A week of starvation

I have always been extremely harsh on people. I have high standards for humanity and myself. However, one thing I have always been able to empathize with is unintended weight gain and the difficulty of losing it. Three years ago I topped out the scales at 160 pounds. That might not seem like a drastic change but currently weighing in at 130 pounds, that weight put me into the portion of the population of overweight that I never thought I would be. I know what it feels like and I know how hard it is to lose weight.

I firmly believe that people can have an addiction to food. It is a seemingly irresistible craving that I frequently have had to fight. From childhood we are raised being deprived of and subsequently rewarded with unhealthy foods. We are trained that when we have a bad day, we go to food for comfort. It is a response that is as ingrained into us as a dog sitting when told to when a treat is in sight. I know the feeling and the craving.

There is a huge element of addiction to eating that separates it from any other addiction. 66% of Americans are overweight or obese. That is an overwhelming statistic that alcoholism and cigarette smoking cannot even compare to. But eating, unlike smoking or drinking, is not something you can abandon. The first step after acknowledging a drug addiction is to stop using that drug, whether alcohol, nicotine, or a hard narcotic. But when someone acknowledges that their weight is out of control and see a dietitian for help, they are not told to stop eating. Not only that, but a dietitian won’t even restrict you from many foods. One of the things that has been reinforced day after day in my major, Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise, is the rule “everything in moderation.” But this, in many if not all cases, makes it harder for the person to lose weight. Sure, if you eat a pack of Oreos a day, the health expert will probably tell you to stop eating oreos. But if you tell them you eat ice cream a couple days a week, they might say cut back to once a week. So while alcoholics are out stopping drinking all together, what are fat people to do? I understand that obesity is argued to not be as debilitating of a disease as alcoholism, but I will argue that another day. No disrespect to people who have quit smoking or alcohol. But no doctor will ever advise a patient to cut back to half a pack of cigarettes a day.

So my harshness towards weight gain is restricted because of its ease. I understand how it happens. However, where I become critical is when the pattern continues, when the habit becomes a plague or when overweight turns to obese and obese into morbidly obese. I lose sympathy for people when they continue on a path of self destruction year after year.

Just a couple weeks ago I proposed a discussion on this exact topic. We discussed the relationship between socioeconomic status and weight. I stood my ground that it is an element of education and will power. My friends responded that it is also related to the nutrient quality of the foods they have access to and the satiety, or filling, effect. Foods such as and apple and a glass of milk are much more filling than french fries and a soda. Without getting too deep into the details of why this is, these high satiety foods typically slow our digestion and cause a longer lasting insulin response. Insulin is a hormone that promotes fullness. But with french fries being solely composed of easily digestible starch and soda having half fructose which doesn’t even stimulate insulin release, the insulin response is large and dissipates quickly. This meal will leave the consumer satisfied only for a short while.

I agreed with this logic but I still argued more for will power. I thought that if someone really wanted to lose weight they could without any additional education on nutrients or additional income. So many people have this belief that losing weight is some giant mystery of the world. One of my professors once said “researchers are still hunting for the drug that mimics exercise, god forbid we actually get out and exercise.” This is the truth. The world is much simpler than people make it seem, we just overly complicate it sometimes. I argued to my friends, “Calories in is less than calories out equals weight loss.” My friends responded with the question, what if they are burning a really low amount of calories or what if they only have access to low nutrient density foods. These are irrelevant though. It is a mathematical equation that we are in control of. It’s thermodynamics. It accounts for high metabolic rates and body adaptations. It accounts for sedentary lifestyle and fast food.

But it did seem overly simple. I thought for sure it must be more complicated than that. After a guest lecture on obesity one day last semester, I went to the front of class and asked the expert, the guy with the PhD. I asked, would the body adapt to calorie deficit? Would the body respond to less intake by simply reducing loss? I told him about a collection of post-menopausal women who thought my logic was too simple. He thought the story was funny by his response was exactly as I thought. The body would adapt minimally and would never adapt quite as much as any deficit or any quantity. Eat 300 calories less and your body may adapt to burn 50 less calories. It is as simple as I believed.

But what about with those horrible junk and fast foods? Those most be the cause of America’s obesity, right? Mark Haub, a professor of human nutrition at Kansas State University limited the majority of his diet for 10 weeks to “junk foods” such as Little Debbie and Hostess cakes, Doritos, sugar cereals, and oreos. What he wanted to prove is that weight loss can be attained on any diet. He proved his point and lost twenty-seven pounds in ten weeks. This is not pseudo-science but Professor Haub is far from promoting this diet. What he wanted to do was to prove that without access to healthy foods, it is still possible to lose weight. Weight loss is not the end all of health, however, and his diet was far from healthy. But when you look at a typical American diet, it really wasn’t that far off.

So why do people not lose weight? When I walk past a morbidly obese person feasting on a platter full of greasy meat and sugary beverages, I do feel critical. They know their health and happiness are on the decline but they still do nothing to stop it. But what about the difficulty element? How hard is it to disobey comfort and deprive oneself of calories? With Collegiate Nationals over, I decided to take a week off from formal training and find out for myself. I am no morbidly obese person with half my body weight to lose. I have a maximum of ten pounds of fat that I could potentially burn as reserves energy. Well at least I did a week ago.

I began my experiment just after my body had recovered from nationals. On Monday, I dropped my calorie intake to less than a fourth of what I had been consuming in the preceding months. Keep in mind my expenditure was also a lot lower but still at an estimated 3,000 calories burned per day. The goal of this experiment was to test was the agony of difficulty of such a task. Since I had been so critical of people before, I wanted to know how hard it was to actually lose weight. In the first couple days of starvation and extreme calorie deficit, the body reacts by by burning protein from muscle tissue. I consumed a whey protein supplement to attempt to offset my body’s desire to do this. However, after that initial time period, the body recognizes it is in starvation mode and adapts to burn more fat. Let me emphasize, starvation is a very effective way to lose weight but I in no way support it. What I did to my body was not healthy, nor was it necessary in any way. What I did was simply out of curiosity.

