The National Award winning 2012 film Ship of Theseus has a character Maitreya who voluntarily starves, out of his spiritual beliefs. Obviously he is all skin and bones, in time. To play this character, actor Neeraj undertook a strict starvation diet coupled with intense exercise routine, under medical guidance. He later shared his experience. Such extreme weightloss was very difficult for him, not just physically but also mentally.
He struggled with intense hunger pangs, inability to sleep, panic and the idea that he was damaging his body permanently.
Obviously his body mightily resisted such weightloss, making it torturous to do so. Why is that? Remember our genes are programmed for survival.
Sudden weight loss is seen as a threat to life.
If food were really scarce, due to a famine, say, then only those people whose body adjusted to low intake of food would survive. To outlive the famine, you would need to burn as little energy as possible, eat at every opportunity, especially fatty, sugary foods that are dense in calories, and store every saved calorie.
So our body is designed to help us survive difficult circumstances like famine by increasing appetite, craving fats and sugars, increasing lethargy, greatly reducing calorie burning rate and converting every saved calorie to fat and storing under the skin. This is known as ‘famine effect’ or ‘starvation mode’.
Now imagine there isn’t any famine but you are eating very little out of choice –to lose weight. Unfortunately, the body can’t tell! If you eat so little that the famine effect or starvation mode is triggered, all of the above changes will occur. Our body has a bunch of tricks to prevent us from losing weight too fast. Even if we eat teeny-tiny amounts of food, our body can keep us ‘safe’ and prevent weightloss.
Firstly, hormones are released that create cravings for fatty, high calorie foods. So you are eating bran rotis but can kill for ice-cream or chhole bhature. And when you do indulge, while a few spoons used to suffice earlier, now you need three servings.
Secondly, it is just the fourth day of your new aerobics class but you just can’t get out of bed –extreme calorie conservation has been triggered, making you loathe every exertion. The bed and couch have never looked more inviting. In fact, just getting dressed for office might need all your willpower. Thirdly, say you were earlier burning about 1500 calories each day. Eating about 1300 calories was giving you a great calorie deficit that could lead to weightloss. In starvation mode, your calorie burn is drastically reduced. So on the same diet plan you now have a few extra calories. These are converted by the body to fat molecules and stored around the belly, thighs, and arms.
Because in case you don’t get any food for a while (there is a famine, right?) this store will be converted to energy and help you stay alive till you find food.
The real cruelty here is that though all of us have the necessary raw material to convert energy to fat molecules, many don’t have the biochemicals or nutrients to convert the fat back to energy. The conversion of fat to energy is a far more difficult process.
This isn’t all. Since the body has experienced starvation mode once (due to your choice of diet) it is now always peaked for survival. Imagine you have once been stuck on the highway with a flat tyre, no jack and not enough money. If you are like most people, henceforth you will always double-check your tyres, spare, money and jack before taking a long journey. Same concept.
The body of a dieter is especially geared to converting food to fat and storing it.
So whenever you get off your diet, you will likely end up being bulkier than ever before. Did you know that your body can take the protein and carbs in your diet and turn it into fat molecules? Yup, you don’t have to eat ghee or butter to add fat cells to your belly.
So, if you can’t lose weight by eating less, how can you?