The Great Starvation Experiment – Part 2

If you didn’t read part 1 of The Great Starvation Experiment, I, of course, urge you to do so. But I know you wont read it right now and so here is a little something to get you at least partly covered.

  • In order to study starvation and rehabilitation, a group of researchers headed by Ancel Keys, performed a controlled trial in which 36 fit, healthy and young men were subject to a diet similar in calories and variety to what starving people in war zones ate.
  • Subjects lost a significant amount of weight during the 24 weeks of semi-starvation (i.e intense calorie restriction).
  • In addition to losing weight, the subjects lost a lot of strength and endurance and ended up weak and diseased.
  • The subjects also experienced a whole lost of other physical and psychological issues that they struggled to deal with.
  • Following the semi-starvation period, they moved into a restricted rehabilitation period and then into an unrestricted rehabilitation period.

Restricted Rehabilitation Period:

During this 3 month period, subjects were provided with (slightly) more calories than during the semi-starvation phase, but their food consumption was still totally controlled by the research group. The subjects were put in three different groups and each group received a certain number of calories more than what they consumed during the starvation phase. The results were interesting.

  • Subjects were not happy because the increase in calories didn’t mean much more than a few more slices of bread and some subjects reported that they didn’t even realize that they were eating more.
  • Progress (rehabilitation) was very limited and the pace of weight regain and physical recovery was very slow.
  • Subjects were still obsessed about food in addition to experiencing other side effects.
  • As more calories were provided, food cravings diminished and spirits soared.

Unrestricted Rehabilitation Period:

This was the last phase of the experiment and only a few volunteers (12) stayed back for this part of the experiment since this was not a part of the 1 year study the way it was designed. During this 8 week phase, subjects were allowed to consume any food and as much as they desired and as many times as they wishes. What happened here?

  • Needless to say the subjects were happy to be able to ‘free eat’ again.
  • Periodic uncontrolled gorging was common. Subjects reported that the urge to keep eating was so great that many of them ate to a point that they got sick and then some more!
  • Each subject consumed on average 5,219 calories per day and there are reports of some subjects consuming more than 11,000 calories in a day.
  • Weight (and body fat) increase was rapid and most subjects surpassed their original body weight and body fat % soon (i.e. they got even fatter).

Summary of The Great Starvation Experiment:

  • A group of healthy, fit, active and young adults who needed ~ 3200 calories per day were put on a ~ 1500 calorie diet for 6 months.
  • During the starvation (calorie restriction) phase, these subjects experienced everything from sexual disinterest to nightmares of cannibalism to low body temperatures to unbearable food cravings to insurmountable urges to cheat to loss of focus to extreme loss of strength.
  • They had the worst time of their lives. The experience was so taxing that this service to mankind was comparable to fighting a war!
  • At the end of the starvation phase, they were provided with additional calories to eat. This controlled rehabilitation did not results in recovery as expected.
  • Uncontrolled rehabilitation (free feeding) resulted in binging and overeating until they reached their initial weights (and bodyfat %) or even got past those numbers.

Relevance to modern day dieting:

But seriously how is this torturous study on starvation done in the 1940s relevant to me and you who are looking to shed some pounds today? For one, though this experiment was meant to study starvation and rehabilitation, it sheds a lot of light on calorie restriction, weight loss, fat loss and the side effects associated with all this. So let’s start off this discussion by looking at the similarities between the typical person who is looking to lose weight (dieter) and these test subjects (subject).

In both cases,

1. weight loss is desired.

2. calorie restriction (either by slashing calories or by removing food groups) is a major player.

3. dieter/subject are haunted by the psychological effects of extreme calorie restriction like food cravings and food related nightmares.

4. increase in activity is observed (walking in the experiment and possibly cardio in our typical person’s case).

5. self-control and will power are put to test and these two characteristics dictate success or failure more than anything else.

6. several hard to ignore side effects (cravings, low metabolism, loss of sex drive etc.) are prominent, although in different levels of seriousness.

7. the subject/dieter loses body weight and body fat when on the diet.

8. the subject/dieter gains back the weight and fat when returning to normalcy i.e. free feeding.

