 2

Hungry chicks

If fat people need to eat less, and body fat is a source of fuel, why do fat people need to eat anything at all? Wouldn’t they just be best of starving themselves until they fit back in the same jeans they wore when they were in their late teens? In the 1960s and 70s, that’s exactly how they treated obesity – bed rest and a bit of chicken broth. So why the sudden need for diet industries, diet foods, diet obsessions and diet doctors? It can’t all be driven by the circulation of the Daily Mail. Whatever happened with the obvious way of dieting – to stop eating?

According to common dietary lore, fat people need to eat less and move faster. And if you’ve ever seen Biggest Loser where contestants compete to lose weight the fastest, that’s exactly what they prescribe – phenomenal amounts of exercise and revamped diets. But not usually no food whatsoever. So are they missing a trick?  Why is everyone making it so difficult?

Starvation diets

Before you look at overeating, look first at undereating. If you take the average weighted man or woman, what happens when they starve?

Experiments like this are pretty obviously unethical but it’s all relative. Back in the 1944, they were more pressing concerns, and how to deal with war-ravaged famine victims trumped discomfort of volunteers. And so, the Minnesota Starvation Experiments were born, led by none other than Ancel Keys. Patients were observed eating normally, followed by a 6 month period in which their calories were halved. The resulting book, the Biology of Human Starvation is a phenomenal two volumes, but a solid summary can be found here.

Physically, the patients became physically weak,  metabolism declined by 40%, endurance by 50%, strength by 10%, pulses slowed and their core body temperatures dropped. Hair thinned and dropped out, sexual appetite disappeared, they started hallucinating, they lost concentration. And that’s just the manageable parts. More interesting still is the mental effects. They became selfish, with wild mood swings, introverted and depressed. They lost their ambition, drive and their humour became caustic and sarcastic. So much so, Keys concluded that “starved people cannot be taught democracy”, because the drive for food is so strong and all consuming, that nothing else matters.

Weight yo-yoing

But you cry, did they lose weight? Of course they did, but along with a significant amount of muscle mass. However, when they were presented at the end of the experiment with as much food as they could possibly eat, they returned back to their former weight plus 10%. And over time, that extra 10% fell back to their original body weight (the infamous body ‘set point’). This is key – everyone returned to their body set points. The set point wasn’t changed by starvation, it remained exactly the same. No willpower, nothing. With sufficient food supply, bodies all returned to their natural set points.

Keys was confident that calorie restriction was not an effective way forward for dieting back in 1944. Yet in the 1960s, his research was ignored and ‘common sense’ took over, and calorie restriction became all the rage. Fat people were told in no uncertain terms to stop eating. And it worked to a point, until the patients started dying of heart attacks. Nutritional deficiencies have been long cited as the cause. No surprise – zinc and magnesium deficiency and the resulting excess copper and iron have been linked to heart attacks for decades and here.

As a result, by the late 1970s, with links firmly established doctors were told in no uncertain terms that starvation was not an appropriate method of dieting, but it still lives on as the fallback method of losing a few extra pounds because it... well it works doesn't it?

And while it does work, it’s just not very effective. Not because you don’t lose weight – as you’d imagine, as the Minessota experiments show, of course you do. But you just return to the former weight afterwards. In fact, it seems like shabby news for dieters, because as this study points out, in virtually all diets, the “great majority of subjects return to baseline weight”. And yes, that’s with low calorie diets, diets following standard diabetic advice from the ADA, and a high protein Dukan diet (known as protein-sparing modified fast). They also point out “exercise alone had little effect on weight”, in case you were still labouring under the illusion that the moving faster was the key to weight loss.

So, if diets are only temporary fixes, and our set points determine the true size of our bodies, why bother with changing anything? Once someone gets fat, will they always revert to being fat? Accordingly to the fairly grim research, we’re all doomed to look like teletubbies, except there’s a few glaring omissions that changes the story.

More soon ... sooner than last time.

Posts, research and more

Incidentally, you may have noticed that I’m vying to win an award for the longest amount of time between posts. Unlike Chris Beardsley at Garage Gym, who since I started blogging has without fail produced a post every day. Every single day. Not only that, but he regularly reviews all of the latest research, meaning that I can read it, act all knowledgeable, and pass it off as me being clever. He dropped me a line to say he’s launching a monthly review service of all things sports science and it looks to be just as thorough and well informed as his posts. If you’re into strength, fitness or training, this is a must read at their new  Strength and Conditioning site.

Hungry chicks picture from over here

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  1. we want more, please write more often


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