Just Eat: Decoding Starvation Diets


Diets have been hard to avoid the past few weeks. After the New Year everyone is on some program, regimen or simply not eating their regular meals. Every website you find has someone claiming they have found the new or ancient secret and it’s so easy. Resolutions are a great way to begin a healthier lifestyle and everyone starting one at the same time can be good motivation. But, when do these little obsessions slip from a positive change to a harmful one? There are hundreds of statistics as to why starvation and fad diets don’t work for weight loss and just as many claims stating that they do. One form promoting an extremely low-calorie diet claims that:


“This diet will also in the long run help one learn to conquer other addictions too! Drinking, smoking and worse. It is learning how to deprive the body of its wants versus its needs. Pain becomes your friend. In other words, if your stomach is not growling and wreaking havoc you are not losing weight. SO… GET USED TO IT.”

The attitude that a diet is something you have to suffer through, that food and hunger are afflictions, is a common one on many diet websites and in dieting books.

Often, the only reason given for not starting an extremely low-calorie diet is that, when the participant goes back to a normal calorie intake, they will gain back all the weight they have lost. The lack of nutrients and vitamins is not readily factored into most commercial weight loss programs.

The CR (calorie restriction) Society International is a lifestyle society that promotes calorie restriction, not as a means of weight loss, but as a way to, allegedly, live longer. Their philosophy comes from lab animal studies in which mice restricted to a low-calorie, but high-nutrient diet lived up to twice their counterpart’s typical lifespan (Weindruch R, et al. (1986). The retardation of aging in mice by dietary restriction: longevity, cancer, immunity and lifetime energy intake (Journal of Nutrition).  The claim is made that similar results occurred in human participants during the Biosphere 2 when food supplies ran low and a low-calorie regimen was instituted by the scientists. The site also claims that the difference between calorie restriction and anorexia is the motivation of the restriction, CR’s goal being longevity and health and an eating disorder being based on ascetics. While it is maintained on the society’s website that it is intended to be a lifestyle and not a diet, there is still no requirements to become a member.

When you search the word diet on any current search engine, you will find any number of eating regimens that claim to have the exact science to losing and maintaining weight. What these sites almost never tell you is just how dangerous and unhealthy some of these diets can be.

The Zone is a low carbohydrate and high fat diet that relies on the presumption that we should eat 40 percent of our calories from certain type of carbohydrates, 30 percent of our calories from protein, and 30 percent of our calories from fat. This diet claims that the body will burn fat at the highest rate possible if these percentages are followed because it is genetically programmed to be fed this way. To help individuals deal with the annoyance of attempting to plan their meals around these restrictions, there is an entire line of “zone-perfect” foods that can be purchased. Low levels of carbohydrates, fiber and certain vitamins and minerals can occur when following the Zone diet.

Much like the Zone diet, programs like Slim Fast and the Nutri-Fusion System, though promoting a generally healthy intake of vitamins and minerals, simply promote too low of calories and carbohydrates to be considered healthy over a long-term period. The need to buy expensive and very specific diet foods and shakes is also a red flag that a program will be difficult to maintain in a healthy way.

The Grapefruit diet is based on the assumption that grapefruit contains fat-burning enzymes. You eat half a grapefruit before every meal, and calorie intake is usually restricted to around 800 calories a day. This is a dangerously low amount, especially when combined with the program’s suggestion that you drink large amounts of caffeine. Since no fat-burning enzymes have ever been found in grapefruit, this diet very rarely results in permanent weight loss or health benefits.

The Atkins Diet calls for the serious restriction of most types of carbohydrates while allowing for large amounts of fat and protein. When the human body cannot get the energy it requires from carbohydrates, it breaks down fat and muscle, causing substances called ketones to form in the bloodstream. Many concerns amongst dietitians have been raised about the risk of heart disease increasing in people who follow the Atkins diet over long periods of time. This diet has also been criticized for lowering carbohydrate intake to 40 grams a day, which many doctors see as dangerously low. Weight loss may be due more to total calorie restrictions than low carbohydrates. According to the American Medical Association, the assertion that carbohydrates are the principal elements in food that fatten is, at best, a half-truth.

The 3-Day Diet also offers a restricted calorie intake with less than 1,000 calories for a three-day period. It is often recommended that participants stay on the diet for three days and eat normally for four. This dangerous habit can extend the intended period of time on the diet, which mostly encourages water weight loss.

The Cabbage-Soup diet is one that has been around for decades. This diet calls for strange combinations of food to be eaten each day, but the dieter is also allowed as much cabbage soup as they want. This diet claims to produce ten to fifteen pounds of weight loss in one week, but is essentially a starvation diet, and most of the weight loss is from water. The soup cannot provide the body with all the nutrients it requires, and many people report feeling weak and lightheaded after a few days.

Many times, when we diet to lose weight, we can forget that food is the fuel our bodies need to function. We can demonize eating as a kind of failure to our goals. Food can even become an obsession, something to be feared, distrusted or despised. Advice from a legitimate nutritionist to help assess your goals and needs is the best strategy when planning any diet.

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Categories: Home, Sections, Your Nutrition

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