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    Starvation Diets

    A friend recently told Alice that she is on a calorie-restrictive diet in order to lose weight.  Basically, this friend is consuming about 1000-1200 calories per day in an attempt to reduce the number she sees on the scale.  Just last year, I had a friend tell me that she was eating 3 salads a day - less than 1000 calories - as her regular diet.  The most extreme example of a starvation diet was the acquaintance who told us that he was limiting himself to one apple and one banana per DAY.

    It's apparent that there is a pervasive mindset in our culture that causes people to believe that starvation is a viable means to dropping pounds.  People appear to believe that restricting calories is good, so restricting MORE calories is better.

    Nothing could be further from the truth.

    Myth - It's the number on the scale that is important - the smaller the better.
    Reality - Weight and fitness are independent measures of overall health.  Thus, a smaller number on the scale isn't automatically an indicator of better health.  When a dieter restricts calories as in the examples above (an apple and a banana??), they will see a smaller number on the scale, but not as a result of fat loss.  Muscle depletion is an inevitable result of caloric deprivation, making the body feel weak and sluggish.  As more and more muscle mass is depleted, the scale weight will go down, but at the expense of overall wellness.  If weakness and fatigue are your goals, then a calorie restrictive diet is the way to get there.  Otherwise, a balanced approach to eating and exercising will yield a much better result.

    Remember, starving third-world children and victims of amorexia would see small numbers on the scale.  No one would mistake their conditions for being healthy.

    Myth - Calorie restrictive diets will get me to my goal weight faster.
    Reality - Calorie restrictive diets slow the metabolism to a crawl, resulting in slower weight loss.  The body is an efficient machine that is very perceptive of its environment.  When calories are restricted to starvation levels the body switches into a mode that will get the most benefit possible from the reduced calorie intake.  In other words, the body shuts down to a crawl in order to utilize as few calories as possible.  The result is near-impossible weight loss and extreme fatigue.

    Myth - I can calorie restrict for a while to lose weight and then resume normal eating.
    Reality - You can, but the bounce-back effect will actually cause weight gain.  When the body is starved, it powers itself by using available resources from the muscles.  This fuel is used to power essential functions like the heart, brain, and organs while leaving the muscles to wait for future resources.  Once normal eating resumes, the "extra" food fuel is grabbed out of the bloodstream and quickly crammed into every available space in anticipation of another famine.  The result (bounce back) is a heavier body with a slow metabolism.  To avoid this problem, a balanced approach to eating is required.

    Myth - Calorie restrictive diets are generally safe.
    Reality - Calorie restrictive diets can result in a variety of physiologic, emotional, and social disorders.  Dieters that have reduced their food intake to starvation levels may suffer from such problems as fatigue, sexual dysfunction, reproductive dysfunction, depression, moodiness, and a preoccupation with food.  Extended periods of starvation-level dieting can result in muscle depletion, which by extension may result in failure of the most important muscle in the body, the heart.

    Eating to drop fat is not rocket science.  Truly good nutrition isn't any more difficult than starvation, but the effects of eating well will be far more positive in the long run.  For more information about eating for overall health, see our article on Eating for Fat Reduction.

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