Why eating less and starving won’t lead to weight loss and make you fat instead

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It is a myth that having lesser foods means lesser calories and lesser weight. In fact, eating less or starving may fatten you up further and slow down your metabolism. Diets do not and cannot work sustainably to keep us healthy or lose excess weight, because diets are just a small, though potent, component of our complete well-being. The weight gain problem goes beyond the ‘overeating theory’, as most experts popularly understand it.

There was a young male student who I’d dealt with who used to work out regularly but had stopped due to his boards and entrance exams. He had an excellent basal metabolism of 2010 kcal per day of energy expenditure. But this could be because he was working out and had a healthy appetite. During this time, he also had to attend his brother’s wedding, during which he went on a crash diet of dramatically reducing his calorie intake with a liquid diet of coconut water, soup and salad, which he consumed at least thrice a day for eight weeks to lose the weight drastically that he had gained during his exam preparations. Though he did drop and manage his weight within a healthy range, by the time he resumed his regular workouts, he was weaker, had lower fitness levels, reduced his lean mass and gained fat mass, with his daily expenditure dropping to 1870 kcal per day.

Let’s take the example of a car, which, in many aspects, is like the human body. Both require regular use (active lifestyle), proper fuel and oiling (nutrition and water) and timely servicing (regular deep sleep) to remain healthy and functional for a long time. However, there is one subtle critical difference between the two. Our bodies can adjust its fuel based on its interaction with the environment, which a motor vehicle cannot. Our brain is the driver for how fast or slow our body engine should be running, which dictates how much energy is spent on the subconscious functions of the body, such as breathing, digestion, maintaining blood pressure, heartbeat, and other critical processes. The body receives this energy from the oxygen we breathe, carbs, proteins and fats we consume through our food and the water we drink. It converts all of this into the energy currency that enables each of our 3.7 trillion cells to survive. This energy currency is known as Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP). The hypothalamus region at the base of the brain senses the nutrients stored and circulating in the body through messengers in the blood known as hormones and accordingly does two things:

1) Controls food-seeking behaviour
2) Controls energy expenditure

When the food is converted to ATP in the body, the body also produces heat, which helps regulate our body temperature within a very tight, meticulously controlled margin.

The body’s process of breaking down the food we eat into its basic parts during digestion is known as catabolism. When these basic parts are reconstituted into larger structures, such as bones, muscles, organs, hormones, cellular protective gates, it is known as anabolism.

Both catabolism and anabolism are known as our metabolism, which is controlled by the hypothalamus. This switches it up or ratchets it down, based on the energy available in the body in relation to its requirement. When it comes to the energy we receive in food, it is measured by the number of calories we consume. While sitting and sleeping, our bodies continue to burn calories even though the joints are not in motion and are in complete muscular repose. This basal expenditure forms almost 65-70 per cent of your body’s daily calories spent. You can think of it as your motor vehicle’s ignition with the engine running in parking or neutral gear. Though there is no movement, the engine ignition causes fuel consumption.

In case, our food intake does not meet the body’s energy requirements, the body will intelligently adapt. It will match the reduced intake of food by dimming down the metabolism regulator to reduce the energy expenditure, part of which is reduced heat production. This is why low-calorie diets that typically restrict food intake to a minimum also cause the dieters to feel very chilly and cold.

When we have surplus wealth, we are spendthrift; when there is a drop in wealth, we are frugal. Our brain uses the same logic to ensure that when food is less, we also reduce expenditure to conserve fuel for future survival. This is an evolutionary adaptation of the human body to ensure survival during a famine. In today’s world, fortunately, there are not many famines, but many who gain weight think that the body is gaining excess weight because their food intake is over their expenditure, so the excess calories are stored in the body.

Many feel that the solution to reverse this problem is to cut down on food and calorie intake. This strategy is excellent for losing weight initially because there is a lot of water loss that the body holds due to a high-caloric diet. In the first few weeks of the diet, the body loses water weight when calories are reduced. From the differential weight perspective, the fat burn proportionate to water loss is slower. Once the water weight is lost, the fat weight is lost very slowly. The gradual process gives the dieter the impression that there are no results on a low-calorie diet. In the process, the hypothalamus has reduced energy expenditure by slowing down bodily functions and getting rid of lean skeletal muscle tissues as these become expensive to maintain in case of energy deficit and food scarcity.

The second switch the body activates is food-seeking behaviour that brings with it the feeling of lethargy, deprivation and depression. The three elements over time, lack of weight loss, increased appetite and slower metabolism, compel the dieters to consume the required calories to reinstate weight. Still, this time it is gained in the form of energy stores, not lean tissue. This change in fuel storage transpires because the body has activated the ‘starvation mode’ to increasingly convert food calories to fat to improve its survival prospects if the subsequent famine becomes more critical. Thus, every such vicious cycle of dieting makes the individual gain fat while transiently losing water weight, giving an impression that fat weight is lost temporarily.

So, the diet that best suits humans is the one that is rich in protein, healthy fats and slow carbs, all of which ensure that our blood sugars don’t elevate significantly above optimum levels. India is blessed with a variety of such food products that enrich our health, such as vegetable dalia or oats, sprouts, upma with nuts, spices, condiments or idli and chutney such as coconut chutney and sambar, egg masala omelette, multigrain paratha or besan, chana dal or moong dal cheela with yoghurt for breakfast.

For lunch and dinner, we have multigrain roti, vegetable, chicken, mutton, seafood or egg subzi, brown rice with dal and curry, paneer and for snacks, we can consume Indian masala chai or filter coffee and seasonal and regional fruits such as banana, apple, pear, mango, orange, peach, pomegranate, lemons, jackfruit, watermelon, lychee, muskmelon, grapes, cherries, kala jamun, blackberries, blueberries, plums, figs, guava, strawberry, pineapple, seetaphal, dragon fruit, gooseberries, papaya, and dates.

(Thakkar is the author of the book, Eating Less is Making you Fat: How to Lose Weight Without Starving, published by Hachette India)