We’re two months into the new year and I’m still seeing a lot of ads about different diets that I’ll leave unamed for this post. I’m also hearing people talk about being “good” with their food choices, needing to lose weight for spring and the various different diets they are doing. So I figured it was time to write a more detailed post about why diets and the notion of eating less and exercising more, essentially f***s our health up and doesn’t work. Pardon my french but this topic puts me in that type of mood right now.
I want to start by introducing you to the Minnesota Starvation Study, if you haven’t heard of it before. This was a study put on by Dr. Ancel Keys, whom you may also recognize as the guy responsible for villainizing fat with some other research he conducted after the Minnesota Starvation Study. Dr. Ancel Keys conducted the starvation experiment with 36 men from November 19th, 1944 to December 20th, 1945. The goal behind the study was to understand the physiological and psychological effects of famine to help the millions in Europe and Asia that were starving during the 2nd world war. He wanted to come up with effective rehabilitation strategies for post war relief.
The study was broken into three phases: A twelve week control phase in which the men were run through various baseline testing to gather data and were allowed to eat 3200 calories a day while maintaining their active lifestyles. The 24 week starvation phase included calories being cut down to 1520 per day while maintaining the same activity level. Lastly a recovery phase involved different rehabilitative diets to re-nourish the men at different increases in calories and the addition of specific micronutrients.
Symptoms the men experienced during this starvation study included low heart rate, cold body temperature, depression and emotional distress, reduced sexual interest, social withdrawal and preoccupation with food. All these symptoms I experienced when I struggled with anorexia but also when I was just trying to eat less and exercise more to achieve a thin, “fit” body. When I was training for marathons and boot camping it up, while counting calories to keep them at 1200, 1400, 1600, 1800 and 2000 I experienced all these symptoms. Through recovery I slowly added calories while maintaining my high level of exercise everyday, sometimes with two a day workouts. Even at 2000 calories I still suffered from all of these symptoms because they were not matching my activity levels.
I remember counting my resting heart rate at 42 beats per minute once and thinking it was because I was so fit, but really it was because my body was starving and slowly shutting down. Our bodies can’t tell the difference between a restrictive diet with an excessive exercise routine and a famine. I used to be freezing cold all the time and just thought that was what happened with lower body fat and that it was normal. I am far from obese and am now the heater in my relationship with my boyfriend. He’s freezing all the time (I have a hunch he’s got an underactive thyroid with some of his other symptoms) and I warm him up because my metabolism is well fed. When I eat my body feels warm. This is a good sign of a healthy metabolism.
If you’ve read anything I’ve written before on the topic of disordered eating and over exercising, you know having no sex drive is a big thing I talk about as well as hormonal health. At the young age of 26 I was told I was early menopause because I had the hormone levels of a post menopausal women and amenorrhea. Starvation is a good way to age yourself and quickly too. Baby making is last thing your body wants to do when it thinks it’s in a famine, whether self induced or not. Your body will shut down production of sex hormones because its priority is keeping you alive, with that you loose interest in sex. Period.
I used to sit and read cookbooks all day, drooling over the pictures of food but would never actually make the recipes. I was obsessed with food pictures and the food network channel was my favourite. Social withdrawal was another thing that was seen in the men that took part of the starvation study. I’ve experienced this as well, to the point that I had no friends at one point in my life. I was consumed with tracking my intake and getting my calorie burning exercise in everyday and often turned down invitations to go out.
Hunger was another symptom that the subjects of the study felt intensely, all the time. They had to be fed 4000 calories in the last phase to rebuild their strength. Even then they felt immense hunger and it took between 2 months to 2 years for the men to completely recover. This commonly looks like binge eating for women that are in that constant diet and restriction mindset. Its easy to gain a lot of weight when this happens as you’ve lowered your metabolic rate and can consume a lot of food in a single binge eating episode. After a year of anorexia I suddenly began to struggle with binge eating and of course began gaining weight. This led to me purging those binges with long hours of cardio and restricting even more, to the point that some days I wouldn’t eat all day. My weight fluctuated constantly and significantly. It’s a cycle that you get stuck in and the most important thing you can do to get out of it is to eat. Feed your body with sufficient food and it may take awhile for your body to realize it’s no longer in a famine. I don’t know if there’s scientific evidence to back this up but now I feel as though my body is now more sensitive to under eating because of my past struggle. I start to experience symptoms quickly like not sleeping well if I don’t eat enough during the day.
There are so many facets to weight loss but the conventional wisdom of eating less (dieting) and exercising more doesn’t work and leads to health issues and weight gain in the long run. Things like hormonal balance, nutrient status, digestive function, liver health, blood sugar balance, mental health, activity level, stress, sleep habits and body image are all factors. This is why as a Holistic Nutritionist and Functional Diagnostic Nutrition- Practitioner I don’t help client’s lose weight. My goal is to educate on health in body, mind and spirit and then uncover dysfunctions within the hormone, immune, digestion, detoxification, intestinal barrier and elimination systems.
I work on building health in all areas of your life for long term results and reduction of symptoms so you can live to your fullest capacity and do what your meant to in this world. Now I’m not saying that calories absolutely don’t matter. What I am saying is that most diets these days are too big of a deficit and this makes the body think it’s entering a famine. People want a quick fix so they go on these drastic low calorie diets, which induce the starvation symptoms discussed in the post. I want to empower women to care more about their health than their weight or pants size and learn to love their bodies for more than it’s exterior.