Tuesday, January 27, 2015

the Starvation Diet

Imagine not having enough food to eat. I'm not talking about saying no to that third slice of pizza; I'm talking about literally not having any food to eat. Think of being lost in the wilderness, or stranded on a deserted island. My guess is you'd get pretty skinny, pretty quick.

deserted island
image credit to idr solutions (I couldn't find the original source of the image.)

Experts say that as long as you can stay hydrated, you can live for a long time without food. (which makes sense, since every pound of fat inside your body is 3,500 calories' worth of energy just waiting to be released from storage.) You could survive for 1-2 days per pound of body fat, depending on personal factors and your physical exertion rate.

I bet it wouldn't be fun, and it wouldn't be by choice either, but if you didn't have a food source available you would lose weight, very fast.

Is there any way we could take that concept and apply it to the real world?

I don't think any expert in the world would advise that actual, long-term starvation is a good idea, and I'm not suggesting otherwise. But what about a very low-calorie diet? You could still feed your body healthy nutrients and keep normal body functions in place, but force your body to burn fat for fuel. I decided to give this a try.

My Goal

I wrote not long ago about gaining some weight in the second half of last year, which culminated in my right knee aching badly. I was about ready to go see an orthopedic about my knee, but I decided to try losing weight first, and given the pain and annoyance involved I wanted to lose the weight quickly.

I set a 2-step goal for weight loss: First I wanted to lose 9.5 pounds as fast as possible, which would put me at 1 pound less than my normal carrying weight. Then I would lose an additional 3 pounds more gradually over the course of the spring. The result would put me at my super-trim racing weight from when I was running triathlons.

My Plan
  • I would try to limit myself to less than 1,000 calories per day. (Hopefully this would lead to rapid weight loss, which would be self-reinforcing.)
  • I would weigh myself everyday, using the brand new high tech scale at the gym, and chart my results. (Hopefully a downward sloping graph would be an exciting reward.)
  • I would continue with moderate exercise. (Hopefully this would keep my metabolism high and help my body keep processing normally. I didn't want my body to shut down functions or slow down my metabolism.)
  • I would drink A LOT of water, since all those survival guides say hydration is far more important than eating for short-term survival. (Hopefully this would help keep my body functioning properly.)

My Process

The process involved being hungry, pretty much all the time. A typical day looked like this:
  • Breakfast - a bowl of frosted mini wheats, without milk, and a cup of coffee. This gave me 200-300 calories in the morning, depending on the size of the bowl. I sometimes substituted half a bagel w/ cream cheese or a couple pieces of fruit.
  • Drinks - I added 2-3 oz of cranberry-grape juice to 12 oz water, and drank several of these throughout the day. I probably consumed 150 calories of fruit juice per day.
  • Lunch - a slice of pepperoni pizza, a small plain cheeseburger, or a small ham & cheese sandwich (or something similar - yummy, small, and not necessarily a "healthy" option), worth about 350 calories.
  • Water - a couple glasses of water w/o fruit juice in the afternoon.
  • Dinner - a few bites of whatever our family's dinner was, along with a medium sized salad. (I skipped dinner on nights when I went straight to coach soccer practice.)
  • Snacks - none, most days.

pepperoni pizza


My Result

As of this morning I am 1/2 pound away from achieving my first-stage goal. Hopefully the scale is cooperative tomorrow or the next day, and I'll finish this thing off. Then I can add food back to my diet and drop the last few pounds over the coming months. I'll probably settle in at about 1,800-1,900 calories per day, which should still allow me to lose about a pound per month.

I lost about 1/2 pound per week during the Holidays, and about 2 pounds per week since then. (Note - I couldn't stay under 1,000/day during the Holidays - too much good food and good family cheer.. Whatchagonnado?)

Oh yeah, and that knee pain? It's pretty much gone. I don't have the knees of a 20-year old anymore, but I did put away the orthopedic's phone number..

What I Learned:
  • This was very difficult to do - having the will power to simply not eat when there is food everywhere you look (and you're really hungry), is not for everyone.
    • Knowing that it was only for a short time period helped; I don't think I could have held up for an extended battle of wills against all food.
    • Seeing the rapid weight loss on my daily tracking sheet helped a lot; looking forward to tomorrow's weigh-in was enough to help me power through some of those tough decisions.
  • This is not a lifestyle change, since it's not sustainable. And if you don't have a game plan for what comes next you'll be very likely to put all that weight back on. And that would suck.
  • Your body does become more efficient at burning fat. I had big-time hunger headaches at the beginning, but they mostly went away as time progressed. This was my body realizing that it couldn't trick me into feeding it a bagel, so it just went to work at burning some fat cells instead.
  • Your body doesn't function exactly normally on so few calories. I noticed some changes - both mentally and physically - that I had to adjust to. (More on that in a future post..)

Overall I'm still not a big fan of "diets", as I'd much prefer a long-term change in habits which will lead to a lifetime of better health. But seeing fast results is very rewarding as well - a way to kick-start yourself down the road to a smaller you. Maybe there's room for ultra-calorie-reduction in the weight-loss arsenal after all...

- Chris Butterworth


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