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Starvation Diet

author image Nicole Turner-Ravana
A nutrition expert, Nicole Turner-Ravana has been writing for public health and food industry groups since 2000. She has a Bachelor of Science in nutrition from Pepperdine and a Master of Science in nutrition communications from Tufts. Turner-Ravana specializes in turning scientific details into user-friendly and engaging prose.
Starvation Diet
Young woman with a stomach ache. Photo Credit Wavebreakmedia Ltd/Lightwavemedia/Getty Images

To lose weight we're encouraged to eat less. But what about when this is taken to the extreme? "Starvation," or severe food restriction with very low calorie levels, actually impedes weight loss. Although it seems contradictory, starving the body of food can make weight goals harder to achieve.

Less Isn't More

Not eating enough can slow the body's metabolism, making it harder to lose weight. The body can detect when there's been a shift in calorie levels and reacts accordingly. With severe food restriction, the body begins to conserve its fuel, stored fat. The result is that you burn less calories and stop losing weight. Then whether you are exercising, working or sleeping, you will burn fewer calories all day long. While "dieting" is supposed to mean deprivation and hunger, staying fed actually leads to more successful weight loss and maintenance.

The Body's Protective Mechanism

This metabolic response to starvation demonstrates a protective mechanism of survival. When you don't eat, the body thinks you may be entering a period of famine. Who knows when the next food may come along, so the body conserves its stored calories for later use. This evolutionary protection of our ancestors makes an "all or nothing" eating pattern ineffective for weight loss. Even though sustained starvation over a long period of time will eventually result in weight loss, this is not a healthy or realistic weight-loss plan. Weight loss from starvation can cause lasting damage to the body and metabolism.

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Restriction Drops Serotonin

Besides a drop in metabolism, a starvation diet also causes a drop in serotonin. This neurotransmitter creates the calm, peaceful and satisfied feeling. When serotonin levels get too low, people feel more agitated and cranky. When trying to change habits, this agitated state can make it much harder to be successful and stay motivated. This leaves dieters more likely to splurge on extra treats and fall "off the wagon" of healthy eating in search of some joy and relief. Eating, especially carbohydrates, supports a more consistent serotonin level and the emotional strength to stay on track.

To Lose Weight You Must EAT

Eat to lose weight? It's a shift in perception that must go with successful long-term weight loss. Dr. Laura Pawlak has evaluated the current science of weight loss and concludes, "A substantial and growing body of research suggests that the most effective approach to gradual and permanent weight loss is a food plan with lots of whole grains, vegetables, legumes, fruits and a moderate intake of good fats." In her book "Stop Gaining Weight,", Pawlak suggests eating eat five or six times per day with lots of foods from plants and high in protein. Stay hydrated with lots of water, and eat slowly to let your body realize it's full before you've gone overboard with extra helpings.

All In Balance

For the average dieter, periods of starvation results in "yo-yo" dieting cycles and a higher average weight as the years go by. "If exercise is combined with a low-fat, high-fiber food plan, generally more calories are burned than replenished," Pawlak says. Keep a healthy balance of eating fewer calories than usual combined with regular exercise to see results. If you feel hungry, eat some high-fiber, low-calorie food that can keep your metabolism running strong. Never drop below 1,000 calories per day. Exercise will boost your metabolic burn, helping you burn those extra pounds. But starvation is never the key to successful weight changes in the long term.

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  • "Understanding Nutrition"; Whitney, Rolfes; West Publishing Company, 12th edition 2010
  • "Stop Gaining Weight," Pawlak, Jeblar Inc. 2005
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