So considering these similarities, what can we learn about weight loss from this starvation experiment? Well, calorie restriction is a simple way to lose weight but the side effects of supplying the body with insufficient calories are to be expected and once you return to free feeding, chances are high that, you will heal and hence regain all the lost weight. Ummm… pretty much summarizes every ‘diet’ that exists today doesn’t it?! I mean, the experiment was in every way a super controlled version of modern dieting and the results observed are truly undeniable.

As a result of this, a lot of nutritional researchers who believe calorie restriction is harmful to long term health and is an inferior tool for fat loss have used this as their go to study to prove their point. The reasoning behind this school of thought is that if you did what was done to these subjects (i.e. calorie restriction), you will lose a bunch of weight but you will experience hell like they did, you will obsess about food all the time, your life will be one not worth living, you will lose your basic human urges (company, sex, activity etc.) and you will eventually gain back the weight that you lost and possibly end up at a weight (and body fat %) that is higher than before. Therefore, calorie restriction results in yo-yo dieting and is potentially harmful to long term health.

Pretty straight forward right? Wrong! Here’s why.

Spot the difference:

Before we jump onto the next bandwagon and blatantly say calorie restriction is an ineffective strategy because it causes metabolic trauma and results in only temporary weight loss, let’s looks at some aspects about this experiment that is generally overlooked.

1. This was a ‘starvation’ experiment and hence everything done was meant to create starved and famished humans. Ancel Keys understood that in order to create such famished souls, he had to give them very little food (i.e. extreme calorie restriction) and ensure they did tonnes of cardiovascular exercise.

2. The goal of the starvation phase was ‘weight’ loss and not ‘fat’ loss. Though body fat levels were measured, the point of the starvation phase was to bring the subjects’ body weight down by 25%. There were no goals set for body fat %. All aspects of the experiment were controlled and modified only to ensure reaching the body weight goal and any changes in body fat did not affect the direction of the experiment.

2. The diet was high in carbs with little to no protein and fat. Again, the point here was to create a starvation diet and hence food choices were mostly limited to foods available in war zones.

3. The calorie restriction was super extreme. Since the goal was to simulate starvation as much as possible, calories were drastically reduced and the reduction happened suddenly and immediately.

4. Subjects were made to do a lot of cardiovascular exercise and no strength work. During such extreme conditions of food unavailability the human body is programmed to wisely use the available fuel for basic survival mechanisms only. Since existing and walking are all the subjects were made to do, the body would use any and all fuel towards the proper functioning of the critical systems (respiration, circulation etc.) and to facilitate cardiovascular activity. Absolutely none of the fuel would be used to maintain the existing muscle. As a result, in addition to losing fat, the subjects ended up losing a lot of lean muscle tissue.

So putting all this together…

Healthy, fit and strong individuals were put on a chronic, very severely calorie restricted, low fiber, zero variety, high carb diet along with excessive cardio and zero resistance training for 6 straight months.

The result was unhealthy, unfit and weak individuals with food obsession, metabolic derangement, edema, low body temperature, disappeared sex drive and a whole host of other issues who gained back all the weight and fat (and more) when they returned to normal living and feeding.

So basically, this awesome starvation diet, was the worst fat loss diet ever! But, again, this was not meant to be a fat loss diet. So no cheap stabs at the researchers and scientists who designed and conducted this awesome study. But what about the typical dieter who follows a starvation diet and thinks it is a fat loss diet? This is really where the issue lies.

Honestly, how many of you have jumped on the ‘low fat, high carb, calorie restricted diet + cardio (running included) everyday workout program’ in an attempt to lose weight? How long did you do this for? How much ‘weight’ did you lose? And how quickly did you gain it all back? Here is my answer – I did it multiple times. Each time I lost a bunch of ‘weight’ but I also ended up weak and was obsessed about food and scared of social gatherings where there is food and eventually ended up binging. My only release was running distances and I did that more and more. This in turn, made me weaker and more miserable and the viscous cycle just never ended!

So the greatest lesson we have learnt from this experiment is that a severely calorie restricted, low fiber, zero variety, high carb diet along with excessive cardio and zero resistance training is an excellent way to make someone thin, weak, sick and diseased, but is absolutely not something that results in fat loss and/or good health.

