Suppose you are a woman aged 40, 5 foot 8 inches tall, and you weigh 165 pounds. Your BMI is 25.9 (which NHS direct will make a point of telling you is overweight for your height, but which most people would say is a perfectly normal size.)
Your basal metabolic rate – the absolute minimum you need to stay alive if you do nothing all day but lie on the couch and watch TV – is 1500 calories a day. If you eat less than your basal metabolic rate requires, you starve. If you starve, you lose weight. When you quit starving, you gain weight.
A BBC news story which reports that women who were put on starvation diets of 1200-1500 calories a day also reports that most of them failed to stick to the diet and failed to keep losing weight. In a sane universe, this ought to be as much news as “dog bites man”.
Yet over and over again, you will see diet merchants recommending diet “calorie allowances” which are far too little to stay alive on. Over and over again, you hear the message from the media: fat is bad. Overweight is bad. Control your calories. Go on a diet. Lose 10lbs in 2 weeks!
Friends go on the Atkins diet on a spectacularly regular basis – suddenly they won’t eat a slice of bread or a baked potato, while tucking into bacon and eggs. They lose weight. They go off the Atkins diet. (No one should stay on that diet long-term: it can have serious health risks.) And they gain weight: reliably as clockwork. That’s how diets work: that’s what keeps people coming back for more.
In 1944, in Minnesota, an experiment on the effects of starvation was carried out:
The main objective of the Minnesota Experiment was to characterize the physical and mental effects of starvation on healthy men by observing them under normal (baseline) conditions, subjecting them to semistarvation, and then following them under conditions of rehabilitation. The study commenced in November 1944 with a standardization period of 3 mo in which the men received ~3200 kcal (13,389 kJ) of food/d. This was followed by a 6-mo semistarvation period, beginning on February 12, 1945, in which they received ~1800 kcal (7531 kJ) of food/d, with the starvation diet reflecting that experienced in the war-torn areas of Europe, i.e., potatoes, turnips, rutabagas, dark bread, and macaroni. The final 3 mo were a nutritional rehabilitation period, in which the men were randomly assigned to 1 of 4 energy intake groups; each energy level was subdivided into 2 protein levels, and each protein level into 2 vitamin levels.
During the study, participants were assigned to various housekeeping and administrative duties within the laboratory and were allowed to participate in university classes and activities. The participants were expected to walk 22 mi (35.4 km)/wk and expend 3009 kcal (12552 kJ)/d. The Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene, located in the South Tower of the football stadium at the University of Minnesota, also served as their dormitory. Keys referred to these windowless rooms as “our cage” (1). Extensive tests were given to the participants throughout the experiment. Body weight, size, and strength were recorded, and basic functions were tracked using X-rays, electrocardiograms, blood samples, and metabolic studies. Psychomotor and endurance tests were given as the men walked or ran on the laboratory treadmills, and participants received intelligence and personality tests from psychologists. Each man was required to keep a personal journal during the experiment.
An effect of semi-starvation was:
As semistarvation progressed, the enthusiasm of the participants waned; the men became increasingly irritable and inpatient with one another and began to suffer the powerful physical effect of limited food. Carlyle Frederick remembered “… noticing what’s wrong with everybody else, even your best friend. Their idiosyncrasies became great big deals … little things that wouldn’t bother me before or after would really make me upset.” Marshall Sutton noted, “… we were impatient waiting in line if we had to … and we’d get disturbed with each other’s eating habits at times … I remember going to a friend at night and apologizing and saying, ‘Oh, I was terrible today, and you know, let’s go to sleep with other thoughts in our minds.’ We became, in a sense, more introverted, and we had less energy. I knew where all the elevators were in the buildings.” The men reported decreased tolerance for cold temperatures, and requested additional blankets even in the middle of summer. They experienced dizziness, extreme tiredness, muscle soreness, hair loss, reduced coordination, and ringing in their ears. Several were forced to withdraw from their university classes because they simply didn’t have the energy or motivation to attend and concentrate (3).
Food became an obsession for the participants. Robert Willoughby remembered the often complex processes the men developed for eating the little food that was provided: “… eating became a ritual … Some people diluted their food with water to make it seem like more. Others would put each little bite and hold it in their mouth a long time to savor it. So eating took a long time.” Carlyle Frederick was one of several men who collected cookbooks and recipes; he reported owning nearly 100 by the time the experiment was over.
Just as today, people collect vast quantities of cookbooks with beautiful pictures of food… which they do not use as recipe books.
For all the scare talk about the obesity epidemic, in most developed countries we are a healthier and more long-lived population than previous generations. A person who is “overweight”, but eats sensibly and healthily and takes a reasonable amount of exercise, is more likely to be healthy than a person who is even a little underweight. From a paper published last year, Obesity and Public Policy: Thinking clearly and treading carefully, one of the most important things I think the author, Dr Gard, has to say is this:
The study of childhood fatness is even more complex. In fact, internationally agreed upon standards for classifying children as overweight or obese were only agreed upon a little over five years ago. The main reason for this is that the BMI is unable to make allowances for variation in children’s physical development. These difficulties also mean that comparisons between the fatness of children from different generations are inherently imprecise, particularly in populations where children are getting taller as they are in many Western countries.
However, there is an even more serious problem with classifying a child as overweight or obese. As I have said, these terms are used to indicate the level at which fatness becomes a health risk. However, no study in the history of medical science has ever established a causal link between childhood fatness and adult ill health or premature death. It may be, for example, that childhood fatness is of little or no medical significance compared to fatness as a young adult or middle-aged adult. For this reason, except in the most extreme cases, there are significant ethical and scientific questions about the use of the terms overweight and obese when talking about children.
He goes on to note:
More broadly, a number of leading researchers have acknowledged that the health consequences of increasing obesity are unclear.16 Health authorities in many Western countries point to generally improving health and declining levels of many of those diseases most often linked to overweight and obesity. This is interesting because improvements in the average length and quality of Western lives have either continued or accelerated over the past 30 years at precisely the same time as body weights have risen.
I don’t have a recipe for you this week. I have a list: the most important things I ever learned about how to lose weight.
1. If you decide you want to lose weight, figure out what your basal metabolic rate is, figure out roughly what your average daily calorie burn is, and cut your calorie intake per day to something between the two. Plan on losing two or three pounds a month, not a week: plan on losing weight slowly, long-term, by minimal calorie restriction. This way you not only lose weight, it stays off: you are not going on a diet, you are slowly re-educating your body to need fewer calories.
2. Don’t decide you want to lose weight for any of the fat talk reasons. It’s self-destructive. It’s stupid, because it leads to the kind of damaging “oh, I’ll diet for a month, lose lots of weight, look good!” behaviour – it does no one any good to lose several pounds fast, especially when the physics of dieting dictate that whatever weight’s lost will be put back on again within a few months.
3. Enjoy what you eat. Yes, I have used “oh, I’m on a diet” as an excuse to refuse a doughnut or a cake I didn’t really want: but I decided a long time ago that even when I am trying to lose weight, my rule has to be that if I really want that piece of cake, I can have it – and I should. Everyone deserves to indulge themselves with what they want, when they can.
4. (This is personal, and may not apply to you): I love crisps and chocolate. I decided I would not eat cheap versions of either, any more. If I want a pack of crisps, I buy expensive and delicious gourmet crisps. If I want chocolate, I have a single square of really delicious chocolate. I don’t buy as much of either, but I enjoy them more when I do.
5. Eat when you’re hungry. Stop eating when no longer hungry.
That’s all. Sorry not to have a recipe.