My diet adapted drastically for this diet. I consumed less than 100 grams of carbohydrate per day and almost 0 grams of fat. I upped my protein intake in the form of supplemental whey protein. The bulk of my diet consisted of fresh fruits and vegetables. I avoided anything starchy. For example, yesterday I consumed one Clif bar to obtain the bulk of my vitamins and minerals, one enormous zucchini, two small yellow squash, a pound of asparagus, a tomato, and a glass of skim milk with whey protein mixed in. I also consumed a fish oil supplement in addition to an iron supplement. All in all, I consumed less than 800 calories throughout the day. So if you look at this diet, you may think “this is ridiculous, people with low income cannot afford these foods.” It is true that these are very expensive foods. I only consumed fresh vegetables so the cost would be a factor if I were not consuming such low quantities. However, because of the extremely low quantities, I bought all these delicious, nutritious foods on less than ten dollars a day. Even with consuming such small quantities, I was surprisingly deficient in very few micronutrients, the notable one being Vitamin E due to extremely low fat intake.

But this was not a nutrition experiment nor was it an experiment with the objective of losing weight. I did not want to prove anything but in my experiment I did show that starvation is a very effective way to lose fat. Instead, I wanted to know first hand what it was like to have to lose weight. I wanted to know, to the extreme, what it is like to starve, and to a lesser extreme, remember what it is like to lose weight.

On the first day, my hunger was debilitating. It was an extreme pain. The desire to eat was not really there as I seemed to not connect the abdominal pain to hunger. It was a cramp that I have not felt since I conducted a similar experiment in high school by going 48 hours without consuming a single calorie. I knew that the high fiber vegetables would help minimize the pain but my stomach still groaned with emptiness.

The second day, I found myself plagued with headaches. I have always attributed headaches to dehydration so I drank copious amounts of water to no avail. However, the water helped distend my stomach giving me a full feeling. But my brain was starving for fuel as my body had not been without glucose, the brain’s primary and preferred fuel, in months. I found that if I postponed eating as long as possible when I woke, then I could tolerate the discomfort of morning hunger till the afternoon. When I ate, it was a relief that would last a long time. A short snack in the early evening would postpone the hunger pains till dark. Early bedtime would help me ignore the pain through the night and when I awoke, I found the pain nowhere near as strong as when I struggled to fall asleep hours earlier.

I repeated this for the third day and that is when the pain subsided. But while the discomfort disappeared, the overwhelming cravings for certain foods came strong. I found this the hardest part of this experiment. I had to avoid thinking about food and had to keep myself busy to do so. The abdominal pain subsided and the headaches disappeared. But the torment of craving was ever present. After a couple days, even this subsided to the point now where I honestly feel I could relatively comfortably go an entire day without eating. My body feels fairly energized and earlier today I ran two miles in ten minutes and fifty-six seconds, what I would consider to be pretty quick for being semi-starved. I consumed two bananas before the run to provide me with the fuel. Otherwise I imagine it would not have gone as well. I believe that a large part of why my performance has not suffered was due to reduced effort to move my now lighter self at any given speed.

However, I am sure that if I were to continue this, in just a couple weeks, a new set of pains would present themselves as my body began consuming the rest of my muscle tissue and eventually my organs. I have no intentions of reaching that state despite the reality that involuntary starvation reaches that point all over the world.

So what did I learn by doing this? I realized is that my craving for food is inversely proportional to my consumption. I also felt the hunger pain subside. Starvation sucks, don’t get me wrong. But the body adapts very well to a stress, and starvation is no different from any other stress. I learned that weight loss is practical and that any natural way to attain it is extremely practical.

I once again want to reinforce that I in no way support this as a way to lose weight.

To return to the initial debate that stimulated my interest in performing this experiment, I do believe that there is a multifaceted benefit to weight loss for low socioeconomic people that is not what is traditionally seen. I believe that the education should stress quantity first and foremost. To me I see a low income individual visiting the same fast food place that they have always been to. But instead of purchasing a large fries, hamburger, and a soda, they instead only order the hamburger. The first and most direct result from this decision is the financial benefit. Many of the arguments against my beliefs that weight loss is simple argued that these people have low income. To me, I see a solution to this problem as spending less on calories. Say the previous meal was ten dollars and now just buying the hamburger is half of that. That person has five dollars more now to spend on something more beneficial. Next, I see the effect of weight loss, the restoration of the body to a more natural state. I recognize a stronger release of hormones that promote a stronger mental well being. Additionally, with that weight loss, that person feels more empowered. It is a visual result of a healthier lifestyle. It is not like reducing blood pressure or cholesterol. This is a goal that can be tracked with a ten dollar machine on a bathroom floor. Next, with the reduced weight, I see improved work performance resulting from stronger ability to focus and greater mobility resulting in even greater financial benefits. The results extend so far beyond that. I also believe that with the education on reduced calorie intake will come a desire in the person to learn more about quality. Once they feel and see the effect of weight loss, they may desire to feel the more subtle effects of satisfying all micronutrient needs.

Maybe it is, however, a cultural issue and I am totally off target focusing on education. After all, we do live in a country that feels no hesitation to criticize a skinny girl but hesitates with discomfort at telling another girl she is overweight. Whatever the stem of the problem, I now know, with confidence, that losing weight is as simple as desiring to lose weight and having will power to do so. Using a Tanita BC-1000, I measured a loss of four pounds of pure fat in one week. Now I’ll spend the next week trying to gain some of that back.

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