Hmmmm... wonder what did Christian Bale do to get here!

What about calorie restriction?

All that said, the question of calorie restriction pops up. Is it healthy? Is it harmful?

Well, clearly, I don’t agree with nutritional researchers who think calorie restriction is harmful. What about the folks who think calorie restriction is the be all end all of fat loss? Obviously, I disagree with them too. The truth is calorie restriction is a tool in any trainer’s/nutritionist’s toolbox and, like any tool, it needs to be used smartly to produce the desired results. For eg. a hammer is a great tool and a very essential tool but if you want to build a house you need more than a hammer!

Alright Raj, we understand calorie restriction isn’t harmful if done right. But what is ‘done right’? If you had to, what would you do to make this starvation diet a legit fat loss diet?

Fat loss done right:

And what did he do differently here?

 

1. Optiize the calorie deficit. Based on your current fitness level, your goals and how long you have to reach those goals, restrict your calories such that a 300-1000 calorie deficit results. A good calorie deficit is one that produces fat loss without causing any form of physical and/or psychological distress and/or trauma. If at any point of time during your fat loss journey you find yourself suffering from the classic symptoms of starvation, take in more calories by eating more high quality real food.

2. Eat plenty of protein and essential fats along with high quality nutrient rich carbs. Here is a one page nutritional cheat sheet to help you with this.

3. Schedule periodic refeeds to keep your leptin levels high. This will protect against thyroid dysfunction and keep your metabolism revved up which in turn results in progressive and faster fat loss.

4. Quit worrying about body weight and track body fat. If you can’t track body fat consistently, use circumferential measurements as your guide. Your numbers should go down in your typical areas of fat storage (tummy, butt, beck, thighs, lower back etc etc) and numbers should stay the same in other areas.

5. Drop the cardio and add in resistance training. Stimulating your muscles protects/spares muscle tissue and hence encourages fat mobilization and oxidation which results in fat loss (as opposed to weight loss).

6. Keep your training sessions short and intense.

7. Sleep as much as you can without getting fired or divorced (Stolen from: Robb Wolf)

8. Don’t be greedy and expect a transformation to happen overnight. Be patient and consistent. Set reasonable goals. Move towards your goal slow and strong!

So here it is – My analysis of an extremely well controlled and documented starvation diet that resulted in massive amounts of weight loss but ended up being the worst fat loss diet and my recommendations to make it a solid fat loss diet that leads one towards long term health!

But two questions remain…

How many pounds can I lose per week and still consider it healthy/safe weight loss?

How long before I reach my goals?

These million dollar questions will be topic of the next post! In the meantime, share your thoughts in the comments section and please take a moment to share this article with your friends and family.

Until then… adios!

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7 responses to “The Great Starvation Experiment – Part 2

  1. Joakim Farestveit July 11, 2011 at 9:51 pm

    Once again a great post, sir!

    Thank you for the reference links at the end there too. Made for further interesting reading 🙂

  2. Rahul July 11, 2011 at 10:15 pm

    This has been an excellent series till now Raj. Look forward to the remaining ones. Is there any statistic on what was the lean body mass of the particpants before and after the experiment ? Ratio of fat loss to muscle loss ?

    • RG July 11, 2011 at 10:21 pm

      Thank you Rahul.

      Check out the previous post for the data.

      – Body weight dropped from ~152 lbs to ~114 lbs. – Body fat dropped from 14% to 5%.

      So, in 24 weeks, total weight loss was 38 lbs out of which ~ 15.5 lbs was fat mass and ~ 22.5 lbs was non-fat mass (water, muscle, bone, cartilages etc.).

  3. Rahul July 11, 2011 at 11:00 pm

    Thanks Raj. Can you please do a post on the seven countries study ?

    • RG July 12, 2011 at 12:48 am

      I’ll try to get it to it at some point Rahul. But there are a bunch of articles on that already. Check out some of Dr. Ravnskov’s work. He has written extensively on this.

  4. Pingback: 07/13/11 – Nutrition Challenge Day # 17 – “DT”

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